Star Tribune

Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on March 2, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton engaged in what diplomats call a full and frank exchange of views.

"We are in an information war, and we are losing that war," she said, later adding that "viewership of Al Jazeera is going up in the United States because it's real news. You may not agree with it, but you feel like you're getting real news around the clock instead of a million commercials and, you know, arguments between talking heads and the kind of stuff that we do on our news -- which, you know, is not particularly informative to us, let alone foreigners."

Having been the target of talking heads during her controversial career, Clinton is familiar with the polarizing programming that increasingly defines prime-time shows on cable news networks.

Those who aren't may be surprised to learn that between 7 p.m. and 10 p.m., when far more people are available to watch, 11 of the available 12 hours on MSNBC, Fox News, CNN and HLN are dedicated to opinion journalism, as opposed to a newscast.

And, increasingly, the cable news networks are news themselves.

On March 2, Fox News suspended the contracts of Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. Not for allegations of bad behavior, but because they are apparently closer to running for president than the other three GOPers on the payroll, Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee and John Bolton.

Combined, all five got 85 hours of Fox News screen time last year, which was worth $54.7 million in free campaign advertising, according to the self-described "progressive" media watchdog group Media Matters for America.

Fox News has "become a McCarthyite chamber of horrors," MSNBC's Rachel Maddow told Howard Kurtz, media critic for the Daily Beast, in February. That's a charge that typifies the antipathy playing out publicly between the two networks.

Maddow, who is every bit as liberal as Fox's prime-time hosts Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity and Greta Van Susteren are conservative, has become the face of MSNBC after Keith Olbermann channeled "mad as hell" anchorman Howard Beale from "Network" one too many times for MSNBC's brass. MSNBC's other prime-time provocateurs, Lawrence O'Donnell and Ed Schultz, similarly lean left.

Viewers vying to avoid all this used to be able to opt for objectivity by watching Headline News. But now it's just called HLN.

And instead of an abbreviated news roundup, it's two hours of Nancy Grace getting wound up over salacious crime scandals. After that Joy Behar, who's seen earlier in the day solving the world's problems on ABC's "The View," has an hourlong show.

CNN's feuds are more familial. "Parker Spitzer" is now just "In the Arena" because cohosts Eliot Spitzer and Kathleen Parker acted as if they themselves were in the arena. (Spitzer stayed, and Parker still writes her Washington Post column.)

And it wasn't a CNN rival but Larry King who said of his replacement, Piers Morgan, "He may have been oversold" and "he's not that dangerous."

What is dangerous are the distortions, and resulting political polarity, that's accelerated by these opinion shows. Data compiled by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) shows sharp differences in news emphasis between cable news networks and the media as a whole.

For instance, the midterm elections represented 10 percent of total media coverage in 2010. But MSNBC nearly doubled down on partisan politics, dedicating 19 percent to the midterms. Comparatively, they were Fox's focus 15 percent of the time, compared with 12 percent for CNN.

And the politically radioactive immigration issue constituted 2 percent of total coverage, but 5 percent on Fox and 3 percent on both MSNBC and CNN.

Conversely, international issues like the Haitian earthquake got short shrift on MSNBC and Fox, as they only accounted for 1 percent on those networks, compared with the overall media's 2 percent. (CNN, however, dedicated 5 percent of its time to the tragic story.)

This extra emphasis on stories framed by political polarity is the nature of the cable prime-time beast, according to Mark Jurkowitz, PEJ's associate director. It's "a lot like talk radio on television," he said. "The format is opinionated hosts with their worldview. It's not a debate, and it's not designed for a variety of ideas."

It is designed for low-cost production, however. A studio show, even with a well-paid host, is significantly less expensive than paying for foreign correspondents or investigative journalism. Most guests gladly appear for free to plug their politics or projects.

To be sure, each cable news network does have relatively objective newscasts, and will break format to report live on breaking news. But most scheduled newscasts run during daytime or early evening, before most viewers can watch.

One prime-time exception is "Anderson Cooper 360" on CNN, a network Jurkowitz describes as "something of an outlier" because of its investment in international news. But the real outlier isn't on cable. PBS's "NewsHour" is by design the antithesis (and antidote) to prime-time cable.

"The difference is that on the 'NewsHour' we label things," said Jim Lehrer, the show's executive editor and anchor. "There's straight news reporting, there's analytical journalism and there's opinion journalism. Each one is a legitimate thing to do -- in fact, each one is a must in our democratic society. My point is they should not be done by the same people, and they should be labeled separately."

The "NewsHour" has talking heads, but they're never shouting heads. And Lehrer is there to ask, not answer, the questions. Those who do field the inquiries are usually world-renowned experts who don't appear as often, if ever, on cable news.

Public TV's journalism works well commercially, too. In January, the "NewsHour" reported an average of nearly 1.2 million viewers. That's close to the 1.5 million watching O'Reilly and 1.4 million watching Hannity, according to February's Nielsen ratings.

The "NewsHour" had more viewers than Fox's Van Susteren and every show on MSNBC, CNN and HLN.

Indeed, newscasts are rated second overall on Fox ("Special Report with Bret Baier," 1.3 million viewers), and first on CNN (the first hour of "Anderson Cooper 360," with 854,000 viewers).

All of which puzzles Lehrer.

"When you look at the 'NewsHour' as a way of doing things, and you see it has a sizable audience, why in the world wouldn't one of the cable news networks essentially do the same thing?

Rather than go the other way to make it more opinionated, rather than less, and do less labeling, rather than more, is a mystery to me."

To me, too.

Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. weekdays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. Follow John Rash on Twitter @rashreport.


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