January 28, 2002

Return to Normalcy?

CNN vs. Fox

For all Roger Ailes' talk of CNN's possible bias and Fox's patriotism, it isn't born out in the numbers the study examined.

Looking at the two signature evening newscasts of the two cable networks over nine days, there was no appreciable difference.

Taking all three phases studied together, the sample is admittedly small. Most of the stories on these programs were not oriented around discussing the U.S. policy. Still of the limited number of stories on CNN's NewsNight with Aaron Brown that did, 77% were entirely supportive of Administration policy—meaning not even a hint of dissent.

Just three stories related to U.S. policy over the nine days studied offered a mix of viewpoints. Only a single story focused on dissent.

On Fox's Special Report with Brit Hume, the numbers are also highly pro-U.S. policy. In the limited sample, 56% of the relevant stories were unequivocally supportive of the Administration.

Another 22% were mostly supportive. And 22% offered a mix of pro and dissenting viewpoints. No stories were primarily dissenting.

At least based on this snap shot, there is no meaningful difference between the two cable outlets' signature programs in presenting viewpoints. But together, both appear less likely to offer a mix of viewpoints than their over-the-air counterparts.

Fox's motto is "We Report, You Decide," somehow suggesting less punditry. Is it true on the network's signature newscast?

Across time, Fox's Special Report stayed at slightly over 50% fact, roughly 30% analysis and 14% punditry.

That is less straight factual reporting and more punditry than we saw on any of the three evening broadcasts on ABC, CBS or NBC. There the level of factualness was closer to 65%. The level of punditry never rose above 7%.

CNN's NewsNight, in contrast, varied widely, from 38% fact and 22% punditry in November to 87% fact and 6% punditry in December.

When it came to naming sources, both CNN and Fox's signature newscasts had comparatively high percentages of anonymity, as high as 57% on CNN in September and 44% on Fox in December, compared with a high of 27% for the media overall.

What differs between the cable signature newscasts is tone.

On Fox, for instance, Osama Bin Laden's cave in a Geraldo Rivera report Dec. 10 is not a cave but a "rat's nest."

Not all of the tonal differences are so blatant. On November 15, "Special Report" host Brit Hume suggested a more subtle disdain for anyone doubting the efficacy of U.S. military strategy with this segue: "We have to take a quick break for other headlines here, but when we return, find out what some of these military pessimists are saying now…"

Or listen to correspondent Brian Wilson describe the Republican economic plan: "There is some movement on an economic stimulus package that could put money in your pocket."

At CNN, while the people he interviews may offer the same range of perspectives, anchorman Aaron Brown is more vanilla–to a point where it is hard to disagree with him.

"It's either been the longest three months in history or the shortest," Brown mused on December 11th. "At times today to me, at least, it seemed like both."

Or Brown trying to form a question for former General Wesley Clark: "All right, let's start ratcheting up the military option. Who do we bomb, where do we invade, who do we go after, how do we do it, where do we start? Where do we start?"