Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Most Politically Evenhanded Show on National Television, CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” Scores on President Barack Obama-Fox News Controversy

--Richard E. Vatz

As the media continue to be ideologically polarized in their reportage, one major network’s show comes about as close to fair, comprehensive and disinterested analysis as can be found: CNN’s "Reliable Sources" with The Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz as moderator.

The issue of excellent coverage on this show, which is devoted to media criticism, comprises not just being more often than not ideologically blind, but also covering contentious media controversies fully.

"Reliable Sources" has provided superb coverage of the extant fight between the White House and Fox News. The show sported a lengthy interview two Sundays ago with Anita Dunn, the interim Director of Communications for the Obama Administration, who has directed the attack on Fox News, including consistent verbal assaults and stiffing its access to President Obama. The issue is whether the Administration is undemocratically punishing Fox News for criticism, denying it coverage and thus managing the news and promoting a controlled press.

“Reliable Sources” in two shows, October 11th and 18th, accomplished the following:

1. The first show produced some news, with Ms. Dunn admitting under hard direct questioning in the lead segment by moderator Kurtz that Administration anger at Fox News coverage was the cause for its being left out of the Sunday blitz a few weeks ago, when President Obama went on the other national talk shows, and perhaps in a recent such mini-blitz as well. The interview also sported some of Dunn’s more incendiary quotes, such as calling Fox “a wing of the Republican Party,” “a research arm and communication arm of the Republican Party,” "ideological opponents” of the Obama Administration, and then saying that when the President does appear on that network, that it will be in the role of “debat[ing] the opposition.”

2. The shows covered the two main issues: was the White House assault on Fox News journalistically ethical, and does the freezing out of Fox hurt or help that network. Neither of these issues can be neglected, and "Reliable Sources" took them both on.

3. The shows covered all major criticisms, including Glenn Beck’s (and by implication, Karl Rove’s and others’) that the Obama Administration was putting Fox News on a metaphorical “enemies list,” comparable to the actions of the now apparently detested-by-all-Republicans former President Richard Nixon. It also gave significant time to the allegation that the Administration was not -- or choosing not to be -- distinguishing between reporters and analysts and furthermore was giving a free pass to, say, MSNBC’s raft of liberal cheerleaders. The concern was raised by Kurtz that, consistent with the Administration philosophy, if and when a Republican was the Chief Executive that liberal outlets could be denied equal coverage.

“Reliable Sources” is not perfect. I have in complimenting them previously pointed out that although they usually present all political sides of issues, the majority of guests tends to be liberal. In addition there is a significant disparity of quality among the media analysts, including, for example, on the right the excellent former speechwriter for Senate majority leader Bill Frist, Amy Holmes, and The Washington Times’ Amanda Carpenter, and on the left the excellent David Zurawik of The Baltimore Sun and bright media observers, otherwise not-well-known, like Lauren Ashburn of USA Today Live, (about whom I have had a positive change of heart). "Reliable Sources" guests in the two weeks of the Administration-Fox controversy were not the A-team, but they weren’t bad, and, unlike some past shows, there was not a small leftwing majority discussing the issues.

One consistently annoying problem is that the show often allows CNN to be cited as an exemplar of excellent journalism (as Dunn did, as well), despite its prevailing leftward tilt. To correct this inaccurate and strategic flattery of CNN on its own show may be a bridge too far for the CNN host, but this much is clear: "Reliable Sources" consistently presents some of the fairest, most thorough, non-insipid media analysis on major media controversies.

The ongoing “Reliable Sources” analysis of the Obama Administration-Fox News war is an example of excellence in fair and comprehensive media analysis.

Professor Vatz teaches an upper-class course titled Media Criticism at Towson University


Ian Logsdon said...

Are you KIDDING me? CNN has a LEFTWARD tilt? What does that even mean, do you have something to back that up? CNN certainly has a corporate bias, their reporting definitely protects their interests, prioritizes sensationalist stories, and generally courts viewership based on bad reporting, but that has nothing to do with "leftist" reporting. What do you even consider to be liberal? I definitely agree that MSNBC fosters a large number of liberal commentators (which was a business move, they realized there was a market that wasn't being served by CNN and Fox). Liberals don't watch CNN (well, ok, nobody watches CNN under the age of 70). If you want to see a true example of a liberal news show, watch Democracy Now, they are the only reliably progressive news program that is produced on a nightly basis (By that I mean news program, not political commentary, those shows, Olbermann, Hannity, Beck, Maddow) don't qualify as news (they're commentary) and should be viewed in that context. The fact is, the reporters that work for CNN aren't reporting from a liberal point of view, but many reporters for MSNBC and Fox are comming from an ideological perspective (Just watch Fox and Friends, jesus that show is painful to watch).

The fact is, of course, that the real problem with news is the companies that own the networks are also heavily invested in other industries. They lobby the government, fund candidates, and get lucrative contracts for their conglomerates (*cough*GE*cough*). The news organizations they control aren't given the freedom to investigate their parent networks, so nothing gets said about the blatant corruption inherent in how our political system currently opperates. Then, when two corporations see an oppportunity to work together, they conspire to snuff out reporting (Example: Fox and NBC sat down together to stop Olbermann from kvetching about O'Reilly and O'Reilly from dredging up bad stories about General Electric, this was utterly unethical on the part of both networks).

I'm tired of hearing this tired line that news is ideological, when there is a lot more going on at news organizations that is frightening and much more dangerous for our democracy.

Oh, and for the record, I'm against Obama dimissing fox, I think its the wrong move. He should be on there regularly, hell he should take on Glenn Beck directly, but that isn't going to happen. I don't see the logic in not taking on your opponents, I guess they're trying to avoid anything which will get Fox more ratings (O'Reilly's interview with Obama was one of his highest, if not his highest, rated shows)

streiff said...

Just because you don't see a leftward slant in CNN's news doesn't mean there isn't.

Be that as it may, news production in the US has always been a corporate function and has always been ideological. One could make a case for arguing that there is less danger when a GE owns a network than there is with media conglomerates like the late unlamented AOL-TIME-Warner or with the Washington Post Company, or the NY Times Company, or the Tribune Company.