Tuesday, January 3, 2006

The New Media have three legs, too: Cable TV, talk radio and the Internet

While cable TV has cut into broadcast news, contrary to some of its enthusiastic reports, the cable audience appears to have flattened since 2002 and is not growing. As of early 2004, roughly 2.2 million viewers typically watch the three cable networks—CNN, MSNBC and Fox News—every day in prime time , about the same number as in 2002. They kept none of the viewers they gained during the start of the Iraq War in 2003. As most systems already carry Fox and MSNBC as well as CNN, continued growth may be slowed significantly. But significantly enough, Fox News is gaining in the ratings; CNN and MSNBC are losing. At any given point, Fox News’ audience is 60 percent higher than CNN’s. This may well be due to public approval of Fox News’ conservative leanings. It is significant that Fox News offers commentary by one whom I feel is the most authentic voice of conservatism in America: the former physician and psychiatrist and newspaper columnist, Charles Krauthammer. Just as classical music lovers used to hush and say, “shhhh, Liszt is playing” in my house we say “shhh, Krauthammer is on.” Sometimes I don’t know what to think until I’ve heard or read Krauthammer.

Yet, it is significant that Fox does offer more diverse opinion (NPR’s Juan Williams and Mara Liasson as well as the Washington Post’s Ceci Connally and David Birnbaum) than does NBC’s “Meet the Press” which on its New Year’s roundup offered a bevy of liberals blasting the Bush administration with only William Safire, an extreme libertarian who had his own score to even by fulminating against any wiretaps in wartime for which he was rewarded with an on-camera hug by the liberal historian (and accused plagiarist) Harvard’s Doris Kearns Goodwin, once LBJ’s favorite intern (who interviewed me strenuously and exhaustively before approving my appointment as Kennedy School Fellow).

A January, 2003 Gallup Poll found that 22 percent of Americans relied on talk radio as their primary news source, double from four years ago. The key to talk radio success is audience participation and so-called objectivity is not a boon. As a practitioner of talk radio, I was taught to disdain so-called objectivity; that doesn’t mean you are unfair. Still, the one way not to get calls on your program is to say: “What do you think about the Iraq War? Your views, please.” Very few calls will come in. Rush Limbaugh, our Great Teacher, instructed us not to do that. We say: “My position is that we’re winning in Iraq and that we should stay there until victory is declared, that we don’t cut and run. Your opinion, please!” Talk radio listeners demand a point of view from a host. Generally, they appreciate the conservative point of view. They are willing, even eager in some aspects, to listen to others calling in points of view but they want a host to be firm in his opinions. The one evening we almost blew the phone lines at my station was when I criticized Sen. Jesse Helms who had said that Bill Clinton should stay out of North Carolina or he’d be shot. I really thought that this statement from the then chairman of Foreign Relations was an outrage. The response ranged from that’s the reason Clinton should go to North Carolina (a scandalously irresponsible statement wherein I had my finger on the “cut off” button) to agreement that the Helms statement was irresponsible. By the end of the show, I was vehemently disagreed with but, as one woman caller said, “we’ll give you a pass `cause we like you even when you’re wrong.” I decided never to abuse the privilege of occasionally sailing out to take on conservatives: do so only when you can’t live with yourself otherwise. Talk radio thrills to conservative voices but will tolerate dissent if it disagrees on occasion but seemingly will not tolerate liberal hosts. For some reason, most successful talk show hosts are male—but now a woman is number 5 in the nation and could easily become number one: a favorite of mine, Laura Ingraham, 40, a lawyer, former clerk to Justice Clarence Thomas, a Catholic convert from two years ago, a “looker,” let it be said by this sexist, a blogger (www.lauraingraham.com) who has a way of making her personal life intriguing (when she came down with breast cancer her fiancĂ© also skipped, which she had no compunction about telling us, prompting a wave of female and male outrage and sympathy).

Why don’t liberal talk shows make numbers? My station has had some liberal talk show hosts but few have scored high consistently. The liberal talk radio network is anemic because liberals have their own feed to munch on: public TV, public radio and the broadcast networks. It has to do with the gradual partisanship of audiences and the fact that people want to hear a ratification of their own views, possibly stated with more research and learning than they are able to express. That’s just a thought. The conservative talk radio audience understands that liberals own the big networks, the big papers, NPR and public television and it is only “fair and balanced” to allow us—conservatives—to dominate a market, a view I cannot disagree with.

But if there is a finite number of talk radio stations and cable news talking heads, the real growth, explosive growth for conservatives is on the Internet. In September. 2003 over half the people in the U.S.—150 million—were online. And half to two-thirds of those who go online use it at least some of the time to get news. There are a number of conservative blogs including my own (www.tomroeser.com) but also a good number of liberal blogs such as Andrew Sullivan and Kos that I tune in on. Hugh Hewitt’s, who’s a law professor cum evangelical and radio talk show host. happens to fit me just right. Terry Teachout on the arts and on Catholic matters www.nationalcatholicreporter.com for its crack Rome correspondent John Allen. But the important thing about blogs isn’t that they’re controlled by conservatives (indeed they aren’t) but that whether liberal or conservative they exercise a balance wheel on the formerly unchallengeable news market.

One polling group, Jupiter, predicts that the usage of the Internet will grow because it expects household penetration—the percentage of homes connected with the Internet—to rise from 63 percent in 2003 to 73 percent in 2007. The question is: if Internet usage continues to grow, will it kill the Old Media? My guess is it won’t but will do it great harm and that the Old Media should adjust. Why should NBC or CBS or ABC be resolutely liberal? Suppose one broadcast network decided to go conservative: would the world end? Suppose a few more newspapers determine to return to the days when newspapers were frankly partisan? I think it would be exciting and stimulate newspaper reading. Let me explain.

Originally newspapers were creatures of partisanship; Alexander Hamilton founded The New York Post to air his views and to apply an editorial treatment to the news accordingly. The New York Herald Tribune was heavily radical in its abolitionism. Here in Chicago we had partisan newspapers: the Chicago Tribune which started as a Lincoln supporters, veered to become a Teddy Roosevelt supporter, then back to a conservative Republican newspaper; the Daily News, definitely more Democratic, whose publisher, Frank Knox, became FDR’s secretary of the navy. Hearst which formerly was Democratic (with its owner beginning as a supporter of FDR) switched its papers to conservative Republican to criticize FDR with its Chicago American, conservative Republican. The Chicago Times was a steadfast Democratic newspaper. The Chicago Sun was started to rival Col. McCormick’s Tribune and was a Democratic newspaper which merged with the Times to become the Sun-Times, a Democratic newspaper. That’s the way it was until the 1950s.

After the Second World War a so-called “reform” which was bogus at its heart took over newspapering, stemming from the journalism schools, particularly Northwestern’s Medill School. There one Curtis MacDougall (who had run for office once as a Norman Thomas socialist) wrote a text for journalists that reigned supreme across the nation: “Interpretative Journalism.” It was a cynical dodge to pave the way for sneakily slanted liberal journalism in the news columns. While MacDougall sanctimoniously urged so-called objective reporting and editorializing reserved strictly on the editorial page, so-called “interpretative journalism” encouraged newsmen to provide so-called “depth” to their reporting and historical content. Thus journalists were matriculated who supposedly revered “objective” journalism but thrilled at the opportunity (under the rubric of “interpretative reporting”) to shade the news in the news columns.

That’s what we have now, to a great degree across the country. The Washington Post and The New York Times try to make us believe they’re objective in news content but all of us know it’s not so, cannot be so because objectivity is almost impossible to achieve. To a very real degree, “objective journalism” is not possible: subjectivity is contained in the newspaper’s lead (what is the most significant) and its placement. Sometimes it produces two-headed journalism of which the Wall Street Journal is a prime example. Read the Journal and you often get the feeling you’re reading two papers: the editorial page which is pristine and conservative and the political reporting which is done by “interpretative style.” The editorial page trumpets that we must stand by the president on Iraq and a column like “Washington” by John Harwood, a liberal, which tells us that “inside” Republicans are prodding Bush to change. This produces the kind of cynicism among the newspaper reading public comes from the understanding by readers that newspapers are following a sneaky objective instead of announcing their position fully.

That’s why I have felt for a long time now that the future of newspapers would be brighter if they would adopt a frankly partisan role. The New York Times is a Democratic newspaper; so is the Washington Post. They should drop the fiction of objectivity from their so-called “interpretative” columns and tell us their point of view. On the right, the Washington Times is a frankly partisan newspaper—Republican and tells us its point of view. The New York Post is a Republican newspaper and tells us its point of view. Recently the old New York Sun was re-started and operates as a Republican paper and tells us its point of view.

In Chicago, I think it’s clear that the Sun-Times is a Democratic newspaper with most of its correspondents taking that kind of direction. I salute that and wouldn’t stop reading it if it listed as part of its mission statement acknowledgment of this purpose. The Tribune is somewhat Republican in its editorial position and has improved its status with thorough research as its impressive five-part editorial series on Iraq has demonstrated. I firmly believe that the key to winning more readers is for newspapers to return to respectable partisan organs they once were—because readers, like radio listeners, generally turn to the organ that agrees with them. Its my conviction that readers understand partisanship but are enraged when so-called “objective” reporting fails the test: much better for the newspaper to define its partisan aims clearly and cleanly.

Do you imagine that if WLS “balanced” Rush Limbaugh with a liberal, such as Michael Moore, the station would benefit? I don’t think so. Frankly, I would think that the Sun-Times would serve itself better by getting rid of the few conservative syndicated columns it retains—George Will, Michael Barone, John O’Sullivan and replace them with liberals.

So far as the Internet is concerned, I welcome the fact that there is not just one new sheriff in town but millions of new sheriffs. Already blogs are beating Old Media to the punch by publishing full texts of interviews the papers tend to distort. Thus the job of the blogs is to keep both parties and the newspapers honest. Who will keep the blogs honest? When blogs become abusive or too strenuously adversarial, the free market of readers will supply the balance: which is an ideal situation.


  1. If the claims of a liberal bias on the part of public tv were true Buckley, McClaughlin, Carlson, & so many others would have never been broadcast. The likes of the Heritage Foundation would never have their fronts giving commentary on the Newshour.

    I haven't listened to NPR with any regularity in close to a year, and it's been longer since I've contributed. I suspect they're doing fine without my ten to twenty dollars, and I don't miss their pleas for contributions to cover the costs of commentary that includes the likes of suggestions that the exodus of refugees from Vietnam would have never occurred had we not left while failing to mention that our entrance in to Vietnam and subsequent actions had something to do with it.

    How can allegations of a liberal bias on the part of commercial media be taken seriously when you consider the sources of revenue? Has Bob Schieffer, Tim Russert, or any of ABC's multiple personalities resigned in indignation because their networks continue to accept Wal-Mart's advertising dollar without first asking our friends in Bentonville and the nation's largest employer to assume leadership by (1) aggressively lobbying for universal health care systems in every nation it operates and/or contracts or sub-contracts with suppliers; (2) aggressively lobbying for an increase in a minimum wage that's above the poverty level for full time workers internationally; (3) demanding that all of its contractors, sub-contractors, and suppliers throughout the world institute a 40 hour work week and end child and forced labor; and (4) demanding that all of its contractors and sub-contractors throughout the world compensate their workers at the highest equivalent minimum wage standard (or higher) set by UN member nations?

    Liberal compared to what: Rush?

  2. The MSM seems left wing (liberal in Bob's word)) compared to the public at large.

    The media constantly looks for more government largesse to individual problems, while the vast majority of individuals are capable of resolving most issues without government intrevention. Listen to NPR and take a count sometime.