Does “Somewhere in Between” Mean “Ideologically Neutral”?
June 1, 2009 2 Comments
At Politico.com, Michael Calderon has a piece assessing the significance of the drop in viewership at CNN—“CNN fades in prime-time picture.” The brief article is mostly just straight reporting.
- Viewers seem to rely on CNN the most at election time, while turning to other cable networks during the long intervals between elections.
- CNN just won a Peabody Award.
- Doubts have been raised about whether CNN will be able to compete with MSNBC and FOX.
- CNN president Jon Klein says yes and that he can explain evidence to the contrary.
- Anderson Cooper is CNN’s most valued trick pony, followed by Campbell Brown (who’s about to return from maternity leave).
- Cooper’s ratings have fallen off dramatically in recent months, and it’s expected that this will continue.
- CNN staffers and former staffers report that concerns within the ranks are greater than reported by Klein.
- The critical demographic is viewers ages 25-54.
These are the “facts”—except for the part about the trick ponies, which I slipped in. And there’s a reason why I use the term “trick pony” to refer to cable TV “news” anchors. To begin, the persona of an anchor is crucial to nabbing and keeping viewers. Everyone acknowledges that. But we should wonder why.
The answer may seem obvious. Take CNN, for example. They claim to be “the most trusted news . . .” Leave aside the question whether the tag captures the truth. Why would they be trusted more than the other networks? Remember, the answer has to have something to do with persona. So why would Anderson Cooper, the leading news anchor for CNN, be, in effect, the most trusted news reporter, period?
The answer we’re supposed to come up with is that CNN is ideologically neutral, and Anderson Cooper is the embodiment of that neutrality. And, we must remember, ideological neutrality is good . . . if it’s news you want.
Calderon begins to reveal this outlook early on, when he contrasts the CNN strategy with the “more opinionated programming” at FOX and MSNBC. Notice that—FOX and MSNBC are “more opinionated” in their programming. Maybe that’s true. But what does it mean, and why believe it?
Well, a network can be more or less opinionated. FOX and MSNBC are “more.” So CNN is “less.” Thus, it follows that CNN may also be airing “opinionated programming,” but just not as much as FOX and MSNBC. But then, what is this more or less of opinionated programming? And are viewers supposed to be able to tell when it’s happening and when it isn’t?
Surely things aren’t that simple.
I think we can agree that Keith Olberman is an opinionated guy, and that he unleashes his opinions pretty regularly on his show at MSNBC. Sean Hannity comes to mind when thinking of FOX. So does Bill O’Reilly, who has created a whole new meaning for the phrase “I’ll let you have the last word.” (If you’re a guest with whom he disagrees, he will, indeed, “let you have it.”)
We agree in thinking that prominent anchors at MSNBC and FOX are “opinionated” because it’s obvious. But here’s the significant point: what’s obvious is what their opinion is. That is, they make it obvious that they are presenting an “opinion” because they tell us when they are giving us their opinion.
Why is this so significant? Because opinions don’t always come flying at us with banners telling us that we’re in the trajectory of an opinion. Often they sneak up on us, clothed with disclaimers that their message is completely “objective.”
Calderon is mistaken in suggesting that CNN is ideologically neutral on the grounds presented by him in his piece. Being neither overtly conservative nor overtly liberal, in the style of FOX and MSNBC, respectively, does not mean that CNN is “in the middle” or “neutral.” It has been convincingly argued that they are not neutral but considerably left of center.
Viewers need skills in detecting the ideological commitments of media outlets, the more so when their commitments are more subtly packaged and publicly advertised as “neutral.”