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It’s All About Ratings

August 8, 2008

By Scott D. Pierce Deseret News

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Fox News anchorman Chris Wallace went out of his way to criticize MSNBC — and he made an excellent point.

Of course, there was also a certain pot-calling-the-kettle-black quality to his criticism.

Wallace slammed MSNBC and Keith Olbermann, saying the channel’s campaign coverage was compromised by having Olbermann anchor primary election coverage despite hosting a show in which he expresses strong political opinions.

Wallace didn’t question Olbermann’s right to express those opinions on his show; he simply questioned having Olbermann perform both functions on MSNBC.

And it’s a point with which I completely agree. (Although I’m sometimes called upon to write news stories in addition to opinion columns.)

Olbermann, not surprisingly, disagreed.

“Not to try to start an argument with anybody from Fox. As you know, I would never do anything like that,” he joked. “But Mr. Wallace is a little under-informed on this, with all respect to him.”

Olbermann turned the criticism around, pointing out that FNC staffed its election coverage with Sean Hannity, Alan Colmes, Bill O’Reilly and Laura Ingraham. Wallace’s point, however, is that they aren’t news anchors, they’re commentators.

Again, he makes an excellent point. Olbermann is going to be seen as biased when he’s anchoring news coverage. It’s unavoidable.

Those who agree with the opinions he expresses tune in because they agree with him — just the way those who agree with Hannity and O’Reilly tune in to FNC.

It’s a horrifying trend, but it’s what passes for broadcast journalism in the 21st century.

Wallace said there’s “something of a firewall on Fox.” That only the “straight news reporters” anchor election coverage.

“Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity don’t anchor the election coverage at Fox … because our feeling is the opinion-makers should deliver their opinions, and the journalists should cover the news,” he said.

Another excellent point. Except that Wallace’s belief that he’s a “straight news reporter” isn’t universal.

Just the way people tune in to MSNBC because they tend to agree with the opinions expressed, people tune into FNC because they tend to agree with the opinions expressed there.

NBC News president Steve Capus’ assertion that the viewers “get” the dual roles isn’t altogether credible.

“When you look at the ratings performance, the audience understands the roles that these guys have played,” he said — which is utter nonsense. Ratings don’t equate to understanding. “And I think that they play it right down the middle on election night… The audience understands what we are doing, and they are coming to us in record numbers.”

Capus is absolutely right when he points out that MSNBC isn’t doing anything new, and that the current criticism is because its audience has grown.

“The fact is, with our success comes those kinds of comments,” he said.

And that’s the most important thing to remember. News operations are in business to make money. FNC has its part of that market; MSNBC has its part; CNN has its part. And they’re all doing whatever they can to boost their ratings and revenues.

That’s what it’s all about.

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Good question: Given the success MSNBC is having with Olbermann anchoring its election coverage, one critic asked if FNC is missing a ratings opportunity by not having Bill O’Reilly do the same on that channel.

“How many ways can I get myself into trouble by answering this question?” Olbermann asked. But he couldn’t resist.

“Well, as (NBC News political director) Chuck Todd just reminded me, it would make it more interesting if Bill was on and did it live.”

(FYI: O’Reilly’s nightly show is taped.)

E-mail: pierce@desnews.com

(c) 2008 Deseret News (Salt Lake City). Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.




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