The Iraq War on Cable TV

CNN and MSNBC vs. The Fox News Channel


Generally, journalists hate it when anyone, especially a non-journalist, accuses the media elite of tilting towards liberals and against conservatives. CBS’s Mike Wallace has called claims of liberal bias "damned foolishness," while his former colleague Dan Rather has sounded downright conspiratorial on the subject: "Those people are trying to create such a perception because they’re trying to force you to report the news the way they want you to report it....I am not going to be cowed by anybody’s special political agenda — inside, outside, upside, downside."

But many journalists have become quite comfortable alleging bias at one news outlet, the 10-year old Fox News Channel. MSNBC prime time anchor Keith Olbermann routinely lambastes his higher-rated competition, slamming FNC as "a propaganda company so blatant that Tokyo Rose would’ve quit." CNN commentator Jack Cafferty drips with similar disdain for what he calls "the F-word network."

And the same Dan Rather who argues that discussions of liberal bias are dastardly attempts at intimidation has no problem suggesting the journalists at FNC have a conservative bias. Just last month, Rather declared on HBO’s Real Time: "Fox News operates in at least a different way than every other news organization I know. They have their talking points....We know they get their talking points from the White House....I think it’s pretty clear that they had wished the [2006 congressional] election had gone another way."

A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center for The People & The Press in May 2004 quantified national journalists’ attitudes about liberal and conservative media bias. The survey found that while a large majority of national journalists (62%) could not or would not name any national news organization they thought "especially liberal" in its coverage, most of that same group (82%) had no misgivings about designating an "especially conservative" news outlet, with 69 percent singling out the Fox News Channel (followed distantly by the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Times, named by eight and nine percent of journalists, respectively).

"The single news outlet that strikes most journalists as taking a particular ideological stance — either liberal or conservative — is Fox News Channel," Pew reported. Very few journalists suggested a bias at the other networks, according to Pew. Only two percent of reporters suggested CNN, ABC, CBS, or NPR were liberal; just one percent named NBC.

So how does the Fox News Channel compare to its cable news competitors? Or do liberal journalists’ complaints reveal more about their ideological preferences than the professionalism of FNC’s correspondents?

As even casual viewers of cable news know, all three networks feature personality-driven prime time programs where the hosts rarely conceal their opinions. But while most viewers would expect to be confronted with opinions in such a talk show format, they would presumably expect more neutrality and objectivity when it comes to the kind of traditional news reporting that is a staple of cable’s daytime programming.

For this study, a team of MRC analysts examined FNC, CNN, and MSNBC’s daytime news coverage of the war in Iraq during a crucial period in the late spring and early summer of 2006. Without question, the fighting in Iraq has been one of the biggest news stories of the past several years. An MRC study of broadcast evening news coverage in 2005 found that ABC, CBS and NBC stressed negative and pessimistic themes in their coverage of Iraq, a dour drumbeat that has undoubtedly been a factor in declining public support for the war.

This study was designed to compare the news coverage of the three cable networks, and our researchers did find significant differences in the tone and agenda of the Iraq news each of the cable news networks produced during this period. CNN and MSNBC resembled the big broadcast networks, emphasizing a bad news agenda of U.S. misdeeds and mistakes. Contrary to what some critics might have expected, FNC also emphasized downbeat news from Iraq, but was better able to balance the bad news with more optimistic news of U.S. achievements in Iraq.