Editor’s Note: My apologies that this piece showed up in draft form on the blog earlier tonight. I typoed in the worst place possible while scheduling it, making it appear in the 7 p.m. hour instead of the 10 p.m.
In all the hand-wringing over commentary vs. news on cable networks, we are offered Fox News as reliant on right-leaning commentary and MSNBC as its left-leaning foil, while CNN sits in the middle with lots of news gathering and no ratings. In reality, Fox News (45-55) is much more comparable with CNN (55-45) in its percentage of straight news vs. commentary, while MSNBC is far out on a limb, relying on commentary for a staggering 85 percent of its programming.
Pew deemed this finding interesting enough to lead its summary of “The Changing TV News Landscape” in the larger study, “The State of Media 2013.” It is indeed counterintuitive if you’re steeped in cable news mythology and White House talking points about Fox.
But here are the facts:
CNN, which has branded itself around reporting resources and reach, cut back between 2007 and 2012 on two areas tied to that brand—in-depth story packages and live event coverage. Even so, CNN is the only one of the three big cable news channels to produce more straight reporting than commentary over all. At the other end of that spectrum lies MSNBC, where opinion fills a full 85% of the channel’s airtime.
Bret Baier is right to stress that his show and much of the daytime line-up is straight news reporting, differentiated from prime time shows dominated by opinion. It would seem MSNBC has almost no such programming to point to. It’s We Report, You Decide vs. We Decide Pretty Much 24/7.
Overall, cable news outlets are devoting 63 percent of their airtime to commentary and 37 percent to reporting, responding a combination of audience demands and a trend toward saving money by cutting down on reporting resources. But the next time you hear a liberal academic bemoaning the loss of reported news and the rise of—gasp! O’Reilly or Beck— you can inform him or her that it is CNN and Fox that are fighting the trend and MSNBC that’s bringing everybody’s average waaaaay down. CNN produces 55 percent of its programming in news and Fox, 45 percent. MSNBC, a paltry 15 percent. I have a feeling the folks at NPR, who however slanted certainly report lots of news, are probably quietly looking down their noses at this crew.
In other findings, local TV may be feeling the pinch these days in the way newspapers have for several years. Pew found local newscasts have responded by increasing coverage of those local news favorites—traffic, sports, weather, traffic, sports, weather, and traffic, and sports, and weather. Those subjects make up 40 percent of local news coverage, as I know well from my time in local newspapers and radio.
But my takeaway? Sure, Fox News and MSNBC would be perfectly appropriate foils for each other on the news scene…if Fox only dropped two thirds of its news coverage. As it is, Fox is slimed while MSNBC is praised. Instead of talking about Fox as if it’s a “conservative” version of MSNBC, we should be talking about how it’s a successful version of CNN, marrying commentary and reporting in almost equal measure and making it work. (Hm, maybe there’s a reason CNN doesn’t do much commentary, if this is how it turns out.)
Full disclosure: I am a contract employee of Fox News as a contributor.