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CNN’s Reliable Sources v. Fox News Watch

by Tony Medley

CNN’s Reliable Sources was the first show devoted entirely to how the media covers the news. Premiering in 1992, it started out as a panel show, moderated by The Washington Post’s Media critic, Howard Kurtz and Bernard Kalb, veteran newsman for the New York Times, CBS, NBC, and former State Dept. spokesman. The original format had Kurtz and Kalb questioning a relatively static panel, which included media critics like Ellen Hume. It kept that format for several years, eventually morphing into reducing Kalb’s time and finally completely changing the format, eliminating Kalb and making Kurtz the moderator of a show that has no set panel, but invites different people from the media to comment on activities in the media during the preceding week. Reliable Sources covers all media, not just print. It includes criticism of radio, TV, and even the blogosphere. If something happens during the week, if possible the media person involved will be a guest and subject to in-depth questioning.

Fox News Watch is a panel show, ŕ la the old Reliable Sources from the ‘90s, a format CNN eventually rejected, for good reason. The unchanging panel is moderated by Eric Burns, a former correspondent for NBC News. Burns took over the job from the original host, New York Post columnist Eric Breindel, after Breindel died two years into the show’s run. The panelists are Jane Hall, an assistant professor in the School of Communication at American University, and a former editor and writer for various publications including TV Guide; Cal Thomas, syndicated op-ed columnist, appearing in more than 600 national newspapers; Jim Pinkerton, a columnist who worked for Presidents Reagan and Bush I; and Neal Gabler, who is identified as a “cultural historian and television commentator.” In order to appear “fair and balanced,” Pinkerton is to the right, Gabler the left, and Thomas is slanted right. I guess Hall is meant to be in the middle, as is Burns. One thing they have in common is that they are uninformative and, exept for Hall, rude and constantly interrupting one another. They rarely discuss how the media treats issues it covers. But you want specifics? They don’t need no stinkin’ specifics. It’s a general, undisciplined hodge-podge of personal opinion about the substance of issues covered by the media, rather than how the media covers those issues.

Comparing Reliable Sources with Fox News Watch is like comparing “War and Peace” with Donald Duck. I’ve watched Reliable Sources since it first came on the air in 1992, and have been an occasional viewer of Fox News Watch. For the purposes of this column I compared the shows of the weekend of May 6-7, 2006.

Reliable Sources airs in Los Angeles from 7:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. every Sunday morning. It used to be a 30 minute show aired twice, once on Saturday afternoon, once on Sunday morning; I wish CNN would run it more than once. On May 7 the first segment discussed the media coverage of Congressman Patrick Kennedy’s automobile problems with the DC police, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld getting heckled and questioned by a former CIA analyst, the Porter Goss resignation, and Comedy Central’s Steven Colbert roasting President Bush in the President’s presence.

The guests for the first segment were David Folkenflik, of National Public Radio, Eric Boehlert of Huffingtonpost.com, and Blanquita Cullum of Radio America. NPR and Huffington are far left; Radio America is so right it is the home of G. Gordon Liddy and Michael Reagan. Kurtz, himself is clearly to the left (he writes for the Washington Post, remember). Even so, he bends over backwards to be fair and does a very good job of it. Despite their political leanings, Folkenflik and Cullum were balanced and impartial in their views. Boehlert was an ideologue.

Regardless of the presence or absence of bias, the guests didn’t cover the substance of any of the stories. Instead, the opinions they gave were their opinions of how the media covered them, not of the stories themselves.

Many clips were shown; on Goss, clips from CBS Evening News, (Jim Axelrod), and ABC World News Tonight (George Stephanopoulos and Brian Ross), as well as a quotation from a NY Daily News story. The discussion that ensued was based on the appropriateness and tilt of the reporting, not the issue of the dismissal of Goss.

As a setup to Rumsfeld, Kurtz said that it was the lead story on the NBC and ABC nightly news shows and was the second story on CBS Evening news, then showed a short small paragraph which was the “sum total” of the coverage in the NY Times. He asked about the disparity of the coverage on TV on the one hand, and by the “newspaper of record,” on the other, which the panel discussed, ignoring the substance of the issues raised by the heckler and the questioner. Unfortunately, Kurtz showed his leftward tilt by failing to point out that the questioner of Rumsfeld, Ray McGovern, was a far-left loonie who is an active member of many leftwing fringe groups, one of which advocates the impeachment of President Bush. Had the questioner been as far right as he was left, it would have been emphasized, and his bias would have been a subject for discussion. To his discredit, Kurtz ignored it, and didn’t even identify the questioner by name. A discussion of the media’s failure to identify McGovern’s left wing bias would have been at least as important a topic for discussion than what the panel did discuss about the Rumsfeld issue, and should have been included.

As to Colbert, Kurtz showed a clip and threw out the notion that “Liberal Bloggers” were making Comedy Central’s Steven Colbert a hero for taking on President Bush in his presence.

The second panel was comprised of Jim Glassman of the American Enterprise Institute (on the right), Gerri Willis, CNN Personal Finance Editor, and Frank Sesno, CNN Special Correspondent (both on the left), to discuss media coverage of high gas prices and The Today Show’s Matt Lauer’s interview with Exxon-Mobil’s CEO Rex Tillerson. Clips were shown from NBC Nightly News, The Today Show, Lou Dobbs Tonight, Hannity & Colmes of FoxNews, and MSBNC’s Countdown. They discussed the media coverage, not the issue. Near the end of the segment, Willis got off the point and started talking about the substance of the issue with Sesno engaging her. Kurtz immediately cut them off, saying, “I want to get back to the media coverage,” and Sesno apologized.

Finally, Kurtz conducted an informative, mildly challenging interview with Bill Keller, Executive Editor of the New York Times, about a Wall Street Journal editorial criticizing the Times for its disclosing the government’s eavesdropping on telephone calls from Al Queda to residents of the United States.

Fox News Watch is taped Friday evening, runs in Los Angeles at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday afternoon, and is replayed several times. The issues covered the weekend of May 6-7 were the immigrant rallies, the generic question of whether the media have already made up their minds about the fall election, was it proper to say that Rush Limbaugh was “arrested,” an outtake of Al Queda chief Abu Musab al-Zarqawi inexpertly operating a machine gun wearing American-made sneakers, and actor George Clooney using his celebrity to publicize the ongoing genocide in Barfur.

There was very little use of B roll footage, only two clips, both of actors, Clooney and Daryl Hannah, and three pictures of headlines from the New York Times, Time Magazine, and the Washington Post. Other than those, there was no specificity.

Most of the discussion is personal opinion on the substance of the story, rather than the issue of media coverage. The lack of relevance of their personal opinions on the substance of the issues is exacerbated by rudeness, constant interruptions, and arguments among the panelists.

It’s hard to believe that a show that calls itself a media watchdog could have a program that didn’t talk about the media coverage of Representative Kennedy, the questioning of Donald Rumsfeld, and the resignation of Porter Goss, at least. But these people felt that George Clooney going to Darfur and media coverage of the fall election (6 months hence) were more topical. If that doesn’t give you a flavor for the vacuity of this show, there was only one topic that was covered that had an important media issue of current interest, the fact that the outtake of Zarqawi showing his ineptness with the machine gun was not shown on the Arab Al-Jazeera news network. While they all gave their meaningless personal opinions on what it meant that Zarqawi didn’t know how to use a machine gun, the fact that Al-Jazeera didn’t show that clip was only mentioned in passing by Burns, with no comment by the other panelists.

Reliable Sources is one of the two shows on television I cannot allow myself to miss (Fox’s “24” is the other). It is intelligent, informative, covers a vast range of topical subjects currently in the headlines with a wide variety of knowledgeable guests, is relatively fair and balanced, and deals solely with how the media covers the news, which is its charter. I think Kurtz deserves an Emmy for the job he does.

Fox News Watch, on the other hand, is not topical, really does not deal with how the media covers the news, and has no guests who are involved or who can speak knowledgeably about current media issues. Worse, the personalities on its never-changing panel are so rude and irritating, and impart such little information, it does not present an effective alternative to CNN’s Reliable Sources, which is the gold standard of media criticism on television.

May 9, 2006