CNN’s Reliable Sources v. Fox
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
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
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
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
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
May 9, 2006