President Barack Obama has complained about a coarsening of political dialogue and cable news cycles where "the loudest, shrillest voices get the most attention." After a summer of raucous health care forums that received wide coverage, South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson felt free to shout that Obama was a liar during an address to Congress.
The president pointedly snubbed Fox during last week's Sunday morning TV tour, leading the network's Chris Wallace to say the administration is "the biggest bunch of crybabies I have dealt with in my 30 years in journalism."
As this was going on, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press reported that public attitudes toward journalists were at their worst level in nearly a quarter-century of surveys.
Political talk was overheated last year as the presidential campaign reached its climax. Anyone who believed that voices would still has been proven wrong.
Both networks seem bolder in letting partisanship seep into news coverage, and tailoring appeal to one perspective or another has proven rewarding: Fox's prime-time viewership is up 8 percent over last year and, with Beck's emergence the primary factor, up 13 percent all day. MSNBC is down 7 percent in prime-time since the election year. CNN, which promotes a non-biased approach, is down 26 percent, the Nielsen Co. said.
Fox, which also keeps viewers watching longer than its rivals, is home base for Obama opponents. Since the beginning of the year, Glenn Beck has exploded in popularity, Sean Hannity lost his former political foil Alan Colmes and Bill O'Reilly strengthened his prime-time dominance. The network recognizes there's a profitable business in being a place to vent for out-of-power political movements, said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism.
Fox cut off coverage of an Obama health care rally, saying it would return if there were "any contentious questions, anybody yelling." The liberal watchdogs Media Matters said that during one week, Fox aired 22 comments from health care forums that opposed or questioned Obama's plans, and none that supported the president.
When Fox bought a newspaper ad questioning whether its rivals missed the story of a Sept. 12 anti-Obama rally in Washington, Rick Sanchez of CNN suggested Fox was doing more than covering it.
"We didn't promote the event," he said. "That's not what real organizations are supposed to do. We covered the event."
One moment that passed nearly unnoticed on MSNBC illustrated the same trend from a different perspective.
During its coverage of Obama's address to Congress on health care, MSNBC aired the Republican response from Louisiana Rep. Charles Boustany, a former heart surgeon. The moment he ended, Keith Olbermann spoke up.
"Congressman Boustany," he said. "We should note that he has been sued for malpractice three times. He is a birther, who believes there are questions about the president's citizenship and . . . he is a man reported in court papers to have fallen for a scam in which he tried to buy the British royalty title of `Lord.'"
Only a year ago, MSNBC was so mindful of separating news coverage from opinion that it replace Olbermann with David Gregory as anchor on political night coverage.
Six in 10 Americans consider news organizations in general to be politically biased, according to the Pew study. Perhaps not coincidentally, the number of people who say news stories are often inaccurate (63 percent) is higher than at any time Pew began asking about this in 1985.
With a more relaxed view about mixing facts and opinion, people have a harder time distinguishing between the two, said Marcy McGinnis, a former CBS News executive now a Stony Brook University professor.
"It's very distressing to be in a world now where I'm teaching young people to be journalists and they're confused about what they're seeing on television," she said. "They wonder why they can't say what they believe in when they're doing a news story."
(MSNBC and Fox officials declined to talk for this story).
Bernard Goldberg, a veteran journalist who has long accused the media of a liberal bias, said public dissatisfaction with the media long predates the current trend. Partisan media also breaks stories, he said, noting Fox's attention given to former Obama administration Van Jones and the Acorn organization scandal.
"When Glenn Beck, who doesn't even pretend to be a journalist, breaks stories the so-called mainstream media should be breaking, journalism is in trouble," he said.
With the networks filling up so much time with heated political rhetoric, there's a concern that "the daily national conversation is framed at the fringes," as Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez recently put it.
"You can help your ratings but there can be long-term consequences," Rosenstiel said. "Personally, I think everyone who is a journalist should be worried about the state of journalism.""
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