Thursday, April 05, 2007

What's up with Fox News?

If you had to guess which cable news network devoted the most time to covering the Anna Nicole Smith drama, which one would you think?

Would it be MSNBC, which seems to cover all matter of prurient and grisly crime stories? Or CNN, which seems to go around the clock when anyone goes missing?
Surprisingly, the answer is Fox News, which would seem odd, given some of the Culture Warriors at the network and the way its prominent personalities like O'Reilly have set up a divide between "traditionalists" and "secular-progressives" (O'Reilly's words, not mine).

But according to a study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, Fox News devoted 32 percent of its coverage to Smith between the day she died and her burial more than three weeks later. MSNBC devoted 21 percent of its coverage, while CNN was at 14 percent.

There are a couple things going on here. The first is that it seems cable news went over the top with its ANS coverage. 32 percent?! That's astoundingly high, considering the other top stories in the time period were debate about a timetable for troop withdrawl in Iraq and the presidential campaign (although I think most people would probably agree the amount of coverage that is getting 18 months before the election is also crazy).

But Jack Shafer, media critic for, disagrees. He says cable news didn't over-cover the story:

"[C]able viewers are a notoriously transient and choosy lot, clicking in and out of stations regularly. Few will sit through the third iteration of the same story without tuning away. It could be that by expanding the number of Smith minutes telecast—often repeating the same material—Fox performed a valuable service by connecting with the nonhabitual viewers who tuned in to the channel knowing it had gone all Smith all the time."

However, I think Shafer clearly hasn't been listening to public opinion (or at least my small sample of it). Maybe my friends and I watch way too much TV, but not a single person I talked to said they were interested in hearing more about the story. The impression I got was that the story had been -- pardon the pun -- covered to death and viewers wanted something else.

The other interesting thing here is Fox News. As I mentioned above, this is the network that features many staunch conservative hosts who must no doubt think all the attention devoted to a former Playboy playmate is excessive and against what they stand for. But Fox has been seeing its ratings slide in recent months, coinciding with the Bush administration's (and, by extension, conservatism's) decreasing popularity. Meanwhile, the ratings of CNN and MSNBC have gone up.

So it seems Fox will do whatever it takes to boost ratings, even if that goes against some of the network's core principals. If conservatism is on the downswing, the network thinks, then lets give ourselves over to shocking and sensational news to get people to watch. Rather than trying to educate viewers or provide incisive news coverage, Fox has shown it will go after the almighty dollar, regardless of the levels to which it needs to stoop.

Given Fox's position as the dominant cable news net today (even if it is slipping somewhat), it might be tempting for the other networks to devote even more of their coverage to trash. Lord knows they've tried to ape Fox's style in other areas (Lou Dobbs, anyone?). But let's just hope that this time, MSNBC and CNN -- the networks that actually show at least a little news judgment and provide slightly more than just outsized personalities -- don't just give in and follow the leader.


At Thursday, April 05, 2007, Blogger AG said...

This story shocks me. I would have never put FOX in first place for the amount of time devoted to the one and only Anna Nicole Smith. It is interesting that FOX's ratings are down. I think it is a good representation of what the American people are feeling though. People are tired of the conservative views associated with not only the Bush administration but FOX news itself. So, I'm not necessarily shocked at the fact that FOX viewership has declined, more so with the fact they are willing to use ANS coverage to make up for it.

At Friday, April 06, 2007, Blogger KY said...

That's all I can say too... REALLY??

I am not sure what is more shocking - the amount of televison coverage or print coverage on Anna Nicole Smith. And it's not even over - every day, there is another story about another discovery about her death or burial or child. I'm not surprised that Fox took the time to beat this dead horse, but maybe because I am not a staunch Fox proponent. If Fox spends 32 percent of its coverage on Smith, I'm curious to see how the rest of the percentage is broken up - I don't think we will find the most hard hitting and profound stories in the remaining 68 percent.

At Saturday, April 07, 2007, Blogger LL said...

I agree that this story about Anna Nicole has turned into a soap opera that for many has become an addiction. I think it is sad that news organizations have devoted more time to covering the tragedy of Anna Nicole's life and death than the war in Iraq, illegal immigration, health care and other key issues (combined). I think the public is getting sick of the drama as well and hopes that the world's top news organizations would focus on the real issues that affect them.


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