On Tuesday's "Good Morning America," co-host Chris Cuomo and media critic Howard Kurtz ignored the role that liberal bias has played in the decline of ratings for the network evening newscasts. At the same time, Cuomo and Washington Post reporter seemed to be proud of the media's ability to turn Americans against the war in Iraq. Kurtz, who has written a book on the subject, asserted, "I believe that these newscasts in 2005 and 2006 played the biggest single role in helping to turn public opinion against the war."
Cuomo agreed and complimented the journalist's analysis. He enthused, "It's easy to say, 'Oh, well. The war was unpopular. People were looking for the unpopularity of it. At some point, the networks gave that to them.' But you have a more penetrating look at it. You take a look at it in terms of the role of the nightly newscasts in shaping the ideas about the news..." According to Kurtz, the top three network anchors kept "framing the story in such a way" that the bad news finally had an impact. And while the two reporters wondered about the effect the iPod and internet are having on network low ratings, at no time did they discuss liberal bias or salient facts such as that journalists backed John Kerry over George Bush by a two-to-one margin.
The MRC has done extensive analysis of liberal bias and accumulated a rich database of some surprising left-wing admissions, such as when Newsweek's Evan Thomas predicted that a liberal media would give the Kerry/Edwards ticket a 15 point head start. (Media Bias Basics can be found on the MRC's website.) Could these facts and the American public's awareness of them have anything to do with the declining ratings? Cuomo and Kurtz didn't broach the subject.
However, Kurtz did enthuse over the liberal comedian Jon Stewart and his program, "The Daily Show." He gushed, "But Jon Stewart is actually becoming a very big influence even on the newscasts and I don't think it's a bad thing." Kurtz even noted how Stewart set the agenda by first commenting on Hillary Clinton's odd laugh: "When he did the bit about Hillary laughing....Well, that ended up on the 'CBS Evening News' and a lot of cable shows." "Good Morning America" was one such program, but reporter Kate Snow used Stewart's comedy as talking points to defend Hillary for "disarming her critics with a gleam in her eye and a roar straight from the belly." Is this an example of Stewart setting the agenda? And how, exactly, can there be an honest discussion of Jon Stewart and the impact he has on the news, if journalists ignore the left-wing outlook that he holds?
A transcript of the segment, which aired at 8:33am on October 10, follows:
Chris Cuomo: "Here's something you've probably heard about. The concern that the big three network nightly newscasts are fading in popularity and significance, that we're becoming an internet, information society. Well, the man with us this morning, Howard Kurtz, yes, known to some as Howie, but he is uniquely qualified to look at this situation. He covers the media for the Washington Post and has a book on exactly this subject called 'Reality Show,' Inside the Last Great Television News War.' Howie, thank you very much for joining us to talk about this. It's an important topic for us and for Americans. Two big reasons to read this book, you have the inside game and the outside game. We were joking around, saying the most read part of this book by journalists may be the index."
Howard Kurtz: "Could be."
Cuomo: "That everybody's going to look at it. But there's also the outside, the big picture here. The question about what is the fate of the nightly newscast? Your conclusion?"
Kurtz: "Well, I think the nightly newscasts are better than ever but not good enough in an iPod age of a million media choices. They're kind of like these old Detroit gas guzzlers with the tail fins, constantly talking about, you know, back pain and menopause, hormone therapy and so forth. Younger people are being driven away. And they, of course, are the future of these broadcasts."
Kurtz: "Solution would be in part to broaden the scope a little bit. Somebody ought to have the nerve to put on a newscast for an hour in prime time and try to draw more viewers. But, I think also, as we talk, Chris, about, you know, a lot of people are writing the obituary. They're irrelevant. Well, guess what? They still have the biggest media megaphone. 25 million combined viewers a night. And that becomes very important on the outside game, as you refer to, when you talk about, for example, the coverage of the war in Iraq. I believe that these newscasts in 2005 and 2006 played the biggest single role in helping to turn public opinion against the war."
Cuomo: "And I think you really have a unique brand of intelligence in this book about this. It's easy to say, 'Oh, well. The war was unpopular. People were looking for the unpopularity of it. At some point, the networks gave that to them.' But you have a more penetrating look at it. You take a look at it in terms of the role of the nightly newscasts in shaping the ideas about the news, even though we had the internet, even though we had the cables upon us at that time. Why do you believe that?"
Kurtz: "Well, we're drowning in information but somebody has to sort it out. So, when it came to the war, despite enormous pressure from the administration that said to the media, 'You folks in the media are being too negative. You're distorting the picture.' We had brave correspondents bringing us the carnage night after night, into our living rooms, what was going none Iraq. And you had the anchors framing the story in such a way that it really punched through. Brian Williams on NBC talked about how Baghdad coffin makers couldn't keep up with the demand. Charlie Gibson, you're familiar with him?"
Kurtz: "He, one night he talked about the 6,600 casualties of Iraqis over a two month period. He said, in American terms that would be 75,000 Americans killed. So that kind of thing, I think, went up against the administration spin, even the secret off the record meetings that the anchors had with President Bush at the White House and helped people see the war was not going well."
Cuomo: "You know, you dispel in the book this idea that when things matter, when there is significance, the networks sometimes play to the best interests of the American people. I think it's an interesting point. Because when you go out and you travel the country and you hear from people, they say, 'We're all about info-tainment now.' Jon Stewart has become a prevalent influence on the media now. Why do you think that is and is it good or bad?"
Kurtz: "Well, I do think the network newscast remain a repository of serious journalism for the most part. But Jon Stewart is actually becoming a very big influence even on the newscasts and I don't think it's a bad thing. What's happening is, people are copying his technique of using videotape to show, for example, that politicians use very repetitive talking points no matter what the question. When he did the bit about Hillary laughing when she did her five Sunday show interviews and whenever the tough questions-- [Imitates Hillary laughing.] Well that ended up on the CBS Evening News and a lot of cable shows. So, I think that, you know, there's an effort to be a little more engaging by the anchors and not just be, 'Eat your peas' and I think Jon Stewart plays a role in that."
Cuomo: "I think the danger is the satirist like him or the other ones, they don't encourage people to take things seriously and that the big three still do. So, let me ask you as a final question what is the legacy for these, headed by Charlie, in my opinion, but the three network anchors right now? Are they the last generation?"
Kurtz: "Well, that is the question, because they're trying to save this franchise. And they can only do it by making it something that becomes appointment viewing even though we can get information at the click of a mouse. And how do you deal with the pressure of being an anchor, deciding whether to around tape of the Virginia Tech gunman as NBC did, deciding whether to put on the air the Mark Foley the first suggestive e-mail to a teenage House page by Congressman Mark Foley as Charlie Gibson decided not to do. Brian Ross broke the story online and Congressman Foley resigned. So they're really important. But they've got an uphill battle in this crowded media marketplace."
Cuomo: "And we're here to help them."