Cable's Clout  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   August/September 2008

Cable's Clout   

With their obsessive single-topic focus, are the three 24-hour cable news channels setting the agenda for the rest of the media when it comes to the presidential campaign—even though most of the material they endlessly flog originates somewhere else?

By Paul Farhi
Senior contributing writer Paul Farhi (farhip@washpost.com) is a reporter for the Washington Post.     


Chances are, most Americans knew something about Sen. Barack Obama's former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, by the middle of March. Wright, after all, had been mentioned in connection with Obama in hundreds of print, online and broadcast reports since Obama had declared his candidacy for president in February 2007. News accounts typically described Wright as a "controversial" preacher and "fiery" orator. Early in the Illinois Democrat's campaign, a video posted on YouTube showed Wright calling America "the No. 1 killer in the world."

But it wasn't until early March that millions of people began to see just how fiery and controversial Wright could be. After Fox News and then ABC News aired newly acquired DVDs of Wright's more incendiary sermons – "The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing 'God Bless America.' No, no, no, God damn America!" – the story went from brushfire to raging conflagration. The Wright tapes all but took over cable news' coverage and daily discussion panels, with the sort of round-the-clock intensity that cable reserves for political scandals and celebrity deaths. By week's end, the story – really, the story about Obama's reaction to the story – had landed the Wright issue on the front page of the Washington Post. (Disclosure: I'm a reporter for the Post.)

The episode was a perfect illustration of what might be called "the cable news effect." In recent years, and particularly during the current presidential campaign, stories become much bigger deals as a result of the repetition and prominence given to them by cable's big three: CNN, Fox News and MSNBC. The cable networks rarely break news themselves – they tend to rely on newspapers and Web sites for that – but few campaign stories have much impact or become an important part of the campaign narrative until they get heavy play on cable.

Cable, in other words, creates its own news wave, generating news simply by placing other sources' reporting on the agenda. The most famous example may be the nonstop controversy over the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth's allegations that Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry had distorted his military record in Vietnam. The episode began in August 2004, after the group ran a series of TV ads in battleground states. Fanned by relentless exposure on cable, the Swift Boat episode soon grew into a test of the Kerry campaign's media-management skills, one it hardly aced.

Cable networks have amplified and prolonged a series of gaffes and flaps in the current campaign, too. When Charles Black, a top adviser to Sen. John McCain, mentioned in June that a new terrorism strike on the U.S. would "certainly be a big advantage" to the Arizona Republican, the comment received just a half-sentence in its source publication, Fortune magazine. But Black's quote engendered several days of discussion on cable. Geraldine Ferraro's comment about the Obama campaign ("If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position...") first appeared in the Daily Breeze in Torrance, California, but sparked another long-running cable paroxysm. Obama's observation about small-town voters in Pennsylvania ("they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them...") was first reported by blogger Mayhill Fowler on The Huffington Post, but the contretemps got much wider and prolonged attention on cable. Ditto Michelle Obama's comment at a rally in February that "for the first time in my adult life I am proud of my country," and Obama adviser Samantha Power's assessment of Sen. Hillary Clinton as "a monster" during an interview with a Scottish newspaper in March.

Then there was Clinton's statement that she had come under sniper fire when she visited Bosnia as First Lady in 1996. Washingtonpost.com columnist Mary Ann Akers first reported that the comedian Sinbad, who accompanied Clinton on the USO-sponsored trip, said there was no sniper fire or any evident danger as they arrived. But the story initially received very little attention from television, and indeed Clinton subsequently upped the ante, saying in a speech that she and her party had to run for safety "with our heads down." In a column that appeared on March 22, the Washington Post's Michael Dobbs fact-checked Clinton's version of events and found it to be flawed in almost every respect. Even so, Clinton didn't withdraw her account until several days later – after TV footage, showing a peaceful arrival in Bosnia, began playing on endless loops on cable and broadcast TV.

Who, or what, influences the news agenda can be a touchy topic for print reporters. For the most part, journalists at elite newspapers sniff at the notion that cable influences their editorial decisions. "I don't think there's a fixed pattern to who leads whom in this world," says Gerald Seib, executive Washington editor of the Wall Street Journal. Instead, Seib says, political news emerges from a complex media ecosystem involving reactions and counter-reactions among Internet (text and video) sources, broadcast and cable TV, and print.

If anything, print journalists suggest their work tends to find its way onto cable more often than the opposite. "There's a disincentive to follow what cable is talking about," says Anne Kornblut, who covers the campaign for the Washington Post. Topics on cable "will have been talked to death by the time we get around them. We need to look for what's new." Kornblut says this moments after appearing on CNN to talk about her story in that morning's paper about the newfound unity among the Obama and Clinton campaigns. It was her third such appearance on cable that day.

"I think the notion that mainstream publications orbit around cable is overstated," agrees Mark Leibovich, a New York Times political reporter. Leibovich also spent a busy day recently talking on TV about a story he'd written about the Clinton campaign's "enemies list." The story, which appeared inside the Times, had an almost tongue-in-cheek tone, yet it commanded ample airtime on MSNBC. The enemies list story was, in many respects, tailor-made for cable. It had everything cable demands: conflict, well-known personalities and a dramatic context (the last days of Clinton's campaign). Except for the sketchiness of the facts (the campaign officially denied that any such list existed), it might even have become cable's holy grail: the story of the day.

As CNN discovered during the first Persian Gulf War and later with the O.J. Simpson saga, all-news channels maximize and sustain their relatively small audiences not by covering many subjects throughout the day, but by focusing intently on one story. Sometimes cable's coverage of an event is so disproportionate to the rest of the news media's that it distorts the public's perception of the media agenda. In the 23 days between reality TV star Anna Nicole Smith's death and her burial in early 2007, the story dominated cable and morning broadcast TV newscasts. But other media sources gave it only passing mention. As the Project for Excellence in Journalism noted in its study of the coverage, "These findings add to the evidence of cable's fixation on one big event. But they also go beyond that. The fact that for the most part, the newspapers, Web sites, nightly network newscasts and radio news outlets treated Smith's death as a mere blip on the radar screen speaks to cable's ability to magnify an event until it feels like the only story on the entire media agenda."

For much of the past year, and certainly since January, cable's obsessive focus has been the presidential campaign. About two-thirds of cable news airtime this year has been devoted to campaign stories, a far higher fraction than any other news medium's, according to the PEJ. "Cable is hungrily searching" for a story it can hammer throughout a daily news cycle, says Mark Jurkowitz of the PEJ. "The question it asks is, 'What are they fighting about today?' Today it will be [McCain campaign official] Charlie Black. Tomorrow it will be a misstatement by someone else."

That's where cable exerts its biggest influence on the rest of the media – as an engine of reaction and response. Cable's intense and often immediate coverage of the day's big controversy forces candidates to fire back, which then compels the rest of the media to cover the response. When, for example, Hillary Clinton told the editorial board of the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, in late May that it wasn't time for her to drop out of the race because "we all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California," the comments were picked up online, significantly by the closely watched Drudge Report. Clinton's operatives then used cable to respond to the growing controversy. Clinton's quasi-apology ("I regret that if my referencing that moment of trauma for our entire nation, and particularly for the Kennedy family, was in any way offensive") was on the air within hours, and her surrogates took to the panel programs to defend her. The next day's newspaper stories moved beyond the controversy itself and detailed the campaign's largely successful efforts at damage control.

Cable's obsession with the campaign and its ubiquitous presence also mean that candidates no longer are bound by TV's traditional deadlines – the late afternoon – to make or break news. Now they do it at the time most advantageous to them, raising or lowering a story's profile in the process. McCain made his baffled and somewhat peeved response to the New York Times' controversial story about his purported relationship with lobbyist Vicki Iseman at a morning press conference. By the time Brian Williams, Charles Gibson and Katie Couric reported it on the evening network newscasts, it was essentially old news. Obama's speech about race in America and his relationship with Wright, carried live on cable in March, also took place in the morning.

"Campaigns have gotten much better at manipulating the [news cycle] because cable is always there," says Elizabeth Wilner, a former political director of NBC News who is now head of public affairs at the Peter G. Peterson Foundation. "They know cable is always dying for something to cover." There's nothing the cable networks love more, she says, than to post a chyron on the screen reading, "Breaking News" or "Developing Story."

The Internet-to-cable-to-print news chain isn't new, of course, but it is many years removed from, and several times more complicated than, the old news model. A generation ago, during the pre-cable era, ABC, CBS and NBC were far more likely to "borrow" their nightly news lineups from that morning's Washington Post, New York Times and other top papers, says Craig Allen, associate professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University. "The cliché always is supported by the classic example: the CBS Evening News' near-syndication of the Post's Watergate stories in the fall of 1972," he says. Another example was television's coverage of the New York Times' exposure of the Pentagon Papers a year before that. Says Allen, "The three networks were megaphones for the best of what the elite newspapers reported. That helped give [the papers] the elite distinction" in the first place.

This is not to say that network news didn't exert its own influence. Significantly, the networks used their own polls (partnering with the likes of George Gallup and Louis Harris) to develop "horse race" campaign stories for the nightly news early on, Allen says. NBC and CBS used exit polls in the 1960 election. In turn, these polls influenced newspapers' agendas; Allen found that during the 1968 presidential primaries, the New York Times published more stories on polls than on that year's big campaign issue, the Vietnam War.

Campaign news was also shaped by the Sunday morning talk shows, which were much more influential than they are today, according to Allen. Elite newspapers, he says, routinely wrote stories about what was said on programs like "Meet the Press" and "Face the Nation," which then as now commanded far larger audiences than their cable descendants, such as "Hardball," "The O'Reilly Factor" and "Countdown with Keith Olbermann."

These days, Olbermann notes, a cable network doesn't wait for the morning newspaper to hit the doorstep to know what's news. Even 10 years ago, newspapers held their breaking stories until their bulldog editions, which typically were on the streets around 10 or 11 p.m. Now, the cycle is faster. MSNBC, for example, was reporting on the Times' lengthy investigation of McCain's relationship with a lobbyist a few minutes after the paper posted the story online, around 7:30 p.m. the day before publication of the print version.

Nevertheless, Olbermann says newspapers play a diminishing role in how he presents and comments on the news each night. "For us in particular, I don't think a newspaper story dictates our lead, or significantly shapes our entire rundown, more than once every couple of weeks," he says. Conversely, he adds, "I don't know that anything I've done here has ever dictated how newspapers have covered a specific story, but I think some of the Special Comments [Olbermann's lengthy and often angry outbursts of personal opinion] put a spotlight on big-picture issues some of the papers, and indeed most of the political figures, were not willing or able to address," such as the rights of jailed terrorism suspects.

There's something more prosaic to consider in any discussion of influence: the prominence of television in newsrooms everywhere. Is there a newsroom in America that doesn't have its TVs tuned to a news station throughout the day? At my own newspaper, an oversize flat-screen TV was recently installed in the foyer of our main newsroom, making CNN or MSNBC the first thing visitors and employees encounter when they step off the elevator. Reporters such as Kornblut pooh-pooh the significance of this, saying that TV is just one more news source, no different than having an Internet connection on one's desktop. But there may be more to it than that. "I can't dismiss the idea that there's a kind of osmosis effect," the Times' Leibovich says. "At our bureau, we have half a dozen political reporters with the TV on all day. Sometimes it's just background noise. But it's human nature to see Jeremiah Wright or Hillary's RFK comment on TV all day and think, 'Maybe this is something we should follow.'"

Indeed, says the PEJ's Jurkowitz, "There are dynamics at work in every newsroom, including the most prestigious and powerful and most self-satisfied, that a story needs to be addressed if enough people are talking about it."

In fact, Post National Editor Rajiv Chandrasekaran says his newspaper needs to stay more attuned to TV's agenda. "I can't tell you what led 'Anderson Cooper 360' or 'The O'Reilly Factor' or Olbermann last night," he says. "I can tell you what was on the front page of the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, or what Drudge has. I do check CNN's Web site." Chandrasekaran isn't being prideful or arrogant. In fact, he says the Post needs to pay closer attention to TV. "We may not be devoting enough energy to understanding what people are watching and engaging with, and that we can add value to [by covering]. We should at least be cognizant of it. The people we're trying to sell the paper to are more likely to be watching some portion of cable news than reading the New York Times. [But] in our bubble, we're more concerned about what our print competitors are doing than TV."

Over at CNN's Washington bureau, the view is decidedly different. At his desk, David Bohrman, the network's bureau chief, can monitor 11 TV screens. The sets carry the three primary cable news channels, the local network affiliates, CNN Headline News, C-SPAN and CNBC. A set at the upper left of this array carries a special 28-screen grid of pool feeds from such venues as the White House and the Capitol. While this isn't an atypical setup for a TV news director, it's what you don't see around Bohrman's desk that's telling: stacks of newsprint. "I think the major newspapers – the Post, the Times, the Journal, those three – have and will continue to have a prominence in the newsroom," Bohrman says. But, he adds, "Newspapers are having a rough time right now. They don't have the immediacy of TV or the Web. They've got to figure out how to capture that, capture that sweet spot of relevance.... Some newspapers are still trapped in writing about yesterday."

Thanks to the competitive jolt of the Internet, Bohrman says, CNN has learned to do things faster and to get news on the air sooner to compete with the Web as a breaking-news medium. "There's much more of a deadline consciousness now at CNN than there was even five years ago," he says.

Cable's prominence and immediacy has boosted its prestige within the giant companies that own the Big Three, rivaling the nightly broadcast newscasts, Elizabeth Wilner says. In recent years "MSNBC has gained in stature within the network," given that it is always on and competes directly with the Internet for breaking news, she says. "Management and talent have taken notice. You see more evening news talent on cable, and more of what was on cable that day in the evening news. They might not admit it, but the center of gravity is shifting. Cable news is on the rise; appointment news is on the wane."

Washington Post reporter Paul Farhi (farhip@washpost.com) writes frequently about the media for the Post and AJR. He wrote about bias in campaign coverage in AJR's June/July issue.

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