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Cable TV

Cable TV

By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

Cable news thrives on the big, breaking news story. It has gravitated over its quarter-century of audience growth to major crises — wars, disasters, political scandals, big tabloid crime cases. It is the more typical news day, one where events are mostly momentary, alarms prove false, and the news is incremental, that represents cable’s special challenge.

May 11, 2005, was one of those. Much of the news happened overnight and overseas as the nation slept. And the list of new and dramatic breaking news events occurring this day was limited.

There were still things happening — enough to fill the pages of the next day’s newspapers. Yet cable, with its “see it now” approach, would focus this day primarily on just three events.

One was a trial of a celebrity, closed to cameras. Another was a bond hearing in an Illinois double murder, also off camera, where the killer, as planned, would formally confess to killing his child and her friend. The third was a scare, which would last for only 15 minutes, over a small plane’s entering restricted airspace.

A close look at the coverage this day puts some of cable’s tendencies in clear relief.

During much of the cable day, immediacy seems to be the criterion of significance above all others. That sometimes leads to an odd hyperbole in which anchors endeavor to create a sense of urgency about small things. In the hour before noon , the three channels on this day would air more than a dozen shots of an empty press room in Illinois and a doorway in front of the courthouse of the Michael Jackson child-molestation trial, where the former child actor Macaulay Culkin was expected to enter.

Another result of cable’s weakness for the breaking story is the way cable journalists strain to make things seem compelling. Nine hours after the plane incident was over, CNN’s Aaron Brown tried mightily to recreate a sense of panic that people felt when the White House and Capitol were evacuated for a few minutes around lunchtime.“ When it was happening, nothing wasn’t nothing,” Brown intoned somberly. “It was very much something…. We didn’t know what it was.” View CNN Video Clip (Get Quicktime® Plug-in)

Some other findings include:

  • Cable puts remarkably little emphasis on summing up or offering what would amount to a definitive account of the day’s events, even on the programs that air in the evening.
  • To get whatever depth or range of views or sources cable offers in its continuous coverage, viewers need to pretty much do just that — get the news here continuously.
  • Cable audiences are more likely than those for other media to hear reporters’ opinions about the news.
  • The close examination of one day highlights the stark differences between the three channels in style and also to some extent in story emphasis. There are greater differences here than on broadcast network TV.

In past years, our content analysis revealed some stark findings about cable news. The medium is largely unscripted — it eschews taped, edited packages in favor of live interviews, and reporters talking off the cuff or from hasty notes. Pictures and words often don’t match. The reporting contains fewer sources and viewpoints than elsewhere on TV. And rather than being up to date, much of the reporting is repetitive. Over two years of study we found that roughly 7 in 10 of the stories on cable repeat, but less than 1 in 10 contains any substantive new information.1

The more detailed Day in the Life study deepened this impression and found other traits. Reporting on cable is highly focused around either the personality of the program hosts or sending a camera and correspondent to an event and having them pass along what they are seeing at that moment. The effect, more so than in other media, is that the audience’s role is passive. There is less effort here to tell how these stories involve the viewers, what to do about them, how they relate to their lives, or how viewers can do or learn more.

Cable’s Lack of Summarization

The viewers’ role is passive except for one area — the extent to which it is up to the viewers to add up for themselves what the pieces on cable offer throughout the day. The diversity of sources and viewpoints on cable news is usually across two or three different stories rather than within one piece. Facts can vary from account to account. Sources in live interviews offer one view, and it may be a while before contrary or supplemental information is forthcoming. A viewer needs to see all the accounts to get any kind of depth of knowledge.

Take, for example, coverage of the D.C. plane scare. One cable story quoted the Capitol police chief. Another offered reactions of those involved in the evacuation. Still a third interviewed an Air Force colonel responsible for air defense in Washington. A fourth interviewed folks who knew the pilots. But those moments were spread across a multitude of stories over several hours and across the channels. To learn about all those different angles, viewers would need to catch most if not all of that coverage.

Yet they could have gotten virtually all of it by going online, where stories contained most of these elements in one piece, and users could access it whenever they wanted.

Why we found this trait in cable is hard to pin down but worth pondering. With so much time to fill, it is possible cable news managers are simply preoccupied with getting things on the air. Or that for the number of hours to fill, the reporters they have to draw on is too limited. The focus on the immediate may exacerbate the problem, making it virtually impossible to prepare. Whatever the causes, for much of the day, cable anchors function more like traffic cops than investigators.

Reporter Opinion

The study also confirmed another earlier finding, that reporters on cable news are more likely to offer their own opinions about events than other media. Over all, 47% of cable stories on May 11 include reportorial opinion, compared with 14% in the media as a whole. (It was 20% on network evening TV and 48% on network morning). And for the biggest story of the day — the plane scare in Washington — that number jumped to 83%.2

Journalist Opinion in D.C. Plane Scare Coverage
% of all stories

Outlet Stories w/ Opinion
Cable 83%
National Newspapers 0%
Network Evening News 30%
National Web sites 0%

The opinion on May 11 came in various forms. On the morning programs it came from journalists trying to be informal. After a piece about global warming on CNN’s “American Morning,” for instance, the anchor Soledad O’Brien offered, “So that videotape there, and really what’s happening on the glacier, is definitive proof that there’s global warming.” The correspondent Miles O’Brien takes her one further. “Yes, but it’s just one more little piece. There’s a big stack of evidence now . . . The real question is, what are we going to do about it? Are we going to stop using SUVs?”

On Fox News, during the same hour, the co-anchor E.D. Hill was defending the Bush administration from criticisms by the former Homeland Security chief, Tom Ridge, that the administration often raised the terror alert over his objections. “If you don’t raise it and something happens, everyone’s gonna get blamed for not raising it, if you do raise it then people say, nothing happened, why’d you do it?” she said in response to Ridge’s comments, reported in USA Today that morning. “I don’t think there is any way to win on that one.” View Fox News Video Clip (Get Quicktime® Plug-in)

Her co-anchor, Steve Doocy, made the case partisan. “And the other thing is how many times during the campaign did we hear Democrats say they are doing this for political reasons?” he asked. But Ridge, he said, “did not ever suggest they did anything like that.”

On other cable programs, opinion is a signal part of the program’s appeal. It is part of the core of “Imus in the Morning” on MSNBC. The views of Bill O’Reilly are similarly central to “The O’Reilly Factor” in prime time on Fox, as are the more liberal notions of Keith Olbermann on MSNBC.

The Range of News

Despite all the time it has to fill, the range of topics on cable was also more limited than some might expect. The four hours of this day studied on each channel offered little more than what one would have gotten from a 30-minute network evening newscast, and markedly less than one could learn from any print or online venue.

Among the other events that would be covered online and in the next morning’s newspapers: The Army would decide not to file charges against officers implicated in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal; The Catholic Church would announce that it might cut priests’ pensions in different U.S. cities; There was a scandal brewing about evangelical proselytizing at the Air Force Academy. A new report found that bias crimes against Muslims in the U.S. were up 50% since 9/11.

Most of those stories were about trends, though, not breaking news which is what cable tends to focus most of its energy and time on. On May 11, that would include four main events: the plane scare, the murders in Zion, Ill., the surge in violence in Iraq and the Michael Jackson trial. Those made up a third of the time studied, and even that understates how much the plane scare dominated. The story did not break until mid-day, after two of the programs sampled had aired. Looking just at the afternoon coverage, it commanded even more of the air time.3

Percent of Newshole Devoted to Top Four Stories
Percent of all Stories

Outlet D.C. Plane Zion Murders Culkin Testimony Iraq car bombs Total to Top 4
Cable 13% 10 6 3 32
National Newspapers 4% 2 4 4 14
Network Evening News 18% 0 1 7 26
National Web sites (top stories) 14% 11 9 22 56

Depth of Reporting

In a media environment saturated with news outlets that all offer the basic facts, a growing question among journalists is the degree to which stories explore angles that connect or make events more relevant to the audience.

Cable news, with its hours to fill and variety of programming, does little to fill any such need. For this study, we created an index of 10 different elements a story could contain that might add to a citizen’s understanding. Did a story put the event in historical context? Did it suggest where the audience could learn more? Did it suggest what might happen next?4

More than half (58%) of all major stories on cable news contained none or only one of those elements. The largest number, 36%, did not offer any, and another 21% offered just one. That was a worse rating than any other national news platform except for the 30-minute nightly newscasts, which have much less time and whose stories tend to be much shorter (though even these networks newscasts had a greater percent of stories with three of more index elements. In online stories, for instance, just 4% offered no elements. Three quarters of the stories online (72%) contained two or more.

Story Index Scores5, by Medium
Percent of all Stories

0 1 2 3+
Cable 36% 21 21 21
Network Eve. News 41% 23 9 27
Network Morning News 29% 18 14 39
National Newspapers 0% 0 43 57
National Web sites 4% 17 28 51
Totals may not equal 100 due to rounding.

The News of the Day in Cable (and Differences Among the Channels)

The more we study, the more the cable channels begin to look distinct from one another. On May 11, indeed, they differed more in what they covered than the broadcast networks did. On CNN, the plane scare was dominant. Fox focused more on the grisly murder case in Illinois . MSNBC was the most interested of the channels in Macaulay Culkin’s testimony at Michael Jackson’s molestation trial, a story, interestingly, that its sister broadcast, the NBC Nightly News, didn’t even mention.

Morning News on Cable

The feel of morning news on cable is different from the networks. While the tone is similarly informal and chatty, absent are the softer lifestyle subjects such as cooking tips or tools for the garden. Instead, cable focuses on topics geared more toward people interested in politics and getting a jump on current events of the day. And that chatty weatherman mixing with folks in the street is nowhere to be found. Rather than offer emotional reactions to stories, the reporters and anchors are more prone to offer political views.

CNN

Viewers starting their day with CNN’s “American Morning” got a quick dose of hard news. The program, from 7 to 8 a.m., led with a taped package on the situation in Iraq, a story that the network morning shows would skip, followed by a story that resembled the network offerings — a taped package on the Zion murders. The story would even feature the same source as the network stories, the local prosecutor Michael Waller.

Next, viewers got a discussion of an unexploded grenade found where President Bush had given a speech in the former Soviet republic of Georgia. The story would be a minor item in newspapers, yet was a staple of morning shows on cable and network. As it turned out, what CNN offered here was identical to what the networks did. Bill Hemmer, a CNN anchor (who later moved to Fox) interviewed a former Secret Service agent, Joseph Petro — the same person interviewed on two of the three broadcast networks that morning.

For its fourth piece, however, CNN offered something more distinctive, a segment on a Swiss study of global warming reported by the correspondent Miles O’Brien in the studio. It was one of the few items on any morning cable program that was not about breaking news.

Finally, CNN’s grumpy Everyman, Jack Cafferty, appeared to pose his question of the day: whether United Airlines should be allowed to default on its pensions. That was the one segment that allowed viewers to get involved in the news. And Cafferty was quick to offer his own view. He had no doubt that executives of large corporations normally get a “huge golden parachute” and “you can bet they’re not going to suffer, not like the employees will.”

Cable Morning Shows: Lead Stories and Type of Coverage

Placement
CNN
Fox
MSNBC
1st Iraq Package Grenade Anchor talk Brief Headlines Newswrap
2nd Zion Package Zion Package Tim Russert Host talk
3rd Grenade Interview Brief Headlines Newswrap Renee ´ Zellweger Host Talk
4th Global warming Staff int. Terror Alerts Anchor Talk Rolling Stones Host Talk

Fox

Over on Fox News’s “Fox and Friends,” viewers on May 11 got a program constructed quite differently. In the 7 a.m. hour there was just one on-scene report from a correspondent — a live report from the courthouse in Illinois , which broke to a packaged report, and one report (about the unexploded grenade) with the correspondent live from the Washington studio.

The bulk of the program involved the three anchors chatting or reading a teleprompter. With fewer reporters in the field than CNN, Fox relies more on the chemistry and banter of its hosts. At the same time, that may be one reason why its morning program seems more a distinct program than simply another part of the cable channel’s day.

The story lineup was even more government focused-than CNN’s. There were multiple reports on the grenade near Bush in Georgia. There was a segment on a bill to require identification tags for illegal immigrants. The violence in Iraq was a brief “tell” story.

Another difference on Fox in the morning is that it has abandoned the more disinterested neutral voice of traditional broadcasting. It is a clearly American channel, with the U.S. government frequently referred to in the first person plural — “we” and “us.” In Fox’s lead story of the morning, the case of the grenade in Georgia, E.D. Hill, speaking not of herself or Fox News but of American officials, said, “Our people haven’t been able to look at it. So they (Georgian officials) keep counseling us. We haven’t been able to say it’s a hand grenade. We don’t know what it is exactly.”

Viewers also got a sense of point of view in the choice of stories and in the way they were handled. That came through in a subject not found on CNN or MSNBC during the hour — an interview with Gary Aldrich, president of the Patrick Henry Center, a foundation to promote “individual liberty” and known for its conservatives views. They discussed Steve Gardner, one of the Swift Boat Veterans who was critical of John Kerry in the 2004 Presidential election campaign. Steve Gardner, Aldrich said, was “the only Swift Boat veteran who served on the boat that John Kerry commanded. So he was in a unique position to observe John Kerry up close and personal.” The Fox anchor Steve Doocy then added that Gardner was fired from his job after appearing in commercials. “We had him on our program. Right after he got on TV, and said all that stuff, he got fired.” No other source offering a differing view was mentioned.

Fox fleshed out its morning coverage with a sports round-up from one of the hosts and a brief host discussion of the episode of “American Idol” coming up that night. The final segment was an interview between E.D. Hill and the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that studies the effects on immigration on the U.S., over a new administration program to cover some health costs of illegal immigrants. The director, Mark Krikorian, was clearly critical of the administration.

MSNBC

MSNBC’s offering at this hour is not television per se at all, it’s the radio program “Imus in the Morning,” filmed. And it’s all about opinions and views — those of the veteran DJ Don Imus.

The top of the hour offered a few news headlines read by Imus’s sidekick Charles McCord — brief updates on Iraq, the congressional spending bill, the Zion murders, and another multiple murder, in New Mexico .

Mostly, the program was about the mind of Imus, especially his likes and dislikes. He was disgusted, for instance, over the Rolling Stones announcing another tour — “they’ve got to stop flopping around on the stage like a chicken on crack….it looks like your crazy grandparents for talent night at the old folks home, doesn’t it?” And he loved NBC collegue Tim Russert, host of his sister channel’s Sunday talk program “Meet the Press.” The largest chunk of the hour was spent in a phone interview with Russert. He and Imus discussed Russert’s new book, “Big Russ and Me,” and then moved to Laura Bush’s popularity and how the NBC family supports each other. Imus was unabashed about selling — books, TV shows, movies, and his own mail-order products. On this day it was Russert’s book: “It’s a great book. Not really difficult . . . great idea for Father’s Day or Mother’s Day. I heartily recommend it.” He was also selling Russert, and closed with: “I want you to know: I love you and so does Charles.”

Mid-Day

The 11-to-noon hour on cable — designated as the “Live” program on each channel — recapped the overnight news and was poised to bring breaking developments on two of the big stories of the day.

The murder suspect Jerry Hobbs was expected to appear for bond in Zion, Ill., after which the prosecutor, Mike Waller, would hold a press conference. At the same time, Macaulay Culkin was expected to arrive at the courthouse in the Michael Jackson trial in California . Culkin’s testimony was not to take place for several more hours, but his arrival at the courthouse was treated as news itself.

On Fox in particular, the key line that hour was “expecting.” Unfortunately for its viewers the expected was long in coming. They were assured repeatedly that Fox “would be there live” and that “any moment now we’re expecting news” on the Hobbs bond hearing and on the arrival of Culkin at the Jackson courthouse.

Throughout the hour, the cameras returned seven times to show the empty courthouse pressroom where Waller would be appearing. The only action during the shots was sound guys adjusting a mike or two. Over and over, “Any moment now . . . could be getting some new details . . . Again, much more to come . . .” Fox filled the waiting time with such things as an interview with a forensic scientist. Unfortunately for those on the edge of their seats, the bond hearing was delayed and the press conference didn’t take place until the next hour.

The Jackson courthouse coverage was much the same. “As soon as it happens, we’re on it.” The “it,” however, was merely the arrival of one of the two celebrities at the courthouse. The image shown three times was the security checkpoint at the courthouse entrance, empty but for the guards milling around. At one point, someone walked through. It “might have been him [Culkin] just passing through,” the anchor speculated. We learned a little later it wasn’t. And still later we learned that Culkin would be led into the courthouse through a back entrance. A pool camera did catch a picture of Culkin’s back shortly after 11:30 a.m. Fox showed the image four times in the final 15 minutes of the hour.

Mid-Day Coverage of the Zion Murders

CNN FOX MSNBC
# of empty podium shots 1 9 4
Sound from Mike Waller 1 tape 0 1 tape, 3 live

MSNBC’s live hour with Randy Meier and Amy Robach also promised to bring viewers the “now” of the two stories, but the channel filled in the waiting time with a wider range of other news. As a consequence, MSNBC during the hour cut to the empty podium shot at the Illinois courthouse just four times and cut to the Jackson courthouse just twice. It “just missed” the pool shot of Culkin’s arrival but did show it — just once — after the commercial break. MSNBC also added some humor to the mix — plugging its evening commentator Keith Olbermann’s “Jackson Puppets,” currently being auctioned on eBay. View MSNBC Jackson Puppets Video Clip (Get Quicktime® Plug-in)

The show opened with a fairly comprehensive taped package on the Zion murder case. There was no package on the Jackson trial, but there was live talk with the reporter on the scene and an interview with Susan Filan, MSNBC’s legal analyst. As they tried to fill the time waiting for something to happen, the anchors and guests on MSNBC vamped with what might be described as fairly obvious speculation: “Is (Culkin) going to fall victim to the prosecution’s sword or will he carry the day? If he carries the day, it’s going to be devastating for the prosecution.”

The main distinction of MSNBC during this hour was that it aired packages on a wider variety of topics than its rivals, some of them using NBC News personnel, though the topics were mostly the same ones we heard about on the morning network and cable channels. There was a taped piece on the grenade in Georgia and another on the United Airlines pension situation. The most distinctive piece was an exclusive report with the NBC correspondent Lisa Meyers on a Middle Eastern bank whose New York City branch was under criminal investigation.

Mid-Day Coverage of Culkin Testimony

CNN FOX MSNBC
# of court house entrance shots 1 10 2

The anchor Daryn Kagan brought viewers the 11-to-noon news on CNN. Its range of coverage that hour was more in line with MSNBC’s. In addition to the three big stories, CNN offered viewers Congressional news about spending and gang-warfare bills, as well as a report on the nomination of Under Secretary of State John Bolton to be ambassador to the U.N. It also covered some entertainment news — the coming premier of the last “Star Wars” movie, the inspiration behind the reality show “CSI” and an interview with the author of a new book on presidential getaways.

CNN led with the Zion story, a package with clips from prosecutor Waller and members of the community. Then, rather than turning to a live report from the courthouse immediately, Kagan announced, “Once that bond hearing for Jerry Hobbs ends, Chris [ Lawrence ] will have an update for us with a live report.” What viewers got in the meantime was an interview with Dominic Cappello, author of “Ten Talks Parents Must Have with Their Children about Violence.” For the rest of the hour, CNN did not return to the courthouse — so it had just one empty podium shot.

The Jackson trial got even less coverage: one brief live report from the courthouse and one return at the end of the hour for the clip of Culkin’s entrance.

Just after noon, though, CNN’s measured focus on live and breaking news gave way, with the brief evacuation of the White House and the Capitol as a result of the Cessna’s entering restricted Washington airspace. Once the plane incident occurred, CNN viewers got the sense that no other events that day came even close in significance.

From noon through 6 p.m. — from “CNN Live” through “Inside Politics” at 3:30 through “Crossfire” at 4:30 through “Wolf Blitzer Reports” at 5:00 , CNN veered from the plane scare for only a few minutes, once to brief on Culkin’s testimony, and in the second half of “Inside Politics” to report on Congressional proceedings of the day. Then, after a brief departure from the story in the second half of the Lou Dobbs’s business report, Anderson Cooper aired a special edition called “Security Watch: Defending the Skies.” “NewsNight” was also focused almost solely on the story.

The only program on CNN from noon onward not to lead with and devote most or all its time to the plane scare was “Larry King Live.” He had an exclusive interview with Condoleezza Rice, her first extended interview since taking office as secretary of state. But as the night went on, CNN was back to the plane scare.

Evening News

CNN

On CNN, the prime time evening newscast with Aaron Brown featured 10 different pieces on the Washington false alarm involving the Cessna. They included an opening piece by Brown that narrated events as they unfolded, pieces by CNN correspondents reliving those 15 minutes from their eyewitness vantage points on Capitol Hill and the White House, interviews with people from the airport where the flight originated, a close look at that type of plane and even a trip on a simulated patrol of a plane being hijacked — what could have happened if the event had not been the false alarm that it was.

For all the time devoted to the incident, however, and all the hours since it had happened, the reporting suffered from many of the tendencies we have identified elsewhere with cable news. There was a heavy reliance on government sources such as the White House spokesman Scott McClellan as well as on CNN’s own correspondents as eyewitness sources. And the primary expert relied on throughout the coverage, the CNN “security analyst” Richard Falkenrath, a former deputy homeland security adviser, clearly identifies himself as a member of the extended homeland security family, whom he refers to as “we.” “Now, that’s not to say that we didn’t make the right decision today to evacuate,” he told Aaron Brown.

Though on the surface it might seem as if Brown’s program amounted to an hour on the subject, the newscast did not have the feel of long-form or in-depth journalism. It was rather a series of short pieces, each with fairly limited reportage, as if the reporters who were on air all day were simply asked to file one more piece for the late show.

The few segments that tried to go beyond the basic play-by-play failed to go very far. A piece by Jeanne Meserve, for example, was introduced as a look at whether the new warning system for pilots could have prevented the incident. The segment never answered the question. Instead it mostly addressed the mechanics of the alarm. What’s more, viewers were told nothing about the sources used, two pilots and someone from the Air Force — their backgrounds, any connections they had or the level of their expertise.

Cable Evening News: Lead Stories and Type of Coverage

Placement
CNN
Fox
MSNBC
1st DC Plane Anchor Pkg DC Plane Pkg w/live talk DC Plane Anchor read
2nd DC Plane Pkg. w/ live talk Iraq Pkg DC Plane Staff int.
3rd DC Plane Pkg. North Korea Pkg w/ live talk DC Plane Expert int.
4th DC Plane - Pkg. Afghan riots Anchor read Grenade Anchor read

Fox

As with Fox’s morning show, “Special Report with Brit Hume” spoke largely to viewers interested in political events, but Hume’s range of issues was actually wider. In addition to the plane scare and the Iraq bombings, viewers could also hear about North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons; voter fraud; the resignation of a church pastor over a politically motivated sermon, and a forthcoming vote in Canada. News of the Illinois double murders and the Jackson trial, which had dominated the mid-day, were absent.

The reports themselves were produced in a manner much closer to that of traditional broadcast news. As we found in last year’s analysis of a month’s worth of Hume programming, viewers heard from a variety of sources and correspondents.

The lead plane-scare story — a taped report from Brian Wilson — contained five different sources (though one was the correspondent Major Garrett, who was evacuated from the White House press room). The tone of the piece was more measured than the bulk of the CNN coverage, assuring viewers that all was well with the government. The first line from Hume let viewers know the scare was over: “The White House and the U.S. Capitol are back to normal tonight after a midday security scare. . .” The other piece on the plane story that hour, an interview with the NORAD spokesman Col. Keith Snyder, paints a calmer picture as well. Hume opens, “Well, as everyone knows, the threat turned out to be a little mosquito of an airplane that had no hostile intent and probably couldn’t have done much damage even if it slammed into the Capitol. . .” View Hume Video Clip (Get Quicktime® Plug-in)

The correspondent reports on Hume’s program had a somewhat more balanced feel than other Fox programming — the plane-scare story suggested that the evacuation might have been disorganized, for instance — yet even on this program the reporter roundtable that made up the second half of the program as well as some other feature stories tipped toward a decidedly conservative viewpoint.

An item in Hume’s “Political Grapevine,” for instance, cited a new report from Milwaukee, WI that found hundreds of ineligible felons had voted in the last election, and then paired that finding with an unrelated study from Washington State showing that felons in that state had voted Democratic by 3-1.

MSNBC

Viewers of MSNBC’s “Countdown with Keith Olbermann,” the closest the network comes to a main evening newscast, heard about a greater number of news items that day than from any other program studied, much as was the case on MSNBC earlier in the day. Yet aside from the main stories of the day –— the plane scare,

Iraq, Zion and Jackson — the items were mostly anchor reads of two or three sentences each by Olbermann, usually filtered through his own “take.” In some ways “Countdown” is a hybrid of a news program and a talk show — it is Olbermann on the news.

“Spain has the annual running of the bulls at Pamplona. We now apparently have the annual running of the evacuees around the Capitol,” he quipped to MSNBC’s chief Washington correspondent, Norah O’Donnell. View Olbermann Video Clip (Get Quicktime® Plug-in)

Olbermann was a little more sober-minded in the second segment, an interview about the plane scare with Roger Cressey, a former member of the National Security Council but now a “terrorism analyst” for MSNBC and NBC. Cressey, perhaps more than any other source quoted at length on cable this day, admired the administration’s response. And that is the only viewpoint offered to the audience. Indeed, no one we encountered identified as a cable news analyst offered anything but praise for his former agency.

Olbermann: Break the day down into its critical components from your perspective, and give each of these components a letter grade, if you’d be so kind.

Cressey: Well, I think Secret Service and the Capitol Police, they’d get high marks because they did the notification quickly, people moved quickly. I think NORAD and the air defense infrastructure worked well. I also give high marks to the Customs police and others around. I give low marks to the pilot, of course.

Olbermann offers three separate pieces on the Culkin testimony that day — a straight news account in a package by the NBC correspondent Karen Brown, a discussion with Jim Moret of “Inside Edition” about the defense’s portrayal of Jackson as “a 10-year-old child star trapped in a 46-year-old man’s body,” and a sarcastic segment in which Olbermann is auctioning off a “Michael Jackson Puppet” on eBay. Some of the material on Olbermann’s show has aired before. The segment on the Iraq bombings, for instance, is a replay of the report by Richard Engel from NBC Nightly News.

Cable Talk Shows

The nightly personality talk programs on each of the cable channels are distinctly different from each other. On CNN, Larry King’s long-interview format puts most of the focus on his guests rather than his own personality or viewpoints; Fox’s O’Reilly show is mostly about O’Reilly; and MSNBC’s “Hardball with Chris Matthews” is somewhere in between — the guests are more than furniture, but Matthews often is talking more than listening.

On the night of May 11, the topics varied as much as the styles. Larry King devoted the entire hour to his exclusive interview with Secretary of State Rice. While conversational, the discussion was the most serious of those on the talk programs.

O’Reilly offered his views on a gamut of items and with the hardest of edge of any of the talk-show hosts. On the immigration bill: “Well, that’s true and dumb. Nobody thinks all illegals are here to commit crimes, but all illegals have something in common: they are illegal. Unfortunately, many in the press, and politics, and on the bench refuse to confront that.” On the Jackson trial: “OK, why should I care?” On the murder case in Zion, he offered his own theory of the crime in an interview with Tom Rybarczyk of the Chicago Tribune, who “has been studying the life of Jerry Hobbs.”

O’REILLY: Now my theory — and this is just a theory, but I’m going to throw it out there — it’s based on, you know, information that we’ve been able to come up with — is that it wasn’t going well with Hollabaugh. [Laura Hobbs, one of the murdered children, was the daughter of Hobbs and Sheila Hollabaugh.] Hobbs and Hollabaugh, you know, he wanted more than she was able to deliver. And he got angry. And when he gets angry — and this is shown by your reporting — when he gets angry, he turns violent.

Now, what would you do to a mother you wanted to punish? What’s the worst thing you could do to her?

RYBARCZYK: It sounds like a sound theory, but I don’t know.

O’REILLY: I am not asking to you comment on. I’m just saying this is what — I’m an analyst. I’m able to put this stuff together. This is what we’re learning. . . .

And O’Reilly’s “most ridiculous item of the day”? The plane scare: “So anyway, there was a little plane, a little plane went into the air space. All the people were evacuated. It was just a little plane. And that was it.”

MSNBC’s “Hardball with Chris Matthews” gave audiences even more of the self-promotion within NBC established earlier in the day. Just as viewers of Imus began the day with a promotional interview on Tim Russert’s book about his father, they could get more of it in the evening on Hardball. Matthews was even more gushing than Imus had been. “Most of the time when I have to read a book for the show, you know, I do a couple of chapters . . . [but here] I’m crying.” And later, “Perfect book. You can get it now.”

The rest of ”Hardball” was devoted to coverage of a dinner that night honoring Nancy Reagan. The discussion, this one with another NBC correspondent, Andrea Mitchell, had the self-conscious feel of talk one might imagine hearing at a celebrity Washington cocktail party. Matthews asserted that Nancy Reagan “is going to be back in circulation after tonight. . .She is going to be around town . . coming to events. The grieving, I guess, is getting close to over. She’ll be up in New York , I’m sure.”

Footnotes

1. In our 2004 study of five days of cable over 12 hours of programming, only 5% of stories were updates that contained new information. In our 2005 study, the number was 10%.

2. In a month of cable news studied in 2004, about 28% included reporter opinion (see 2005 Report), again more than in any other medium studied.

3. The only media that offered a greater percent of its newshole to those four stories was the national online Web sites, but all we studied here were the lead stories on the site (usually the top 4). Among those sites, CNN.com, in particular, tended to reflect the narrow focus of its cable channel. About six stories get substantial treatment. The rest of the news agenda is handled with AP wire copy. For newspapers, the content studied was the entire A section and the section-front stories of the metro and business.

4. The ten elements were presence of: background information, future implications, the impact of the story on citizens, a human face to the story, some separation of fact and conjecture, potential action someone could take as a citizen, potential action to take as a consumer, contact information for the journalist or news outlet, the underlying principles at play, where to go for additional information.

5. The index measured the presence of ten different elements that a story might contain. They were the presence of: background information, future implications, the impact of the story on citizens, a human face to the story, some separation of fact and conjecture, potential action someone could take as a citizen, potential action to take as a consumer, contact information for the journalist or news outlet, the underlying principles at play, where to go for additional information.

Click here to view content data tables.