Shouting from Little Boxes

Hosted by

For KCRW, this is Nick Madigan of The Baltimore Sun with Minding the Media.

For almost a decade, Fox News Channel has proved that news delivered with attitude, opinion and belligerence can wipe the clock of any competitor.

Meanwhile, CNN, once the undisputed leader of the cable news pack, and a handful of smaller channels have been struggling to reach the same kind of audience numbers.

To do so, they're now offering their own versions of noisy, opinionated and even abusive commentary.

There's Headline News' Glenn Beck, who has the fastest-rising ratings on cable news; Keith Olbermann, MSNBC's pugnacious resident lefty; his colleague Chris Matthews, long an opponent of the Iraq war; Nancy Grace, whose abrasive, finger-wagging style on Headline News is aimed mostly at criminals and their lawyers; and, on CNBC, the manic money maven Jim Cramer, whose rants and flailing arms are sheer entertainment for stock-market players who don't mind being shouted at.

The shift toward all-opinion, all-the-time is also working on CNN for Lou Dobbs, whose protectionist distribes views have won him fans as well as critics.

All this appears to be affecting Fox News, which has suffered a 21-percent decline in total viewers when compared to the fourth quarter of 2005. Its biggest star, Bill O'Reilly, invincible for much of the Bush administration's tenure, has lost a significant number of viewers in the past year as the president's fortunes have waned.

Overall, though, O'Reilly remains the king of cable, ahead of CNN's Larry King and the target of almost relentless abuse from Olbermann, who cheerfully describes O'Reilly as "the worst person in the world."

Last night, Olbermann launched a similar insult against Fox's Sean Hannity because he, in turn, had called the actor Sean Penn an "enemy of the state."

Olbermann thought the phrase was especially inappropriate given that Roman dictators used it before the Centurions stabbed their enemies in the throat.

Olbermann was also in a word fight with Fox's Geraldo Rivera, who, during an interview on Sunday with a radio station in Orlando, launched a tirade against Olbermann.

"He called me a midget and a punk, and said he would be happy to fight me, and 'make a pizza' out of me," Olbermann told his viewers last night. "Which is kind of funny," he said, "because I'm about seven inches taller than he is. Plus, Geraldo, you should not give me a hard time. I can still remember when you were a big deal. Back when I was a kid."

Some might say they're all still behaving like kids, particularly when there are more serious issues to discuss that their rivals on cable news.

No wonder people flee to Comedy Central's fake-news king, Jon Stewart, and his cohort Stephen Colbert, the oracles of what's wrong and hypocritical in both media and government.

I called Martin Kaplan, associate dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at USC, who said MSNBC's rising audience numbers, largely because of Olbermann, are propelled by what he called "the Jon Stewart audience."

Olbermann's show, Countdown, is "informative, edgy and funny, and it respects its audience," said Kaplan, who found it remarkable that "Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert set a standard now."

Glenn Beck, a longtime radio host who was hired by Headline News in May, has seen his ratings increase since then by 86 percent among the most-coveted viewers.

"It just goes to show you how low our standards are," Beck said in a phone conversation. "Who thought cable news would be fun?"

Beck, who had over a million viewers for a special on militant Islam in November, said he was trying to avoid the "self-righteous, pompous shtick" common to some of his competitors, as well as the tendency to "put people in little boxes, yelling at each other."

"That's pretty much the cable news formula," he said, "that makes you want to blow your head off nightly."

This is Nick Madigan of The Baltimore Sun, 'Minding the Media' on KCRW.



Nick Madigan