Is MSNBC the best cable news network? Is CNN the worst?

Last night when I went to CNN.com and saw that something about Amber Frey was the top story, I seriously wondered to myself if CNN might just be worse than Fox. Atrios argues that CNN is at least much worse than MSNBC: CNN's a joke in your town.

It is really true. MSNBC has become a better news operation during the day. MSNBC.com has always been pretty good. The evening lineup is pretty much six of one, half a dozen on the other. On CNN you have Anderson Cooper (good, but too frivolous), Paula Zahn (atrocious), Larry King (horrible), and Aaron Brown (whatever good is demolished by his smugness). And, on MSNBC you have Hardball (horrible with an occasional ray of truth shining through), Olbermann (pretty good), Norville (okay), and Scarborough which is so bad it's probably, in the net, good.

Atrios isn't the only one noticing this either, as the RNC may have begun to blackball Hardball. Could the network that hired Mike Savage and fired Phil Donahue (at the time MSNBC's highest rated anchor) in a span of one month really have turned a corner and become the most palatable of the cable news networks? Also, is CNN (not CNN international, the CNN you get herein America) really worse than Fox?

I do not have answers or arguments of my own at this point, but I have written the question in the form of a front-page poll.

Free Media Is Far More Influential Than Paid Media

And outrageous attacks on "character" and personality produce a greater impact than being reasonable.

Ever since Dean's downfall and Jerome's insightful reports on the rapidly reduced power of television advertisements, I have gradually become convinced that the way a candidate's personality is treated by the national media has far more impact on the outcome of an election than fundraising and paid advertisements. The National Annenberg Election Survey recently completed a study (PDF) of the reach of the Swift Boat Liars ad that backs my belief:

Backed by a small time buy in a few states, a TV advertisement sponsored by a 527 called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth began airing on August 5, 2004. The ad claimed that John Kerry lied to obtain his Viet Nam War medals. A news account in the New York Times indicated that the group intended to spend $500,000 to put the ad on stations in Wisconsin, Ohio, and West Virginia. Though according the article, an aide for the Kerry campaign disputed these figures arguing that the buy "was far smaller, for only $156,000 in seven smallish markets."

In a dramatic illustration of the power of free media such as talk radio and cable talk shows to assist an independent group in getting its message out, recent polling by the University of Pennsylvania's National Annenberg Election Survey finds that more than half of the country has heard about or seen the ad. Thirty-three percent of a national sample of respondents report having seen it and an additional 24 percent report having heard about it. These findings are based on polling of 2,209 respondents between August 9 and August 16, 2004. The margin of error for this sample is plus or minus 2 percent.

"The influence of this ad is a function not of paid exposure but of the ad's treatment in free media," Dr. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the survey and of The University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center explained. "The advertisement has received extensive coverage, particularly on conservative talk radio and cable news channels and has been the subject of some attention in broadcast news as well."

The study goes on to note that the ad has had very little impact upon those people who were not already planning on voting Bush, which is good news. Only 19% of those people who hold a favorable opinion of Kerry found the ads believable, whereas 14% of those people who held a favorable opinion of Bush found the ads unbelievable. While this may result in Bush closing the favorability gap by one or two points (it is currently around 15 points in Kerry's favor), overall, as Jerome notes below, the impact does not seem that serious.

Still, why did this ad work so well in attracting free media? After all, $500,000 or less might just achieve what Bush was unable to do in over $120M worth of ads: slightly reduce the favorability gap between him and Kerry. My belief is that this ad received free media for the same reason Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 911 was such a hot topic of discussion in the national media. It is the same reason that Dean's "scream" received so much national attention, that the Kobe Bryant and Michael Jackson court cases receive so much national attention, and that "reports" on the lifestyles of the rich and famous cut off Olympic coverage for one hour every evening. Whatever ideological biases people may feel various press outlets hold, for the vast majority of the national media, the true bias is toward tabloid-ism, sensationalism, and personality-driven, generally content-free news substitutes. Why do we even hear about the Scott Peterson case--much less hear about it quite a bit every single day--when we are at war and an election is coming up? How is that news compared to what is happening in the world today? Why was McGreevey's announced resignation a much bigger press event than Rowland's actual resignation? It is the same reason anti-war views were almost completely shut out of the media before Iraq, but why now stories of death and carnage are typically the lead stories from Iraq. The national press wants explosions, death and personalities. They want live drama that only they can offer as a form of original programming.

The SBVFT ad received such ludicrous free press precisely because its claims were outrageous and a direct attack on Kerry's character, rather than his stance on any issue. The ads provide a twist in the personality drama Democrats set up for Kerry at the national convention. This is exactly the sort of crap that the media is biased toward. It is another example of how our public sphere has degenerated into the mentality of reality TV, and just how low journalist standards have dropped since the 1996 telecommunications act incorporated and conglomerated our national media.

The extensive debunking of the ads by the Blogosphere and other outlets has gone a long way to making the impact of this story minimal, largely because they have attacked the personality of the people making attacks on Kerry's personality. However, an even better response would be to come up with a series of ads that attack Bush's personality drama where it hurts. Simply put, some 527 needs to produce a series of ads that portrays Bush as a complete asshole. They need to make him look like someone who you would never want to spend time with and who only cares about himself. Dig up some old college friends who complain about Bush's tendency to use off-color jokes and how it made him uncomfortable to be around. Find some old employees of Bush-ruined businesses who were hit hard by the company's failings while Bush himself came out richer than before. Try to specifically find people who were turned away by Bush when they directly appealed to him for help. This is the sort of ad buy the media would run with. The free media generated from the story will be worth 100 times what it cost to run the ads.

Any good ad campaign should not just be tested in focus groups of swing voters, but focus groups of editors, pundits and news directors as well. As the power of paid media declines, the ability of campaigns to exploit free media must begin to increase.

Unbelievable New Kerry Ad

This is downright amazing. A strong attack on Bush, a great slam against the Swift Boat Liars, and a not-so-subtle reassertion of Kerry's heroism in Vietnam. The best part is that it all comes out of the mouth of the third most popular politician in the country.

Also, I am sorry about my nearly three-day absence. I was simply unable to reach a computer for a while. It was extremely painful for me to not be able to blog--I seriously became physically ill (maybe I should seek help for blog addiction). It will never happen again.

Good Cop, Bad Cop

In a well-commented thread from Monday, I disagreed with MoveOn's decision to run ads attacking SBVFT. However, after reading Kerry's denunciation of MoveOn's ad, I retract my earlier statement: Sen. John F. Kerry took a cue from Sen. John McCain on Tuesday and denounced a television ad by one of his allies attacking President Bush's service in the Texas Air National Guard.

In the latest twist in an ongoing debate about military credentials, Kerry condemned the new ad by the MoveOn political action committee, even though it was produced in response to an ad questioning Kerry's Vietnam War record.

"This should be a campaign of issues, not insults," Kerry said in a written statement.

Kerry called the ad "inappropriate" after McCain (R-Ariz.), a former Vietnam prisoner of war, criticized the MoveOn commercial. The 30-second ad accuses Bush of using family connections to avoid the Vietnam War.

Kerry's "condemnation" of the ad (he does not actually ask MoveOn to pull the ad), in combination with the existence of the ad, is a perfect example of how the Kerry campaign and 527's can play "good cop, bad cop" to Kerry's benefit. 527's release attacks, thereby raising Bush's negatives. Kerry condemns the attacks, thereby raising his own positives. Further, Kerry's denunciation not only gets the ad more play, but also gets more play of McCain's slam of the SBVFT ad. Further, Bush fails to condemn the attacks run by SBVFT, and it looks like Bush is running a dirty, negative campaign. Overall, the entire SBVFT saga seems like it is going to play out well for Kerry.

To Turf or Not to Turf? Contest and Experiment

What is the best response to the Astroturf campaign kos noted today over on his front page? Would it be better to write letters to each of the papers showing them how they were duped, or would it be better to ramp up an Astroturf campaign of our own? Personally, I think both. Thus, I would like to announce a contest!

Use this thread to write a pro-Kerry or anti-Bush letter to the editor. Make sure that it is no more than 150 words in length. Over the next week, I will personally email the letter our readers judge to be the best to 400 different newspapers just to see how many of them bite and actually print the thing. I will subsequently write a follow-up letter to each newspaper that prints the letter telling them they have been punked. Hopefully this will undercut future right-wing astroturf campaigns.

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