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Election is changing the face of cable news

The Baltimore Sun

For all their ability to react instantly to a developing story, cable news channels can be surprisingly slow to make changes in their own houses. Until last week, Fox News had not altered its early evening lineup in eight years.

But the cable landscape has been reshaped in recent weeks with each of the three news channels bringing in new talent to anchor some of their most competitive hours.

And bucking a long-standing trend, two of the networks have ousted ideologically charged personalities in favor of more traditional and experienced journalists.

Nowhere is this upgrade more apparent than at MSNBC where Tucker Carlson, the bow-tied conservative pundit, has been replaced by NBC's senior White House correspondent David Gregory during the highly competitive timeslot of 6 p.m. weeknights. At 37, Gregory is already one of the most respected reporters in the Washington press corps.

Fox executives, meanwhile, have replaced one of the most reckless performers in TV news, John Gibson, with former CNN reporter-anchorman Bill Hemmer. The new Fox lineup features America's Election HQ, with Hemmer and Megyn Kelly, at 5 p.m. instead of Gibson's The Big Story.

At CNN, Campbell Brown, a former NBC White House correspondent who won an Emmy for her coverage of Hurricane Katrina, took over on March 10 as anchor of CNN Election Center, which airs weeknights at 8 in the heart of prime time.

The one thing all the new cable programs have in common is a focus on the presidential election and politics. And the reason for that is not hard to divine: Unprecedented viewer interest in the candidates has led to record ratings for debate and campaign coverage.

But it's the nature of the change within the shift of onscreen lineups - the movement back to the use of serious journalists and the showcasing of reliable information rather than overheated invective and opinion - that may prove to be the bigger and more enduring story, according to analysts and news executives.

In the short term at least, it certainly seems to be good news for viewers, citizens and democracy.

"One of the things partially driving the changes you see onscreen is the fact that this is not just your standard exciting election - the excitement is on overdrive," says Phil Griffin, the NBC News senior vice president in charge of MSNBC. "You have the possibility of the first black president, the possibility of the first female president. You have an American hero in John McCain and his story."

Beyond those supercharged narratives, Griffin adds, "You then have as a backdrop all these real issues that the country is totally caught up in - the economy, America's place in the world, war, race and the dollar. They are all going on at the same time, and people are deeply concerned. As a result, they want sound information from serious journalists and institutions that they can trust."

Gregory is the embodiment of MSNBC's response to the viewer appetite, Griffin says. As an NBC News star, he brings the credibility of that long-established brand to the cable channel, and he has made his reputation by gathering information, not championing an ideology.

Gregory's new show, Race for the White House, made its debut last week opposite Brit Hume's Special Report (Fox News) and Wolf Blitzer's Situation Room (CNN).

Preliminary ratings for its first three days show a 53 percent increase, with the audience growing from about 400,000 viewers for Carlson to 610,000 for Gregory - a big gain in the world of cable TV news. In addition to Race for the White House, MSNBC will launch yet another new weekday show featuring a veteran NBC News journalist, The Andrea Mitchell Hour, tomorrow at 1 p.m., according to Griffin.

"I'm not really a purveyor of opinion - don't want to be," says Gregory of his nightly role on MSNBC. "I'm trying to straddle both worlds on the network and the cable side, and we're trying to put together a show that reflects all the interest and energy that people have in this story."

Gregory's journalistic approach to anchoring a cable TV show is one that has long been featured on rival CNN in the person of another former White House correspondent, Wolf Blitzer.

In fact, some analysts attribute the changing cable landscape as much to CNN's approach to covering the election as to the candidates and issues themselves. The Time Warner-owned channel has seen ratings soar in recent months for debates and election-night coverage.

Since taking over as president of CNN in late 2004, Jonathan Klein has staked his job on moving the channel away from a cacophony of shrill talking heads to a lineup featuring several shows built on fact-based, traditional journalism. One of his first acts was to cancel the widely reviled Crossfire show that featured such ideologues as Pat Buchanan and James Carville.

He has kept CNN on that path, even as Fox and MSNBC scored big ratings with Bill O'Reilly on the right and Keith Olbermann on the left, respectively.

"Three years ago, when we canceled Crossfire, we did so out of an appreciation that the mood of the country had shifted from partisanship toward a search for answers. We planted the seeds then, and we're seeing it pay off now with the success and popularity of our straight-down-the-middle election coverage," Klein says.

Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, says his organization's recently released State of the Media study shows that CNN has carved out a distinct identity as a "hybrid" of traditional network and cable news standards in packaging and values. A large part of that image is the result of CNN gathering information on its own, rather than just lining up panels of experts to opine on stories that other organizations have reported. But he cautions about overstating CNN's influence on the trend.

"Is it possible that the success that CNN has enjoyed this year with the election has encouraged the other two to move in its direction?" Rosenstiel says. "Perhaps, but perhaps there are other factors involved as well. And I'm not so sure everyone is convinced that CNN is going to keep the audience after the election."

According to Rosenstiel, other factors involved in the changes at MSNBC and Fox might include Carlson's conservative politics having become an increasingly worse fit with MSNBC's "liberal audience base," while Fox's conservative-oriented lineup simply found itself in need of some "tweaking" after eight years of stability.

Of course, Rosenstiel is right: The kind of change taking place in cable TV can rarely be attributed to only one factor. But, whatever the cause for the change, he acknowledges that citizens are much better served - especially in an election year - by news organizations practicing traditional journalistic values based on providing reliable information rather than ideology and opinion. And, based on his channel's research, CNN's Klein believes such journalism will continue to mean "good business" for CNN even after the last votes are counted in November.

"Not only is this kind of political coverage something that we began planning for three years ago, it is also a trend among the audience that is going to continue well beyond the election," he says.

"The kind of unfiltered, aggressively independent coverage that we have brought to this election is the kind of journalism that people have been telling us they wanted. Finding answers and keeping people honest - not parroting the talking points of the right or the left - is what viewers say they want. And that's what we are all about."

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

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