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CNBC Served the Public

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On Thursday morning, after the Senate passed the bailout/rescue/recovery legislation, I got up and began watching CNBC. Then, in an act of self-flagellation, I turned to the Fox Business Network. In a previous blog entry I had referred to Fox Business as "Fox Bimbo News," and I wanted to see if it had miraculously improved its coverage of the biggest business story in the history of America.

I should have known better, because I don't believe in astrology or miracles. Fox Business was still bimbo news in spite of the outrageously misleading advertising and promotion that you would expect from a news network under the leadership of Fox's Roger Ailes, the Karl Rove of the media. It was under Ailes that Fox News promoted itself with the Brave-New-World, Huxlian, totally untrue slogans "fair and balanced" and "we report, you decide."

One of the reasons I had decided to watch Fox Business's coverage of the financial crisis was because the day before I watched CNBC as it covered the markets and the Senate consideration and passage of the originally called bailout bill, which by Wednesday was being called a rescue bill. By Friday when the House passed it, the bill was called the recovery bill. But on Wednesday, while I was watching CNBC, I was upset by a Fox Business commercial that ran in a local break that claimed, falsely that "we own the story." Fox Business also claimed in the commercial that it had more live shots and was covering the story while CNBC was airing infomercials. All of these claims, I later learned from a story in The New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/03/business/media/03fox.html?scp=1&sq=fox%20business&st=cse , were based on the previous weekend - totally out of context, and a completely unfair, deceptive claim.

But what should anyone expect from a Fox property lead by Ailes, formerly a political consultant for Richard Nixon and the Republicans. Who do you think Karl Rove learned his dirty tricks from? I asked myself, should time Warner cable have accepted the ad to run while viewers were watching CNBC? Was that fair? I decided that while it probably was not fair, Time Warner didn't have a strong enough reason to turn it down during tough economic times when it wanted all of the ad revenue it could get. Nevertheless, the Fox Business ad turned me off with its false, misleading, nasty claims. It was clearly gorilla marketing and attack advertising down in the gutter with current Republican attack advertising.

The rule in advertising is that when you are way behind and have no chance of catching up by talking about your own brand's benefits, you go negative and attack your competitors. Ad guru David Ogilvy warned about this tactic and recommended never even mentioning a competitor in an ad because he knew that up to 33 percent of the people who see that ad think it's for the wrong brand. The one thing you know when a brand mentions a competitor in an ad is that that brand is not number one - it's usually way behind, as Fox Business is. Ever see an ad for a Rolex that claims it's "better than a Timex?" Of course not.

According to The New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/03/business/media/03fox.html?scp=1&sq=fox%20business&st=cse Fox Business has "...never drawn an audience large enough to be considered statistically reliable by Nielsen for an extended time period." But according to that same article, Fox Business had its best day ever, with an average of 81,000 homes between 1 p.m. and 10 p.m. watching on Monday when the House turned down the then-called bailout bill. CNBC's audience was over 900,000 for the same time period of time.

So I was one viewer of a miniscule Fox Business audience on that Thursday, but I stuck it out as long as I could bear - through Degan McDowell and Brian Sullivan, who co-anchor between 10 a.m. and 12 noon. Brian didn't really understand what was going on and Degan was the most obnoxious lock-jaw anchor I've ever seen on national or local television.

During that painful time that was like hearing fingernails scratched on a chalkboard for me, I did see several promotion spots for Fox Business that were virtually the same as the commercials I had seen the day before on the local break within CNBC programming. I suppose they were making the same claims on the theory that if you tell a lie often enough some people will believe it. But with the teeny weensy Fox Business audience, even if the lies stick, it won't make any difference. Fox Business was running promos because it couldn't sell enough ads to fill the empty slots. Any smart advertiser would be on CNBC, which had the biggest audience in its history, and deservedly so.

During those agonizing hours, I noticed the lead story on Fox Business was about GE and how two days before Warren Buffett had invested $3 billion in GE. A surprisingly bright reporter did a fairly thorough job of explaining what a difficult position GE was in because over 40 percent of its profits came from GE Capital, which because of the crisis was in deep, deep financial doo doo.

When I had watched CNBC earlier, from around 9 to 10:30 a.m., its lead story had been how the Senate had loaded the now-called rescue bill with pork. Knowledgeable CNBC anchors and reporters detailed the pork earmarks and explained the political reasons for them. I felt strongly that the pork story was clearly the lead. So why had Fox Business lead with GE and try to make GE look bad?

I'm shocked, shocked that Fox Business would corrupt its business journalism judgment and bury the obvious lead in order to try to put a bad light on GE, the owner of their avowed enemy, CNBC. That's Ailes for you.

I called my good friend Neil Derrough, who is the former V.P. and general manager of WBBM-TV when Bill Kurtis was the highest-rated anchor in Chicago, of WCBS-TV when Jim Jensen was a top-rated anchor, was president of the CBS-owned television stations division, and President of highly rated KNSD-TV in San Diego. I mention these gigs because Neil is one of the most astute television executives I know and is a keen and knowledgeable critic of television news. He's also fairly conservative and a sometimes (though not often) fan of Fox News on cable. I thought he'd give me an objective opinion of how CNBC did covering the bailout/rescue/recovery story of last week.

Neil said that he thought the CNBC's coverage was "insightful and evenhanded - much better than any other cable news network such as CNN, Fox, or MSNBC." He praised CNBC's production values, and we discussed how much we both liked the way CNBC did split screens during Paulson and Bernanke's testimony showing them testifying on one screen and the second-by-second effect it was having on the stock markets and the dollar versus other currencies.

I asked Neil if he liked the multi-guest screens - six of them at once some times - and he said, "yes, I like a cross-section of views, especially when the guests are as good as CNBC's are." Finally, Neil said that in the time of financial crisis that CNBC stepped up to the plate and provided an important and much needed public service in the best journalistic tradition.
The jazz great Jack Teagarden and the incomparable Louis Armstrong sang a duet in a song in which Armstrong sings, "I like what you like," and Teagarden responds with, "and that's what I like about you." Neil Derrough and I could sing the same duet. CNBC did a magnificent public service last week. Thanks, CNBC.