"Fair and balanced," they say in their promotional ads. "Politics without spin," they promise. "News without bias. We report, you decide."
Baloney, I say -- strictly reporting the facts, mind you. If last Sunday's conspicuous hammering away at the semi-story of Indonesian bankers investing in Bill Clinton's candidacy by the fledgling Fox News Channel (FNC) is "politics without spin" and "news without bias," then I'm John F. Kennedy Jr. (I'm not, although I certainly understand the confusion. We do look alike.)
Rupert Murdoch's FNC has the look of an all-news cable channel launched by an angel of the Republican Party -- a channel stuffed with the second-rate, at the very least, and listing a wee bit to the right after that. My decision, after watching its "non-biased reportage," is that the new 24-hours-a-day news channel is a waste of air space for at least 22 of them.
A cable news channel with a rightward list is by no means a bad idea in America, mind you, it's just that presenting it noisily as "news without bias" is, at best, ridiculous.
In case you haven't been following the free-for-all among the cable news networks, Ted Turner's merger with Time-Warner means that Time-Warner cable systems -- like the one in New York City -- have the power to crush Rupert Murdoch's news Invasion of the Meat Puppets right on the beach and have some self-interest in doing just that. Hence the zillion-dollar lawsuits flying around and the strange bedfellows waking up together. (New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, for instance, weighed in on the side of Murdoch.)
If Ted wants to call me as a witness, I'm ready. I've actually watched a whole lot of Murdoch's new malarkey, and I'll be happy to report on its decisive mediocrity, leavened with bias. CNN it ain't.
Frankly, I have no idea whether the all-new MSNBC is any better, because my cable system -- TCI -- has, in its wisdom, decided that we in the city proper can live without MSNBC but not without FNC. (As things now stand, FNC knocked the secondC-SPAN network out of the blocks inside the city limits.)
As all dedicated monitors of the American pulse know, cable TV fills in the crucial details the networks leave out. At the very moment, for instance, on Monday evening when poor Marv Levy was answering what seemed to be his sixth audience question about Jim Kelly's heart and soul on the Empire cable network, Sondra Locke was on FNC's "Crier Report" pronouncing herself shocked -- shocked! -- to learn that her entire career thus far has been due to the interdiction of her long-estranged (and possibly vindictive) old boyfriend, Clint Eastwood. As revelations go, this is a little like discovering that Madonna is no longer a virgin or that Bill Clinton enjoys female company.
Meanwhile, poor coach Levy -- after fending off tough questions with his usual offhand casualness -- ended his hour on the griddle with a hard stare into the audience of his weekly show. He seemed to be wondering exactly how much hostility to his aging quarterback is out there.
And that's the sort of thing we have come to depend on cable TV for in America -- the info that lies outside the news.
At this stage of the 20th century, it must be admitted that Ted Turner performed an act of genius by inventing CNN. Unfortunately, the consequences of his act of genius are going to bring us ever closer to the Tower of Babel. The existence of CNN has already made it possible for network news organizations to dismantle all manner of news apparatuses with the universal credo, "Let CNN do it."
The Age of Information is becoming the Age of Misinformation, and with FNC gearing up to give us bias -- without bias, of course -- we could be well on the way to the Age of Disinformation.
The Age of Nonsense may well be just over the millennial speed bump.
Meanwhile, back at FNC, Murdoch's strategy in putting an all-news network on the air seems to have been roughly analogous to his start of his own TV network: Use a lot of mediocrities as shock troops to absorb the punishment until you can put better things on the air.
As far as I can tell, FNC has 1 1/2 things going for it: Mike Schneider, a former NBC news staffer (and weekend "Today Show" host) who really deserves an hourlong nightly interview show of his own, and Judith Regan, the queenpin of the publishing industry's current big-bucks love affair with huge-selling non-books and almost-books. It was Regan who gave us Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern between covers, and it is Regan who gives us FNC's regular doses of book chat and publishing pitchmanship.
Schneider is the whole thing, and Regan is the half. After Schneider and Regan, FNC goes sharply downhill. Bill O'Reilly is an emigre from "Inside Edition." Catherine Crier, who smiles her way through "The Crier Report" every night, actually seemed to frighten Rush Limbaugh with her insanely escalating vivacity. By the time her Limbaugh segment was over, she was gesticulating so wildly that she might as well have been messaging us in semaphore, "Hey, we're trying to get a new network on the air here." Limbaugh, who might have wanted an urbane and reasonable discussion, had the look of a man who has just opened his door early Sunday morning to find 10 Jehovah's witnesses atop his morning paper.
The common sense here couldn't be more common: There's only so much news in this world. If you're on 24 hours a day, you have to flesh it out with analysis and intelligent interviewing.
All of which makes CNN -- despite Larry King -- look positively wonderful compared to the newest pretender in the all-day news racket. Yes, I know it took a long time to get there, but I don't ever remember a time when CNN looked as second-rate as FNC does now.
The Emperor of Fox Newsland is Roger Ailes, the evil genius of Republican admanship who previously turned CNBC into a fascinating nighttime talk network. He is, most assuredly, no fool. Undoubtedly he has deucedly clever plans to turn FNC into something. Until we see what they are, Ted Turner remains supreme.