Viewers Select CNN Over FOX When Seeking Serious
And Credible Reporting on The Terrororist Attacks

9-18-2001: His voice quickening as file footage of Osama Bin Laden played onscreen, Fox News Channel anchor Bill O'Reilly made clear his thoughts about the suspected World Trade Center terror mastermind Friday night.

"I'm telling you my feelings right now," O'Reilly stated vehemently. "I think the man does not deserve to live."

The next morning, Bin Laden was also the dominant topic on CNN. But now location, rather than locution, was key. Reporter Tom Mintier, live in Pakistan, handed off to reporter Nic Robertson, live in Afghanistan.

Tuesday's terrorist attacks set off a week in which it sometimes felt as if the same horrific images and anguished commentary were playing on a continual loop on every available TV channel. Yet for Fox and CNN -- already locked in a struggle for 24-hour news channel supremacy -- covering a real (if undeclared) war has further underscored the differences between them.

Neither network's reporting has been error-free, especially in the earliest hours of the crisis when numerous events were unfolding on many fronts (Shelling of Afghanistan's capitol shown live on Tuesday on CNN turned out to be unrelated to the American crisis; Fox reported a hijacked plane headed for the U.S. Capitol that never materialized, although vice president Dick Cheney said Sunday that may have been the goal of the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania).

CNN and Fox joined most networks in carrying a false report -- initially confirmed by New York police, CNN said -- of five people pulled from the WTC rubble in an SUV.

Early ratings suggest that when it comes to viewers, CNN's deep reporting bench and somewhat more straightforward approach to the news seems to be winning out over Fox's big-hitter personalities and more gut-level delivery.

According to Nielsen figures, CNN's average rating for the period between 8:45 a.m. Tuesday and 3 a.m. Friday was 3.7, or some 3.1 million households tuned in. Fox achieved a 2.2 rating (1.5 million households). Both networks' ratings soared during primetime, when CNN averaged 4.7 and Fox 3.3. Media industry researcher Myers Reports surveyed 621 randomly selected Americans online Tuesday, asking which network they were most likely to tune to for news coverage of these unfolding events. CNN finished first, named by 34.3 percent of respondents, while Fox News was fifth at 8.5 percent.

"People all over the world know that CNN is going to be there," Eason Jordan, president of newsgathering for the CNN newsgroups said Saturday. "So CNN is held to a different standard. We have to be where the news is, in potential hot spots."

"What we were seeing was not a lot of jockeying for future position, but a bunch of news organizations trying to stay on the air and do good journalism," said Robert Thompson, head of Syracuse University's Center for the Study of Popular Television.

But the differences between CNN and Fox have become more apparent as the sense of immediate crisis has given way somewhat to watchful waiting for war, and as the broadcast networks have begun to return to regular programming.

"Fox has staked its newfound success in personality programming," notes Matthew Felling of the Center for Media and Public Affairs. That translates to comprensive news reporting, as well as anchors and reporters who can veer into commentary during their broadcasts (Shepard Smith concluded a report on people who'd consider it "un-American" to sell off stock Monday with a fervent "Let's hope so!")

It also meant two live broadcasts (up from the usual one) of Fox's wildly popular "The O'Reilly Factor" Friday night. A skilled interviewer, host Bill O'Reilly extracted several interesting details from Rudi Dekkers whose flight school two of the suspected hijackers attended as well as the man's vow to fax information on all such future applicants to the FBI. A vocal conservative commentator as well, O'Reilly also promised he'd "blast anyone" who tried to push President Bush to act prematurely.

Arguably the best-known personality at CNN, Larry King has been in his usual 9 p.m. spot. Meanwhile Aaron Brown has anchored so much coverage on a New York rooftop alongside ex-Foxer Paula Zahn that Felling predicts "Brown will be this war's Arthur Kent."

Yet to Jordan, what matters most is already being wherever the story developments are. With 30-plus international bureaus (to Fox's three), CNN was the only network in Iraq when the Gulf War started.

"And now it's 2001 and we're the only ones in Afghanistan," said Jordan, who thinks CNN's "unparalleled" international presence will pay off even more. "If we take President Bush at his word, and we certainly do, there is going to be very strong, fierce retaliation. Clearly, we're going to have more focus there."