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Views-led news sparks identity crisis

Emily Bell

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guardian.co.uk
7 January 2011

From Oprah Winfrey to Glenn Beck, left and right are exploiting opinionated output – and now Piers Morgan enters the fray




Piers Morgan discusses his CNN show Here comes Piers ... is the US ready for Morgan's CNN show? Photograph: John Shearer/WireImage.com


There has always been a market for opinionated performance in the US that goes beyond what the temperate would describe as rational. The Jimmy Swaggart-style televangelists might have disappeared from the peripheral vision of the mainstream, but first the "shock jocks" and now mainstream news channels have replaced them in terms of expressions of extremity.

This week the rather constrained circle of New York-based liberal media executives and commentators were stunned when one formerly of their number, Betsy Morgan, former chief executive of the Huffington Post, was unveiled as the new president of ultra conservative Glenn Beck's web operation The Blaze. In a UK context this would be a little like the chief executive of the Guardian going to run TalkSport, although this is an inadequate analogy because really nothing quite like Glenn Beck exists in the UK.

Beck, for those unfamiliar with his work, is one of the US's top radio show hosts, has a thriving "live events" business, has published books, and most famously, through his Fox News show, became a mentor of the anti-taxation Tea Party movement. Morgan's move has surprised those who know her, but the interesting aspect of the story is not so much the personal, but more the commercial.

Morgan, who claims to be "apolitical", says she is fascinated by the potential of brands – and, in the US media, Beck is one of the biggest. The fact that he rants about parallels between the Obama administration and the Third Reich and urges citizens to reclaim US history, in a barely veiled racist narrative, is apparently no longer a bar to raising significant revenues through advertising and subscription.

By hiring Morgan (and also hiring a former HR director of the HuffPo), Beck is clearly imagining The Blaze as a significant media property, which hangs from his own personal brand; somewhat the reverse of the model espoused by Arianna Huffington. Beck's model of entrepreneurial personality-based journalism is one way we can see the fracturing media landscape being remodelled in the US.

Oprah Winfrey, the queen of this type of entrepreneurship, launched her Oprah Winfrey Network cable channel at the beginning of the new year. Winfrey's marketability to advertisers has long been a cornerstone of the US TV schedule, but the idea that highly opinionated broadcasts from right (Fox News) or left (MSNBC) are attractive to advertisers is relatively new.

This commercial viability and popular appeal of views-led news is creating something of an identity crisis at the heart of US journalism. At the same time the Beck hirings were causing much skimmed latte to be spat across keyboards in midtown Manhattan, America's nearest BBC radio equivalent, NPR, was sharing more public pain in the aftermath of its controversial sacking of NPR commentator Juan Williams last year. NPR's senior vice-president Ellen Weiss resigned on the same day that an independent inquiry into the affair found fault with the process, if not the legality, of the dismissal.

Williams had expressed views on a Fox News show that had caused his rather exasperated bosses to summarily dismiss him. Stripped of context, the nub of Williams's quote was that he felt, irrationally, somewhat nervous when he got on a plane with someone in Muslim dress. Insiders at NPR say it was the last straw for an exasperated management who had ongoing concerns about Williams, his brand of analysis and his appearances on other networks.

But the issue it caused most public debate around was that of where organisations draw the line in terms of personal opinion bleeding into the impartial analysis which for so long has been the bedrock of establishment American journalism. Exacerbated by the "always on" nature of journalists in a social media-led digital age, this idea of what is public, personal and private and how much of this needs to be shared with the audience is now a key debate for all US news organisations.

And so with impeccable timing, Piers Morgan enters the fray, with his CNN show beginning on 17 January, complete with his splenetic tweeting on his love of Arsenal, dislike of Alan Sugar and support for student demonstrations. The liberal media might be horrified by the success of Beck, but they are as anxious to emulate as to condemn.

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