In Search of Reality
Monday, October 27, 2008; 12:37 PM
On Fox News last week, Sean Hannity said he was tempted to ask Barack Obama: "Where did you buy your cocaine, how much cocaine? How much cocaine did you use? How often did you use it? When did you stop?"
On the same Monday night, Keith Olbermann said on MSNBC that John McCain had a responsibility "to say 'enough' to Republican smears without end" and not be "party to a campaign that devolves into hatred and prejudice and divisiveness."
Are these guys watching the same presidential race, or even living in the same country?
Obama recently questioned whether voters are "seeing two different realities, a Sean Hannity reality and a Keith Olbermann reality." He went on to tell the New York Times Magazine that he is "portrayed 24-7" on Fox News "as a freak." McCain recently joked that Olbermann belongs in a "padded room," and his campaign has denounced MSNBC as a Democratic Party organ.
Hyperbole aside, the Democratic nominee has a point. Prime-time viewers of Fox News and MSNBC get vastly different perspectives on the campaign that sometimes approach mirror images. This goes well beyond the hosts' political views to the booking of guests and the way stories are framed, pumped up and sometimes ignored. In that sense, the programs reflect the increasing polarization of the media world, where columnists, strategists, bloggers and radio talkers have built thriving careers catering to those who already agree with them.
As high-profile hosts adored by fans and derided by critics, Hannity and Olbermann provide a case study in the power of ideological punditry.
Olbermann, who frequently rips Hannity and Fox, said by e-mail: "There is no Sean Hannity reality," and boasted that his 8 p.m. show twice finished first in cable news in the coveted 25-to-54 demo last week. (Even so, the show finishes far behind "The O'Reilly Factor" in total viewers.) Hannity generally ignores Olbermann on his 9 p.m. program, which finishes first among cable news shows, and Fox Senior Vice President Bill Shine says the views of Hannity and liberal co-host Alan Colmes are no secret.
"We try very, very hard to keep it fair and keep it balanced," Shine says. Hannity "is balanced out every night by Alan and by other guests."
They are a study in contrasts: Olbermann specializes in satire and irony, while Hannity favors bluntness and repetition. But their sympathies are unmistakable. In the past two weeks, while defending McCain, Hannity has said of Obama:
· "Obama, when given an opportunity to cut taxes, he raised them 94 times."