"Good Morning America" it isn't. Nor is it the "Today" show or CBS's "Early Show." This is not your everyday feel-good, rise-and-shine TV show by any means.
On Fox News Channel's weekday morning show, "Fox & Friends," they start out swinging. Just after coming on the air at 7 a.m. on Monday, for example, co-hosts E.D. Hill and Brian Kilmeade were off and galloping before the coffee was cold.
Hill: "Coming up, we will tell you about the crazy things Peter Arnett is saying."
Kilmeade: "Some would say crazy. Some would say . . ."
Hill: "Some would say what?"
Kilmeade: "I'm trying to jump on the other side here."
Hill: "I don't think there is another side here. This is an American citizen who is . . . making treasonous statements. [Pause] We'll let you decide."
A little while later, fellow host Steve Doocy threw the spotlight to retired Army Col. David Hunt, who assessed the Iraqi street-fighting strategy this way: "Some of these clowns are hiding in mosques and schools." Responded Doocy confidently, "Once we punch through 'em, it's a day to Baghdad, two days."
You want nuance and ambiguity? Go watch CNN. You want subtlety? Well, there's always NPR or Matt 'n' Katie and Diane 'n' Charlie. But if you're after take-no-prisoners opinions and a lusty confidence in the American military effort, the early-morning "Fox & Friends" is your eye-opener.
There's no mistaking where Hill, Kilmeade and Doocy stand on the war. They're unabashedly behind it, and don't mind telling their growing audience exactly that. Rejecting even the pretense of journalistic detachment, they refer to American and British forces as "we," "us" and "our" so often that it almost seems as if "Fox & Friends" is itself on the front lines. During yesterday's show, Hill wore a pin with the insignia of the 3rd Infantry Division in addition to an American flag pin.
They also offer a not-too-subtle daily commentary on those who question the coalition's progress and its conduct in the war. On Wednesday, Hill weighed in as tape of a female protester being arrested played across the screen: "What's up with her hair?" she asked.
Another Fox News analyst, retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Tom McInerney, dismissed criticism of the U.S. battle plan on the same show, telling the hosts Gen. Tommy Franks, head of the U.S. Central Command, "has done a superb job. We're in the second quarter of this game and we're leading 42-0. Frankly, this has gone extremely well, and our viewers must know that."
To which Doocy chimed in, "We're bearing down on Saddam's crib."
Explains Doocy in an interview: "Our show generally reflects the mood of America. Right now there's a wave of patriotism in the country. Our show is about patriotism."
Adopting any other tone would be downright un-American, Hill says in an interview. "I understand people had different opinions before the war, and before the war I readily supported that, if they could explain why. But a lot of these protesters now are International Workers Party members and socialists. . . . If you don't support the decision to go to war, once that decision has been made, you're not being patriotic."
The with-us-or-against-us approach has helped "Fox & Friends" differentiate itself. It has also drawn viewers, pushing it far ahead of its cable news competition. "F&F" was already the top-rated show on cable among adults in its 7 to 9 a.m. time slot, with an average of 1.15 million viewers per day tuning in during the first three months of 2003. But its audience has exploded with the war. During the past two weeks, it has averaged more than 3.04 million viewers a day.
Among the programs "Fox & Friends" is steamrolling is CNN's "American Morning," hosted by Paula Zahn. Zahn left Fox News to start the CNN program nearly 19 months ago.
The audience for "Fox & Friends" has grown so large of late that it has begun to rival the broadcast networks' venerable morning shows. Its war-spiked Nielsens are now almost identical to what those of CBS's "Early Show" -- the No. 3 wake-up program -- were in the week before the war started. That's almost unheard of, considering that the broadcast networks enjoy a huge promotional advantage over cable, and are available in far more households.
"F&F's" success is all the more unlikely considering its hosts are not big-name personalities.
The 42-year-old Hill -- perhaps the most opinionated of the trio -- has the most hard-news experience as well. Before joining Fox News as an anchor five years ago, she was a reporter for "Good Morning America," and an anchor and reporter for WABC-TV in New York.
Doocy, 45, has variously been a weatherman, a children's show host, the host of a syndicated entertainment show ("House Party"), and did light features for WRC, Channel 4, in Washington in the late 1980s. Kilmeade, 38, comes from a sports background. He still pulls double duty as a Fox News sports reporter.
"We're the anti-'Today' show," says executive producer Matthew Singerman. "I don't want to do New Age segments on how to be a better person or 25 different things to do with tomatoes. We have to have opinions and banter and edge." Ideally, Singerman says, "Fox & Friends" is the TV version of a scrappy talk-radio program.
As it happens, "F&F" until recently was airing regular commentaries from Mancow Muller, a syndicated radio "shock jock." Muller was predictably outrageous on many subjects, but never more so than when talking about Paula Zahn, who defected from Fox to CNN. He was disciplined for one bit last year in which Muller pretended to hit an actor playing Zahn in the face and shouting, "I'll kill you, Paula. We will kill you, Paula."
Muller is on temporary hiatus during the war, and Singerman says the general level of irreverence on the show has been "toned down" in deference to the news.
The program's general flavor looks like a clever marketing strategy to some. "Fox & Friends" helps Fox News Channel differentiate itself from CNN, which has become a worldwide news operation, says Craig Allen, who coordinates the broadcast journalism program at Arizona State University.
"What I read into this is not so much wave-the-flag and be patriotic for its own sake, but a business decision to counter the international image of CNN," he says. "There's a big market for an America-first channel."
An America-first channel, incidentally, that is owned by an Australian company, Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.
In any case, Hill, Doocy and Kilmeade have solicited viewers to send in "patriotic" photos. They have given plugs for conservative organizations such as Free Republic.com, but none for any moderate or left-of-center outfits. Their guest list has ranged from those supportive of the war (think tankers Peter Brookes and Michael O'Hanlon) to those who are aggressively promoting it (Randy Scheunemann of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq).
Rarely is a dissenting note allowed to slip through unchallenged.
On Tuesday, Doocy criticized reports that coalition forces had killed Iraqi women and children who had approached a checkpoint in a speeding van. "Even though the rules of engagement were followed completely accurately," Doocy said, Central Command spokesman Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks was hammered by reporters. "They asked him, 'Why did they handle it that way?' "
According to witnesses to the incident, though, there was much doubt about whether the Iraqis had been adequately warned by the soldiers at the checkpoint.
When reporter David Chater, in Baghdad, told the hosts on Tuesday that he had seen civilian casualties following the city's bombardment, Hill was dubious. "Could that be the propaganda of Iraqi government?" she asked Chater. "Have you seen any evidence that what the government claims is true?"
Said Chater: "I won't stick my head in that vise. There's a war of propaganda on both sides. The [U.S.] military's briefings are very much slanted to know what they want you to know, too."
Doocy thanked him, and then pointed out that Chater had an Iraqi minder "very much in tow."
Later, Hill was incredulous about the reporters at a Central Command press briefing. "Some of those questions!" she exclaimed. "You just want to take a 2-by-4 to those guys."
And then "Fox & Friends" paused for a network promotion: "Real Journalism. Fair and Balanced."