All the news that's fit

Those F-16s I keep going on about (they really do keep me awake at night, I promise) are going to stop their constant patrolling over seven US cities, which has so far cost half a billion dollars. But they will continue over Washington. In the eyes of practically everyone here, and in the specific words of an MSNBC anchorwoman last Tuesday, the pilots are among those "out there fighting for our freedom". Few fully understand that their only possible role is to shoot down passenger airlines, possibly on to my house, say, to stop them being crashed into the White House, Capitol, or the like.

But that, alas, is the standard of news dissemination one gets if you rely on any of the three 24-hour news channels here. I've developed the bad habit, since 11 September, of having my TV constantly tuned in to one of them with the "mute" button as I sit at my desk, occasionally glancing up to see if anything big is happening.

Watching CNN later on last Tuesday, I saw a dramatic banner announcing "Breaking News" - but went on to see that the shock news was that "Feds Leave Interest Rates Unchanged". CNN then switched to live coverage of a dog-mauling trial in California that, for some inexplicable reason, has gripped America.

But what 11 September showed, irrevocably, is that news from the traditional three TV networks is on the way out. Thirty years ago, Walter Cronkite on CBS and David Brinkley on NBC won a staggering 75 per cent of the audience across America; today, the network news's ageing trio of Dan Rather (70, CBS), Peter Jennings (64, ABC) and Tom Brokaw (62, NBC) are as greying as their audiences, and are lucky between them to muster 23 million viewers out of a population of 288 million.

They all started their stints in 1981-82, and still command salaries of $7-10m. But when they finally go (Dan Rather, in particular, is expected to be dragged kicking and screaming out of CBS headquarters when his time comes), it is very unlikely that conventional anchormen/ women and formats will replace them.

Fewer young people (mainly 18- to 34-year-old males - the segment of the population that advertisers want most) are watching any kind of serious TV news here now, let alone reading any news-paper: that is why presidential candidates, led by Bill Clinton, now appear on channels such as MTV to reach voters.

If the young watch any TV news, it is increasingly likely to be on CNN (started in July 1981 and owned by AOL Time Warner); MSNBC (July 1996, a consortium of NBC and Microsoft); or Fox (October 1996, NewsCorp). CNN grew fat and complacent after its big successes covering the Gulf war - its technical ability to switch from Dharan to Moscow to Washington in moments was what made it such a success - but has been given the shock of its life by sudden fresh competition, in particular from Fox.

The audience of Fox News (sometimes with material from Sky thrown in) has increased by 79 per cent since January last year, while that of MSNBC increased by only 3 per cent. In January, Fox finally overtook CNN as the most watched news network and maintained its lead in February, with poor old MSNBC a distant third.

As you would expect from any operation run by Rupert Murdoch, Fox News is brash, sharp and relentlessly in-your-face. But more importantly, it is the first mainstream TV network in the US (or the UK, for that matter) to have abandoned any pretence to be politically neutral; it is so unmistakably right-wing in its reporting and choice of "experts" for comment that Washington insiders call it "GOP TV" (after the Republicans, known as the Grand Old Party) and, inside the west wing of the White House, it supplies continuous aural and visual wallpaper for the Bushite ideologues ensconced there.

Thus we will find one particularly brash, sharp-suited young man named Shepard Smith sneering at us on Fox that "Jihad Johnny [John Walker Lindh, the American from Marin County who joined the Taliban] is on his way back to the United States". American forces and the government are invariably "we" on Fox (though it is not much better on other channels); all attempts to be impartial news providers have long since gone by the board. In the brutalistic words of Roger Ailes, the former Thatcherite adviser and right-wing Murdochite bruiser who now runs Fox: "We can beat CNN with both hands tied behind our backs."

So with the old network news divisions now dying before our eyes, the US increasingly relies on MSNBC ("the best news on cable"), Fox ("the network America trusts") or the channel founded by the brilliant manic-depressive Ted Turner, CNN ("You can depend on CNN"). Thirty-six hours after the British government announced it was sending 1,700 troops to Afghanistan, a CNN man on the spot breathlessly announced "The British are coming!", gloriously oblivious of the contribution made so far by hapless British troops there. That's how much things have deteriorated here.

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