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The FOXification of CNBC?

Reported by Marie Therese - March 15, 2006

News Hound Editorial - A week ago or so I happened to catch a few minutes of Kudlow and Company on CNBC and was astonished to see a familiar face on the panel - Forbes Magazine Silicon Valley Editor, Quentin Hardy, a regular on FOX News' Forbes on FOX show. Host Larry Kudlow made a big deal about how this was Hardy's "first time" on his show. I remember wondering at the time if FOX was trying to cross-pollinate some of its "financial experts" in an effort to legitimize its planned (but still not executed) launch of a FOX Financial Network. This morning, however, I was brought up short, not by the guests, but by the format used during a segment of Power Lunch.

I've watched CNBC on and off for over two years, so I feel I have a pretty good sense of their style, which tends to be - like The Wall Street Journal, their print partner - very dry, very educated and generally conservative. CNBC features some excellent in-depth reporting on financial markets, trends and issues, in stark contrast to the overblown, politicized FOX financial shows which keep the financial advice to the minimum and couch everything in terms of hyperbole, "come ons" and ridiculous questions designed to elicit a visceral reaction.

Here are some (fictional) samples of FOX teasers:

"George Bush stubs his toe. Will the stock market trip and fall?"

"1200 dead in Katrina aftermath. What are the hidden opportunities for funeral homes?"

"Nuclear meltdown at Three-Mile Island. Does the China Syndrome mean good news for uranium producers?"

In addition, FOX's segment titles for their financial shows are usually pithy and almost always tabloid in nature, i.e., BUSH BOUNCE, DONKEY DISTRESS, etc.

The hosts are pushy and work from scripts and the panelists and guests are loud, opinionated and dispense very little actual financial knowledge.

The contrast between the two channels could not be more pronounced. At FOX everything centers on Bush. At CNBC everything centers on the markets, with concerns about the Bush presidency being barely on the radar screen, except in "hard news" reports.

However, yesterday morning (March 14, 2006) Power Lunch host Bill Griffeth, ordinarily a calm and serious gentleman, suddenly morphed into a clone of David Asman.

The segment started with a report on yesterday's absolutely abysmal polling numbers for the President.

But it wasn't the information imparted that got my attention. It was the style and structure of the segment.

At the top of the screen appeared the words "BUSH-PROOF ECONOMY?" - a banner straight out of Roger Ailes' FOX News playbook!

Alarmed, I immediately hit the record button on the VCR and, sure enough, four minutes later I had my answer.

CNBC has been FOXified!

Host Bill Griffeth made comments and asked questions that sounded like they'd been penned at FOX HQ. Despite a valiant attempt to exude ebullience, Mr. Griffeth failed miserably. Bombast and phony overheated excitement are not his stock in trade.

Here's a rundown of the segment. You decide if Griffeth was auditioning for David Asman's job.

Lower chyron: CNBC ALERT: Fed. Chmn. Bernanke: Long Term Rates "Currently Quite Low"

GRIFFETH: "President Bush is facing some of the lowest numbers of his Presidency this week. The latest USA Today polls from Gallup puts the President's approval rating at 36%."

GRAPHIC:
BUSH SINKS IN THE POLL
36% approval rating
Down from 37%
Matches all-time low last November

GRIFFETH: "That's down a percentage point from the last poll in November and it matches his all-time low of his Presidency from those numbers in November."

GRAPHIC:
BUSH-PROOF ECONOMY?
59% polled rate US economic conditions "very good"
Up 6% from September 2005

GRIFFETH: "Now despite these rock-bottom numbers, Americans overall are still more positive about the economy than in the past couple of months. What's goin' on here? Talkin' about the Bush-proof economy."

MOVING GRAPHIC
HOT TOPIC

GRIFFETH: "Jim Lucier is with the Prudential Equity Group and Mark Weisbrot is with the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Good to see you both. Thank you for joining us today."

CLIPS - SPLIT SCREEN
Lucier in left screen. Weisbrot in right screen.

GRIFFETH: " Jim, what do you make of this? See, ordinarily - you know, prevailing wisdom is that, if the economy is doing well - which it seems to be doing right now given the unemployment data and the growth numbers we've seen out there ..."

GRAPHIC
HOT TOPIC: BUSH-PROOF ECONOMY
All three men in separate screens, Griffeth in the middle

GRIFFETH: " ... the markets - the Dow's above 11,000 - usually, people like whoever's in the White House. Why is that not the case this time?"

The remainder of the discussion was actually quite informative. Jim Lucier of Prudential Equity was clearly pegged as the conservative while Mark Weisbrot of The Center for Economic and Policy Research guest was presented as more liberal.

Lucier adopted the position that, due the "fundamental polarization of politics" that has manifested over the past 5 years, people are judging politicians "based on values and how much they respond to the candidate." Therefore, factors like the economy have become less important. Lucier noted that "from an investor's standpoint, people look to the President to be relevant and effective in the domestic policy range and, if the President doesn't seem to be relevant and effective, investors look elsewhere."

Mark Weisbrot blamed the low poll numbers on the fact that the average American on the street has been feeling the pinch with higher energy prices, bigger health care premiums (for those who are eligible and can afford it) and, most importantly, declining wages.

LUCIER: "The U. S. economy is performing magnificently well, very powerful, above average growth for the past three years and I think people are respecting the economy for the performance it's showing. The problem there is some worry. There's some worry about Iraq. There's a worry about energy prices. There may be some residual worry about job security and globalization, but in terms of rising incomes, in terms of rising real estate values, in terms of things that people care about, the economy is great. They just don't connect the dots between the White House and the economy and that's a problem for the President right now."

GRIFFETH: "Mark, we, we have a situation here where we have a President who still has two years to go, which is a lifetime in politics, and he's still getting these kinds of ratings right now. I mean (pause) what do you make of that? I mean - what do you do here?"

WEISBROT: "Well, as Jim mentioned, a lot of it is the war. People care a lot about this war. They mostly believe we shouldn't have gotten into it. They mostly would like to see the troops come home soon and they don't - they see the situation getting worse and they don't see any end in sight. And I think that's going to weigh upon them a lot."

GRIFFETH (overtalking last sentence): "So are we all saying here that people are not voting their pocketbook right now? Is it not 'the economy, stupid,' anymore?"

WEISBROT; "Well, again, you have to remember that for the average person most you know, the vast majority of people in the United States get their income not from the stock market but from wages and salaries and here you have not seen - again, in the last two years, the average wage is actually down and they haven't seen it there. And the $5 trillion question hanging over the economy is the housing bubble. And a lot of people are worried about that. You have house prices already falling in Boston, in Washington, D.C., in Sacramento and other cities and when that breaks, I think it will be very hard for this economy to avoid a downturn."

GRIFFETH: "Jim?"

LUCIER: "I think most people see themselves as doing very well economically but Bush's approval rate has always been conditioned on getting 90, 95 percent approval from 45% of the public. Bush never really had strong support among Democrats, except during the 9-11 period. His problem now is that his core Republican Party base - the people that do benefit from dividends, from capital gains, from free market tax policies - these are the people that are leaving because they don't see the clear leadership on economic policy and they don't hear a steady, consistent message from Bush about why we're still in Iraq. I think the White House itself needs to really reorganize itself, get new management, new blood in place and try to reconnect with their Republican base ...

GRIFFETH: "Let me ask you both ..."

LUCIER: "... because the slumping numbers ..."

GRIFFETH: "Jim, what does the President have to do at this point, if it's not about the economy, what does he have to do to raise these poll ratings?"

LUCIER: "I think he needs a credible team at Treasury. I think be needs a new economic vision and he just needs to show that he's not gonna make mistakes like the Dubai port thing over and over again."

GRIFFETH: "Bearing in mind, Mark, that Congress has an even lower approval rating than the President for the most part, what does this President have to do to, to raise his, his profile and what do the Democrats have to do to try and take advantage of it? They haven't so far, at this point."

WEISBROT: "No. they really haven't. Well, I think you'll see him raise his poll ratings in the near future. What he did the last time that he fell this low is he just does a number of speeches or he does - last time he did press conferences - and what this does is he repeats his message and the media repeats it over and over and there's very little rebuttal to it and so that's enough to push him back into the forties, probably. But, the Democrats simply have to rebut and attack. They certainly have a whole series of scandals that they could, they could emphasize."

GRIFFETH: "Why aren't they, then?"

WEISBROT: "Well, you'll have to ask them. I'm not partisan, so I can't speak for the, but I think it's a huge mistake on their part."

GRIFFETH (incredulous); "You're not partisan?"

WEISBROT: "No, actually, I'm not (Griffeth smiled broadly) and the Center for Economic and Policy Research is not partisan, either."

GRIFFETH: "Jim, what's your view of why the Democrats haven't stepped up to the plate more on - as the President falters in the polls?"

LUCIER: "When 98% of all Congressional elections return the incumbent, all politics is local. The Democrats need a consistent, clear, national message and the failure by the Democratic leadership to articulate a national message is really why the Republicans are not suffering much more than they're suffering now. If you had better leadership on the Democrats side, too, I think you'd see a stronger, a stronger case for voting Democratic."

GRIFFETH: "Well, thank you for joining us today."

COMMENT

With the exception of the fact that Bill Griffeth actually allowed each guest to complete his sentences, this interview had all the hallmarks of a typical FOX segment, namely:

A host who relates everything in the segment back to George Bush;

A strong, decisive conservative guest, speaking in well-formulated, clear, precise talking points;

A knowledgeable "liberal" guest, who actually damages the Democrats by repeating a key Republican talking point, that Democrats have no message and thereby are squandering their advantage.

Is CNBC so worried about a challenge from FOX that it has decided to beard the lion in its den by imitating the FOX style in an effort to keep its affluent, albeit small, viewing audience from bolting?

Or, is there something else going on here?

Neil Cavuto is an alumnus of CNBC. Roger Ailes, Chairman and CEO of FOX News, used to be the President of CNBC. He's indicated that the FOX Financial Network will be up and running by the end of the year.

Is it possible that Ailes' acquisitive eye has focused on CNBC as a possible new home for the FOX Financial Network?

What do you all think?

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