TheDC Analysis: Unlike MSNBC’s, Fox’s Election Night coverage was fair and balanced — and watchable

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On Election Night, ABC News grabbed headlines by hiring (and later dismissing) conservative Andrew Breitbart, MSNBC stacked its Election-Night panel with opinion hosts, and CNN was busy trying to find chairs for all of its 24— yes, 24!— in-studio experts. Meanwhile, Fox’s more low-key newscast garnered the biggest ratings of the night, and praise for its balance.

Critics, including the president himself, have accused Fox News of stoking the Tea Party movement and promoting conservative candidates with tilted news coverage and opinionated prime-time hosts.

But in its Election Night coverage, Fox opted for its young news-anchor talents Bret Baier and Megyn Kelly instead of opinion hosts, leading Time’s James Poniewozik to opine:

“Fox News, for all its image as the Republican-friendly network, actually seemed to have the most reserved coverage in tone of the three big cablers, going with a more reserved set and less flashy graphics (granted, by cable news standards) than its competitors. A whiteboard was even employed…”

Credit where due, Fox also had a more, well, balanced panel than its competitor much of the night. Holding forth the left-of-center viewpoint for Fox were Juan Williams and Democratic political guru Joe Trippi. MSNBC’s main lineup, on the other hand, was basically its left-of-center lineup of nightly hosts: Keith Olbermann, Chris Matthews, Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell, along with frequent contributor Eugene Robinson. Fox News’ prime-time opinion commentators, like Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, only appeared briefly on Fox’s Election Night coverage.

A Politico story on the night’s news coverage came to the same conclusion:

“Although Fox News took the most criticism during this campaign season for its alleged bias, it was MSNBC — whose new “Lean Forward” tagline inspired CNN’s promo — that wore its point of view most on its sleeve Tuesday night.”

Nonetheless, the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank poked fun at Fox for what he called the “victory party” nature of the network’s coverage, but he was chastised by other observers for mentioning only one of Fox’s group of left-leaning Election-Night commentators, which included, in addition to Williams and Trippi, Bob Beckel, Geraldine Ferraro and Kirsten Powers, among others.

Milbank’s former colleague, media critic Howard Kurtz, was mum on Fox’s Election-Night line-up, but noted MSNBC’s lack of diversity on his Twitter feed:

“MSNBC has all-liberal election lineup right now: Olbermann, Maddow, Matthews, O’Donnell, Robinson. Pat Buchanan must have the flu.”

Even the full-time Fox critics at News Hounds blog had to concede it was “difficult, if not impossible, to take a clip and go, ‘AHA! Bias!'”

Though the New York Times didn’t comment specifically on Fox’s tone of coverage, a look at the Media Decoder blog’s live-blogging of the night provides some interesting results. For instance, around 12:30 a.m., Fox became the first network to call Nevada for Harry Reid over Tea Party favorite Sharron Angle. The blog also noted a 10 p.m. comment from panelist Brit Hume that Republicans “have not done anything to impress anybody” but “won by steadfastly opposing much of the Obama agenda, which has turned out to be, in the public’s eyes, both unsuccessful and unpopular as well.”

MSNBC and CNN both showed Tea Party favorite Christine O’Donnell’s concession speech, live, while Fox declined. Fox also cut away from the Tea Party movement’s most skilled orator, Marco Rubio, half-way through his victory speech. And, it was NBC, not Fox, that was first to project a GOP takeover of the House, at about 9 p.m.

Whatever Fox’s formula, it was a winner with viewers, who awarded the perennially highest-rated network with the highest ratings ever for a midterm election:

“[Fox] had an average of 6.96 million viewers in prime time on Tuesday, according to the Nielsen Company. That was more than double the audience for CNN, which drew an average of 2.42 million viewers Tuesday night, and more than triple that for MSNBC, at 1.94 million viewers.”

Fox recorded an average of 3.06 million viewers on Election Night in 2006, when there was a Democratic wave. Fox has grown significantly more popular since then. The audience for CNN, by contrast, fell — it had an average of 2.97 million viewers on Election Night in 2006. MSNBC’s prime-time average was almost exactly the same in 2006 and 2010.