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Fox News, 1, CNN, MSNBC, White House O

March 30, 2010 |  8:25 am

Maybe it just means that anger sells. Maybe it means that television has gone niche, appealing to core audiences rather than the middle. Or maybe this really is, at heart, a conservative nation.

Whatever the reason, the trend is clear. Voted out of office in 2006 and 2008, Republicans are now the Party of Opposition. And their network of choice, Fox News, is now king.

Just-released ratings for the first quarter of 2010 show that CNN is in a precipitous free-fall, its prime-time hosts losing half their audience. Larry King, the septuagenarian who has been hosting a CNN show for 25 years, dropped from 1.34 million viewers for the first quarter of 2009 to 771,000 for the same period this year.

True, last year was all the hoopla over the inauguration of a new president. But this year saw plenty of action too -- the earthquake in Haiti, the epic battle over healthcare overhaul. Ratings on MSNBC plunged too. Conservatives are hailing the ratings news as more evidence of  a "liberal media death spiral."

Meanwhile Fox News, which broke records last year, continues to grow. Greta Van Susteren’s show was up 25%. Bill O’Reilly, whose show commands the biggest audience in prime time with 3.65 million viewers, was up 28%. And Glenn Beck, that conspiracy-fueling tinderbox for the Right? His audience was up 50% from last year.

The White House has already taken note. Last year, then-White House communications director Anita Dunn labeled Fox News "a wing of the Republican Party" and added, "They take their talking points, put them on the air; take their opposition research, put them on the air. And that's fine. But let's not pretend they're a news network the way CNN is." This year, President Obama sat for a lengthy, if contentious, interview with Fox News' Bret Baier.

O'Reilly has a theory about all this. “CNN basically stayed where they were 10 years ago, they didn’t change with the times,” he told Newsmax.com. “We live in a very intense country right now, a very difficult time. CNN doesn’t reflect that urgency.”

The standout on the Fox News lineup agrees that CNN does a great job of reporting the news. But he points out that, thanks to the Internet, most viewers already know the day's news, and are looking to cable networks for analysis and perspective.

For their part, CNN executives claim they are committed to presenting the news from a nonpartisan, neutral point of view, telling the New York Times they will not change their approach to prime-time programming.

Maybe they should reconsider.

-- Johanna Neuman

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