Fox News beats out the networks in viewership

NEW YORK — On an ordinary news day, CNN is like a sip of iced tea. Fox News is a gulp of Jolt Cola.

It is the favorite news source of conservative-minded viewers, but Fox’s anti-liberal sensibility is not its only draw. Even on matters as uncontested as the weather, Fox News’s heart ticks to a faster, louder beat; it is a network that presents the news with pizazz and a frisky tone. (“Back to you, guys” is how reporters in the field address the anchors in the studio.) And its top commentators express a righteous indignation — mostly at the mainstream media, Hollywood liberals and the Democratic Party — that envelops loyal viewers in a warm, cozy duvet of rage.

This has not been an angry week for the network, however. Fox News’ ratings soared during the Republican National Convention; for the first time ever, more viewers watched the convention on Fox than on ABC, CBS or NBC. On Wednesday night, more people watched Zell Miller and Dick Cheney on Fox than on ABC and CBS combined. (CNN’s ratings dipped so low it fell behind MSNBC.)

And ever since Rudolph W. Giuliani’s speech on Monday, Fox commentators have looked radiantly at home — like John McEnroe when he finally made it to the press skybox to give commentary at the U.S. Open. A smiling Shepard Smith began a question to Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts about whether he, Miller and Cheney had gone too far with their attacks on John Kerry this way: “And man, what an attack night it was!”

The Fox sensibility is most obvious in the opinion shows. Neil Cavuto interviewed Pat Boone on Thursday, and was interested in whether his support of George W. Bush and conservative causes had hurt his show business career. Boone said that indeed it had: the entertainer said that it is “in” for Hollywood celebrities to go to prison, and complained that when Robert Mitchum got out of prison after serving time on a marijuana charge, “he was bigger than ever.”

Fox’s difference from other cable networks was clearest at the beginning of the Iraq war, where it was gung-ho from the start, and then lashed out at other news organizations when the seemingly easy victory turned sour. Its choice of special correspondents, Geraldo Rivera and Oliver North, was also distinctive.

But for the most part, Fox reporters report by the book, and the convention coverage has not proved any different: Wendell Goler, the Fox News White House correspondent, reported Thursday morning about Bush’s endorsement from New York firefighters on Wednesday — he then noted that John Kerry had won the support of the national organization.

Fox anchors and commentators have more license to speak their minds, but they do not all march in lockstep. On Tuesday night, after Laura Bush and her twin daughters took the podium, Mort Kondracke, the executive editor of the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call and a Fox regular said Jenna and Barbara Bush “came off frankly as ditzes and you wonder how, you know, whether they should have been on the program at all.”

The political question of the day — did Miller go too far — was raised on Fox as much as it was on CNN and MSNBC, though, of course, most of the respondents on Fox seemed to think Miller did not go far enough.

On Wednesday Fox’s talk show host, Sean Hannity, interviewed Jack Kemp, a former presidential candidate who is now a conservative columnist.

“I think the more people know about John Kerry, the more they realize just how radical he really is, and it is not helping him,” Hannity said.

Kemp replied, “I don’t disagree. I think he is left. I don’t know if he’s radical.”

Hannity swatted away his doubts. “He’s the No. 1 liberal in the Senate, more than Ted Kennedy. That’s pretty liberal.”

Fox News has many excellent reporters and its share of scoops, but its bristly anchors sometimes recall the old joke about Claire Booth Luce’s audience with the Pope. Luce could be heard passionately lecturing her host. The Holy Father is overheard weakly protesting, “but Madam, I, too, am a Catholic.”