Home > final paper > Mark Levin uses brash commentary, compared to CNN.com

Mark Levin uses brash commentary, compared to CNN.com

Photo taken from CNN.com

When the union leader protests began at the capitol of Wisconsin in February 2011 in reaction to Republican Governor Scott Walker’s bill, it sparked a controversy across the nation that ideologically divided many, especially in the media.  The proposed bill would diminish bargaining rights for public workers and require them to pay more towards their health care and pensions in order to shrink a $3.6 billion deficit.  Among those divided are two news sources: The Mark Levin Show on the radio, a bold conservative show, and CNN.com, a more ideologically neutral source, with hints of liberal lean.  These two sources reported on the protests using very different approaches to cover the topic and differing frames to present their news that in some way are consistent with their respective political sides.  Those on the right believe the public union employees are being freeloaders and stealing from the taxpayers, while those on the left feel public union employees’ rights are being imposed on by the government.  The two stories compared in this paper were both breaking stories for both sources; CNN broke the story first on February 16th while Levin aired it the next day on February 17th.  

The Mark Levin Show‘s History and Demographics

Mark Levin is one of America’s preeminent conservative commentators with his conservative talk radio show, The Mark Levin Show. His radio show began in 2002 on Sunday afternoons on WABC.  In 2003, he obtained the competitive daily 6-8pm time slot.  Within the first 18 months, he became the number one show on the AM dial and eventually in 2009, he was given an extra hour.  In 2006, Citadel Media, formerly ABC Radio Networks, took over the syndication of the show.  Citadel Media is owned by Citadel Broadcasting Corporation, a radio-only media corporation and the third largest radio group in the U.S.

Despite its age, radio still provides pertinent information for those that seek the quaint novelty of it.  One function unique to radio broadcasting is talk radio, which in part accounts for radio’s survival today due to the genre’s popularity.  According to the textbook, news/talk/information radio programming is the second most popular radio genre, behind country music, with 10.7% listening audience and 1,553 stations nationwide (Pavlik, 153).  “Radio offers a diverse array of functions….Talk-radio provides information, debate and even limited audience interactivity with call-in shows” (Pavlik, 147).

The Mark Levin Show is the fourth most listened talk radio show in America, reaching over 6.25 million listeners as of fall 2009, based on statistics compiled by Pew Research Center in their annual report, The State of the News Media. According to this source, average listeners to talk radio are older men, in higher income brackets.  As for political orientation, the dominant group among listeners is conservative, making up 41%. 

CNN’s History and Demographics

CNN began as a cable news channel in 1980 when it was launched by the Turner Broadcasting System, and was the first 24-hour all-news network.  In 1996, TBS was acquired by the world’s largest media conglomerate Time Warner, with enterprises in film, TV, publishing, radio and the internet.

In 1995, CNN began its website CNN.com as an experiment, but its popularity grew and since the site has became an important tool for breaking news quickly.  CNN.com was ranked the fourth most used news website (including aggregators) in 2010, with a little under 21 million monthly unique visitors, according to Nielsen.

Over the years, the larger percent of CNN users have been politically affiliated towards a more liberal viewpoint.  In 2004, CNN’s viewership demographics tilted towards Democrats; 28% of Democrats were regular CNN viewers, while only 19% of Republicans were regular.  However, since 2008 during the heat of the election, CNN started to shift towards a more neutral tone, while Fox News and MSNBC became more ideologically polarized (respectively right and left).  According to The State of the News Media, “CNN fell in the ideological middle, and was the only cable channel that mirrored the tone of the media in general.”  Today’s viewer demographics tend to be more high class, the majority with a white-collar job, a college education, Internet access and a computer, and an average income of $82,000 a year, age 25-54.

Frames/sides presented

Both news sources construct their viewpoints through a distinct frame and comparing the two sheds light on the many diverse ways to gather and present the news. 

CNN, in their February 16th article, takes a much more neutral and equal approach to presenting the frame, in regards of the two sides they choose to include in the frame: the union worker’s and their concerns over their rights, against the Governor and his concern over the state budget. The article expresses both sides’ perspectives as each side sees it, and they substantiate their article with more statistics and numbers.  However, while it is true the Governor’s concerns are expressed, it is important to note the more positive attitude CNN has towards the protestors, compared to Levin.  In that respect, CNN’s approach falls more in line with the political left.

CNN utilizes certain things that vaguely place a more positive frame around the union protesters.  For example, the word choice CNN employs when referencing the union protesters seems to be more colorful and descriptive that subtly draw the focus of the frame in favor of them.  The article begins with, “Furor over a bill would strip Wisconsin public employees of…rights and have them pay dramatically more for benefits…drew protestors.”  The italicized words, while appearing to be words, have a strong subconscious effect when they are used in such a subjective manner.  “Strip” connotes a negative action against someone’s will, while “dramatically more” almost strikes pity and gives a sharp edge to the statement that grabs the readers attention.

Mark Levin delivers an extremely conservative criticism on his February 17th broadcast of the public union leaders, portraying them as radical freeloaders who have been taking from the taxpayers.  In Levin’s view, the taxpayer’s rights are the ones under attack because the union workers want to take their money.  Levin does not do as much to legitimize his position.  He does not use as many facts and sources to back up his claims and fails to address many pieces of information, but these are all part of his framework.    

Levin also uses devices that frame his reports, but he is not at all subtle about them.  He also uses an array of descriptive word choice, but to a different effect.  He wants to completely rewrite the news and tell it in his own words (compared to the subtle frames that some news organizations do).  One great example in hisFebruary 17th broadcast, he reads the Democratic legislators term “roll back the rights” of public employees.  Levin counters, “Don’t you love the way liberals phrase things?…How about, ‘save the state from defaulting?’ How about, ‘save the taxpayers from losing their homes?’”  With his pronounced word choice, he rewrites what he thinks is the main issue that creates a new frame on the topic. 

Evidence that appears in the CNN article

CNN’s article about the protests in Wisconsin includes much evidence that doesn’t appear in Mark Levin’s story.  For one thing, CNN explains many basic aspects and statistics of the bill that Mark Levin does not.  CNN mentions the actual debt of the state is $3.6 billion and that state workers would pay 12.6% of their monthly health care premiums, up from between 4% and 6%.

Secondly, the CNN article states that the Governor argued the “bill would end furloughs and prevent layoffs.”  This is something that Levin does not make mention of, which would actually be in favor of his argument for the bill.  NPR’s first breaking story of the protests on February 17th can back up this claim, stating this job security is in exchange for the other items on the bill.  CNN’s article also states,“The changes do not apply to police, firefighters and state troopers, who would continue to bargain for their benefits.”  This would be another point Levin could have made in favor of his argument.  Although Levin most likely knows the facts, it’s important for him to share them with his audience for a more legitimate viewpoint. 

The third piece of evidence that CNN provides is national frame of reference and a broader perspective.  At the end of the article, the reporter mentions California, New York and Illinois as other states dealing with budget crises that would slash programs or increase taxes.  This information is important because it provides a larger context to the issue, looking for patterns, motives or influences that explain it and allowing the user to draw broader conclusions. 

Later articles by CNN about the budget protests in Wisconsin increasingly used a more national context.  Some of these articles included similar budget battles across the country, and why the teachers of America are fighting back.  By bringing other states into the framework, CNN is showing that it’s an issue for many states and can ideally reach out to a broader audience to bring more awareness to an even that may set the stage for many more like it.

In later coverage of the topic, CNN discusses the mysterious absences of the Wisconsin Democrat legislators from the vote.  Levin also makes mention of this in a later broadcast, criticizing the Wisconsin Democrats for being cowards. 

How CNN Legitimizes its Position

CNN claims their position in the media is neutral, and one way they legitimize this is in the style of writing.  The writing consistently alternates between the two distinct points of views for equal coverage; a statement for one side is countered by another statement.  For example, the second paragraph of the article says, “Republican Gov. Scott Walker said he is dealing with a budget crisis.  Employees and unions contend his bill is an assault on worker rights.”  The article states both sides’ particular concerns in one statement, each with distinct word choice that highlights both sides’ attitudes.  Whether presented as a fact or a quote from a representative of each side, CNN presents a counterpoint to every point.

CNN also reaches out for experts from both parties involved, in order to further verify their position.  They back up their statements with a quote from an expert that can substantiate the fact.  The CNN article cites three experts on the side of the Governor and bill.  The Governor’s interview is important because he gives a voice to the private sector workers and taxpayers.  “‘[Private business] viewed what we are proposing as modest,’” said Walker.  Although they are not directly involved with the bill, the outcome of the bill will affect them; therefore, Walker’s mention of them gives the article more balance and a full scope of how all parties are involved, even third parties.The article also site four experts on the side of the protesters.  In many instances, these sources seem very vociferous, which accurately represents the heated dispositions of the union workers.  The president of AFT-Wisconsin stands up for union workers and brings light to the fact that Wisconsin is a heavily unionized state.  He represents the numbers of the union while the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees website gives an actual face to the protesters, by providing online videos of interviews with union members.  CNN presents many facets of information and experts that provide depth and dimension to each side of the issue and establish their neutral position on the topic.

How Levin Legitimizes His Position

Mark Levin has an extremely conservative viewpoint and he does nothing to hide this.  Rather, he celebrates his political affiliation and has involved himself in many Republican organizations.  Since it can be largely assumed that his listeners are conservatively affiliated too, his notoriety only gives credibility to his statements, in the mind of the audience.  He refers to his audience in the “we” form, placing himself and his audience in the same collective group, as affiliates of the conservative party.  In this manner, he does not appear to be some infamous, elite radio force, but rather he appears to be a well-educated advocate voice for his audience: many standard, middle-class Americans.  In his February 17th broadcast, for example, he says, “The only people it seems to me who have to sacrifice and share are the people who pay the bills in the private sector…us!  It’s you the protesters are after.  You, the taxpayer!”  The way Levin rants only cements his position because he is able to rally his listeners around him like a leader to his group.

Another way Levin warrants his conservative point of view is in his style of providing audio almost exclusively from people he does not agree with.  This tactic is useful to frame his story because it sets up a case he can easily argue, and by criticizing his opponents, he (representing the taxpayer audience) appears superior to them.  For example, an audio clip from the February 17th broadcast quotes union supporter Kari Bowman, who compares Wisconsin’s protests to the ones in Egypt: “They’re going to stand up and say, ‘Ok, we’re not going to take this.’”  Levin specifically selected this clip so that he could carefully prepare an attack around its particular words in order to appear sharp and dexterous.  He says, “Oh, the progressives.  They’re not going to take it?  What is it they’re not going to take?  They’re taking money out of our pockets!  You’ll take whatever we give you.”  The result is that Bowman appears narrow-minded, unaware of the effects of the issue beyond the protests, how beneficial the bill could be.  He provides other audio from teachers at the rally and bashes them too.  It’s interesting how this creates a frame because he can easily make the protesters appear ignorant and vilify them and their views.  Levin utilizes this underhanded tactic to build his argument around statements he can rebut, rather than statements that just support his viewpoint.  The result is a more legitimized position because it appears Levin is fighting to defend his position, rather than confirm it.


When comparing two ideologically opposing media sources, the differences between how they present and frame the news are many.  However, the differences are something that one might not notice on the surface because there are slight opinions given that appear subtly, especially when it comes to political ideology.  While Levin’s show is not quite as subtle in its frame, he uses unique tools to present his ideas.  His argument is built around quotes, facts and ideas that he does not agree with so that he can debate in favor of his audience and appear more legitimate in their eyes.  CNN, on the other hand, is surprisingly more moderate in the way they present their news.  While at times CNN has a slight left leaning, it’s clear that CNN’s aim is to be balanced and draws on an equal amount of information and sources from both sides.  This project helps shed light to the fact that Americans must be smart media consumers and that sometimes there is more to a topic than what is presented on the surface.   

Book Bibliography:

Pavlik, J. V., & McIntosh, S. (2011). Converging media: a new introduction to mass communication (Second ed., pp. 147-153). New York, NY: Oxford University Press, Inc.

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