You hear it all the time - MSNBC and Fox News. One is the opposite ideological wing of the other. The two bookend the political and ideological debate on cable television.
But is that really fair? Is it right to say that Fox is the right-wing MSNBC and visa versa?
Media experts and public opinion data indicate it is not.
Those who cover media and follow television news contend that Fox News has a clearer political bent than MSNBC, strong ties to the Republican party, and a clear conflict with the paid employment of at least five potential GOP presidential candidates.
There is also the matter of News Corp.'s recent $1 million donation to the Republican Governors Association. Add to that the leadership of Roger Ailes -- a veteran, hard-line Republican operative -- and the differences are much stronger than some would like to admit.
"Intellectually, are they more honest than Fox, I think they are," Eric Deggans, media critic for the St. Petersburg Times, said of MSNBC. "I saw that Fox was more consistent in reflecting a right wing tilt than MSNBC was in reflecting a liberal tilt. I think Fox is much more evolved in what it does than MSNBC does, in reflecting a political bent, it being right-wing."
Deggans added: "Fox seems to violate tenets of fairness more often. I have written a thousand columns criticizing Fox News, I have criticized MSNBC when I think they make mistakes or go too far. I have criticized Fox more often. I have a problem with how Fox's ideology seeps into the way they report the news, in a framework that is already tilted toward the right. That makes the product unfair."
Alex S. Jones, executive director of the Shorenstein Center on Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University, agreed.
"There is no question that the affinity between Fox and the Republican Party goes all the way to Rupert Murdoch, which in my view is not a good thing," Jones said. "One is sort of unrelentingly partisan and the other is more of an equal-opportunity basher. They are not equivalent, they are both advocacy, but not equivalent."
Jones also pointed to the recent suspensions of Keith Olbermann and Joe Scarborough for donating to political candidates, noting that Fox has a far worse record of such conflicts and no punishments.
"I think that MSNBC is right and Fox is wrong about allowing people to make campaign contributions -- that is just a bad idea," Jones said. "In my experience, the people who are the sort of signature voices of MSNBC, Maddow and Olbermann, tend to be more broadly critical and include Democrats in their criticism. They don't seem to be averse to criticize their own. That is not true with the voices of Fox News. Never a discouraging word is heard."
James Rainey, media reporter at the Los Angeles Times, said a key difference is the degree to which Fox News overlaps opinion with news.
"One of the big questions on all of these is how much the opinion stuff bleeds over into what is supposed to be news, particularly with Fox it is clear it does bleed over," he said. "Particularly if you watch Megyn Kelly. I have been severely admonished by the Fox spokespeople that there is absolutely no opinion, that they play it extremely straight during the day segment. You can watch these shows and it is clear that there is a sharp point of view on many of them. On Megyn Kelly and on Fox & Friends."
He noted Kelly's prolonged interest in the New Black Panther case of alleged voter intimidation: "There could have been some bad behavior, but it is a matter of proportion. To watch her program you would have thought this was the end of democracy as we know it."
Rainey also pointed to Ailes' impact, adding: "There is no other news operation that I know of that has a Roger Ailes in charge, someone who is steeped in political activism and political rhetoric. His philosophy pervades everything they do at Fox. If there is someone equivalent to Roger Ailes at MSNBC, I would like to see who it is."
Jeff Bercovici, a veteran media writer at Forbes, agreed that Ailes' influence is a key distinction between the networks.
"One big difference between the two of them is that there is no real Roger Ailes at MSNBC, no equivalent of him and he sets the tone at Fox and gives the marching orders. At MSNBC, their approach and ideology is emerging from trial and error."
Some research also indicates Fox News' slanted coverage and political conflicts are apparent to at least some viewers.
A report put out one year ago by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press found that Fox News was viewed as the most ideological network:
The Fox News Channel is viewed by Americans in more ideological terms than other television news networks. And while the public is evenly divided in its view of hosts of cable news programs having strong political opinions, more Fox News viewers see this as a good thing than as a bad thing.
Nearly half of Americans (47%) say they think of Fox News as "mostly conservative," 14% say it is "mostly liberal," and 24% say it is "neither in particular." Opinion about the ideological orientation of other TV news outlets is more mixed: while many view CNN and the three broadcast networks as mostly liberal, about the same percentages say they are neither in particular. However, somewhat more say MSNBC is mostly liberal than say it is neither in particular, by 36% to 27%.
The perceptions of those who regularly tune into these news networks are similar to those of the public. Nearly half (48%) of regular Fox viewers say the network is mostly conservative. About four-in-ten (41%) regular viewers of CNN describe the network as mostly liberal and 36% of regular MSNBC viewers say the same about that network.
Media experts contend that such a view is not surprising, given Fox's slanted tilt and GOP conflicts.
"Are Fox News and MSNBC the same? The short answer is no," declared Pam Fine, journalism professor at the University of Kansas and a former managing editor at The Star-Tribune in Minneapolis and The Indianapolis Star. "Fox is run by a former political operative and the company is unabashed in its support for Republican candidates ... Another important question is which organization does a better job of providing consequential reporting on events and issues? MSNBC would have to be given the edge."
Tim McGuire, Frank Russell Chair for the business of journalism at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, said the comparison is not a surprise given how viewers respond to news outlets they agree with, but made clear it is not fair.
"Certainly, you can make the argument that Fox is more outrageous about its opinion and its approach," McGuire said. "I certainly find a difference; as a news man I see a huge difference. There is no doubt that Ailes has found success."
"It's got no credibility for me at all. I simply don't turn it on," he said of Fox. "I believe it subverts anything connected with journalism. I don't believe it has presenting factual information in a comprehensive manner as its goal. Fox tips on the propaganda side most of the time."
Ed Wasserman, a journalism professor at Washington and Lee University and a veteran columnist for The Miami Herald, said he cannot understand the comparison.
"I bristle when I hear the comparisons because what I see on MSNBC is interesting and fairly honest and there is a fundamental dishonesty at Fox," he said. "Fox's approach is very reflective of contemporary conservative politics, which is changing the subject."
Kent Collins, chair of radio and television journalism at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, agreed.
"Fox is more pervasive in its political leanings, so much of its programming, the majority of it, is very clearly biased and shows favoritism for Republican and conservative ideas and positions and people," he said. "You see this not in just the obvious commentary by its key folks, but also in more subtle ways with the way headlines, teases and supers are written, particularly the crawls across the bottom."
Forbes' Bercovici said it comes down to basic factual accuracy:
"It is my rough, anecdotal sense that most of the real howlers in terms of taking liberties with the facts you see on Beck and O'Reilly. I don't recall an instance where someone called out Olbermann or Maddow and they were just making it up. I can remember that for Beck and O'Reilly."
"MSNBC has a lot of NBC News DNA and resources. MSNBC sticks closer to the facts."