By Ken Tucker
February 22, 2002 at 05:00 AM EST

”Greta looks betta,” howled a headline in the New York Daily News, and I’m sure that the front-page placement of Fox News Channel’s new 10 p.m. hire Greta Van Susteren delighted her overseers, who know that the competition is getting more unseemly with every commercial break. Tweaking CNN’s now legendary, nanosecond-lived spot promoting morning anchor Paula Zahn as ”just a little sexy,” rival MSNBC is running ads for Hardball With Chris Matthews that ask whether the bellowing Matthews is ”sexy.” The ad answers itself sneeringly: ”Nah!” (This, despite the fact that Matthews tugs on his blond forelock and twinkles his eyes to disarm both in-studio guests and at-home news munchers as shamelessly as his colleague Ashleigh Banfield sprays I’m-too-sexy-for-my-horn-rims attitude all over her reportage.)

When On the Record With Greta Van Susteren made its debut on Feb. 4 at 10 p.m., MSNBC had already launched its own new 10 o’clock show, Alan Keyes Is Making Sense, starring the last presidential election’s most quixotic personality—an African-American libertarian neoconservative whose most visible campaign moment occurred when he hopped into a rock-concert mosh pit, in an effort to swing that Rage Against the Machine vote. The 10 p.m. slot is the central battleground in cable news, where the wry, quick Aaron Brown presides over an hour of astringent analysis on CNN. If in a three-way ratings tussle Brown is currently the man to beat, neither Van Susteren nor Keyes would seem to be the — to use one of Keyes’ favorite words — ”folks” to do it.

Trained as a lawyer, Van Susteren has taken literally the principle of not bringing old baggage to one’s new job: The cosmetic tightening of the skin beneath her eyes, which in turn gives a swell to her cheekbones, hasn’t altered her TV persona—that of a severe prep-school debater, complete, on her debut, with button-down yellow oxford shirt and blazer. Still, Van Susteren has already abandoned CNN-ish substance: On her opening night, she got down with colleague Geraldo Rivera, noting that the Big Mustache was reporting live from ”Osama’s old hood.” She also did shameless segments with U.S. solicitor general Ted Olson, designed primarily to elicit tears about the death of his wife, conservative commentator Barbara Olson, during the Sept. 11 attacks. Indeed, by the second night, On the Record was collapsing faster than the host’s healing face: The first story promo’d…Enron? Afghanistan? Nah: ”The search for a 7-year-old girl” who disappeared ”while her parents were home,” huffed Greta, who promised us ”the gut reaction of…the father of Polly Klaas” — the girl who was abducted and was found dead in 1993. Poor news judgment, as was Van Susteren’s ludicrous interview with Jesse Ventura regarding a musical about the governor that doesn’t have a cast, a script, or a premiere date.

Doesn’t anyone besides Fox New’s Bill O’Reilly know how to play this game? The idea is not to appear populist by plucking heartstrings but to adhere to a true contrarian philosophy—that’s what people respond to about The O’Reilly Factor; well, that and his big, manly shoulders, of course. Van Susteren strains to connect with viewers, while Keyes is so disconnected from ordinary human discourse that he has to insist he’s ”making sense” by putting the phrase in his show’s title, and each night he dons a Father Knows Best-era cardigan for a segment called ”People Just Like You,” surrounded by ordinary citizens to discuss a chosen topic.

The result, I’m afraid, makes Keyes look loony. He feigns paying attention to Robert the Vietnam vet or Elizabeth the law student, but he’s really just waiting to wrap it up by saying in his kooky, convoluted way, ”Again we have vindicated the notion that Americans face tough difficulties, but we are both smart enough and have the common sense needed to think them through and confront them with integrity.” And what does all this you-are-so-beautiful guff refer to? His trumped-up theme of the night: Is torture of suspected terrorists necessary?

That’s the most common annoyance about these shows—they inflate subtle matters of law and policy to catastrophic proportions, and then insist that their hosts are going to reveal wisdom and truth unto you, the masses, by yelling at or stroking you. Is this the future of TV news? Fox News and MSNBC would like you to think so, but even cable news’ biggest draw, O’Reilly, pulls in about 2 million viewers a night, while the supposed dinosaurs of broadcasting, like Dan Rathersaurus Rex, average more than five times that many on a typical evening. To put it in rock & roll terms, The O’Reilly Factor is to CBS Evening News what the Sex Pistols were to the Eagles: a cult phenomenon that got a lot of attention without many consumers. Perhaps, if she wants to maintain a high profile, Greta betta start rimming her new eyes inky black and acting like Courtney Love. She could rename her show Nirvana With Greta Van Susteren.
On the Record With Greta Van Susteren Grade: D; Alan Keyes Is Making Sense Grade: D