MSNBC Can no Longer Claim to be a Legitimate News Network After Hiring Axelrod and Gibbs

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Ben Cohen
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Can Robert Gibbs and David Axelrod really provide neutral political analysis?

Rachel Maddow has battled long and hard at MSNBC to maintain her network is a serious, objective news network. Responding to accusations that unlike Fox, MSNBC operates within the confines of journalistic integrity, Maddow has trashed claims of equivalency between the networks. Here was Maddow on her blog in 2010 ago laying out her case:

I know everyone likes to say, "Oh, cable news, it's all the same. Fox and MSNBC -- mirror images of each other. But if you look at the long history of Fox hosts not just giving money to candidates, but actively endorsing campaigns and raising millions of dollars for politicians and political parties -- whether it's Sean Hannity orGlenn Beck or Mike Huckabee -- and you'll see that we can lay that old false equivalency to rest forever. There are multiple people being paid by Fox News to essentially run for office as Republican candidates. If you count not just their hosts but their contributors, you're looking at a significant portion of the entire Republican lineup of potential contenders for 2012.

They can do that because there's no rule against that at Fox. Their network is run as a political operation. Ours isn't. Yeah, Keith's a liberal, and so am I. But we're not a political operation -- Fox is. We're a news operation. The rules around here are part of how you know that.

Fast forward three years, and the network has just announced that it is hiring David Axelrod, the former White House senior advisor and senior strategist for President Obama's 2008 and 2012 campaigns, as a senior political analyst, alongside Robert Gibbs, Obama's White House press secretary from 2009 to 2011, then senior campaign adviser for Obama's re-election. By Maddow's own standards, Axelrod and Gibbs not only endorsed Obama and helped raise millions of dollars for him, they actually officially worked to get him into office and were hired afterwards to keep him there. This does not square with Maddow's assertion that MSNBC is "not a political operation", despite Gibbs and Axelrod's loud protests that they will be not be 'Obama surrogates' on the network (just as Karl Rove wasn't shilling for Romney on Fox throughout the Presidential election last year...).

This isn't an attack on Maddow - a commentator I have a lot of time for and takes her job extremely seriously. Maddow is no shill for the Obama administration and has repeatedly criticized him on a number of issues (drones being a recent one). But Maddow can not claim to be part of a news organization without an overt political agenda. We all know that MSNBC is a liberal media outlet (at least by American standards). All of the major hosts provide commentary from a traditional Liberal/Democrat point of view, and while it has some serious news shows, it has generally been massively supportive of the Obama administration. During the last week of the 2012 presidential campaign MSNBC took a dramatically negative tone toward Mitt Romney, with a Pew Poll finding that:

68 percent of MSNBC’s coverage of Romney was negative during from Oct. 29-Nov. 5, up from 57 percent in October. That doesn’t sound too surprising, except that Pew found 5 percent of MSNBC’s Romney coverage was positive from Oct. 1-28, while it found no positive coverage of Romney when it looked at the final week’s stories. It also found no negative coverage of Obama.

I'm sure if you looked at coverage we did here on the Banter, you'd find pretty much the same thing. The difference being 1. We admitted that we wanted Obama to get in (given the alternative) 2. We have never claimed to be a news operation. The reality is that outside of its commentary, MSNBC is supposed to cover politics objectively. And it doesn't. Bringing on board two extremely senior Obama strategists and advisers to become 'political analysts' compounds the network's identity as a giant PR wing of the Obama administration.

There is still a difference between MSNBC and Fox - but now that only reflects the difference between the Democrats and the Republican. One party is corrupt and almost entirely beholden to corporate interests, but operates within the realm of reality. The other is corrupt, entirely beholden to corporate interests and operates within a completely different universe. MSNBC still operates in a world where 2 + 2 = 4, but it should not be confused for a legitimate news network, particularly when you compare it to institutions like Al Jazeera and the BBC who would never hire the likes of Gibbs and Axelrod. It would be unthinkable that the BBC would pay a former government spokesperson to provide political commentary. While many of its programs invite politicians on for debate, they do so with the explicit understanding that they are unpaid and openly promoting a political agenda.

The hiring of Axelrod and Gibbs isn't a massive departure from independent analysis - that was never the case at MSNBC. But at least it had a veneer of independence that set it apart from the Fox propaganda machine.

Both Axelrod and Gibbs spent many years working to get Obama elected, then re-elected, specializing in perfecting the President's image with the American public through careful stagecraft and brilliant public relations strategies. To think that they'd put all that aside and neutrally observe the President going forward simply defies logic. Sure, they'll provide interesting analysis, but don't expect searing criticism on Obama's drone wars, the NDAA or his ties to Wall St.

Rachel Maddow could once claim to be working for a real news network. But with the hiring of Gibbs and Axelrod, that claim rings hollow. Now MSNBC really is Fox New's equivalent on the Left.