By Chez Pazienza:
As evidenced by the one above this piece, it’s never a good idea to trust a headline. Often, what you see in the headline of a piece of journalism isn’t a fair descriptor of what you’re going to get inside the story itself. That’s because, often, headlines are written not by the people writing or reporting the stories themselves but their editors or a specific editorial department, and by and large these editors are far more interested in hooking you into reading than they are with being 100% factually accurate. A headline exists as a tease, which means that these days more than ever — particularly when it comes to stories on the internet — it’s designed basically to troll you. Unfortunately, here at The Daily Banter we don’t have a dedicated editorial department or even a staff full of willing and nubile young interns whom we can toss a few Quizno’s coupons at in exchange for writing headlines for us — although I’ve been working on Ben to secure AmEx Corporate Black Cards for us that we can use for high-priced escorts, Aston Martin Vantage rentals and of course to cut the giant rails of the good blow he traffics in from Bolivia on his private jet — and so that means we’re forced to write them ourselves. So, if we’re trolling you with a headline — it’s really one of us trolling you.
I bring this up because the headline for Bob Cesca’s column from a couple of days ago really caught my eye, which I have to assume it was designed to. It read, “There Is No Pro-Obama Bias at MSNBC.” At first I figured, as I said, that Bob was just going for the attention-grab. But once I started reading the piece I quickly realized that, no, he really did intend to make the argument that MSNBC isn’t biased in favor of President Obama; he wasn’t just trying to get me to spend a few minutes cleaning coffee off the screen of my laptop.
Bob and I actually talked about this a little on our podcast last week and I certainly understand his basic premise: a recent Pew study claims that during the final lead-up to the election, MSNBC didn’t do one negative story about Obama and Bob takes issue with that. His main argument is that the study is flawed because it doesn’t clearly define what a “story” is and because the survey, for perplexing reasons, didn’t bother to factor in the three-hour-a-day block of often right-wing and faux-centrist hackiness that is Morning Joe. Admittedly, these are fine points worth considering, but neither negates the obvious, the thing that makes that one headline so jaw-dropping: Holy hell, of course there’s pro-Obama bias at MSNBC. With all due respect to my friend and fellow heavy drinker Bob, to bluntly state otherwise borders on fucking delusional.
The question isn’t whether MSNBC as an institution tends to favor the president and the Democratic/liberal point of view, it’s how it does it and the ways in which it manifests itself. The fashionable, and most obvious, thing to do when it comes to examining MSNBC is to compare it to Fox News, which many argue it’s become the left-leaning version of. No, MSNBC is no Fox News; there are several important distinctions that make Fox as noxious and devoid of journalistic substance as it is. First of all, there’s an institutional mechanism in place at Fox that’s designed to push a conservative and Republican agenda at all times and it begins with a set of talking points created at the very top of the management food chain and trickling down from there, infecting everything. MSNBC may foment a left-leaning viewpoint and give its hired hosts room to be as liberal as they want without being hauled into the corner offices, but Phil Griffin doesn’t wake up every morning and draft a coverage plan dictating what political positions his producers and talent should take.
Meanwhile, Fox not only hires directly from the Republican politician pool, it often supports candidates through regular appearances on its programming while also promoting “astroturf” causes like the Tea Party, whose rallies it helped organize and to which it dedicated an enormous amount of positive coverage.
There are quite a few more examples, but maybe the best and most undeniable illustration of what Fox News is all about was brought to light just a couple of days ago. On Monday, The Washington Post reported that during a Fox interview with David Petraeus in 2011, Roger Ailes had a contributor take a personal message to the general: run for president as a Republican and not only will the network support you but Rupert Murdoch will personally be involved in bankrolling your campaign. What this proves, conclusively — as if we needed more of this sort of thing — is that Fox News isn’t your average news outlet; it’s strictly an arm of the Republican party. As, ironically, Rachel Maddow on MSNBC said in response to the story, there’s nothing particularly wrong with being a propaganda bullhorn for the GOP, but there is when you call yourself news, and that’s always been the biggest problem with Fox News: it casts itself as legitimately unbiased news when in reality it’s anything but.
I bring up Maddow because she actually does stand as an example of what sets MSNBC apart from Fox. MSNBC basically hires liberal talent and allows them to do their shows their way without too much interference. (Although if you believe Cenk Uygur, that’s not entirely true, which as far as I’m concerned is unsurprising simply because the network does still have to answer to the NBC mothership; MS can lean left but if it goes too far left, NBC will have to yank the reins in an effort to be able to continue playing the centrist card in the name of often phony objectivity.) People like Maddow, O’Donnell, Hayes and Harris-Perry aren’t told what to do, but MSNBC knows what they’re going to do: they’re going to largely, though not always, lean in favor of President Obama, or at the very least want to give him the benefit of the doubt. Yes, unlike many on Fox — with a few rare exceptions — they’ll openly criticize a president whose politics mostly align with theirs when they feel it’s warranted because they aren’t ordered not to, but overall they accept that the Obama administration is on their side and so they often sing its praises. They’re fairer than Fox, certainly, and they rely on facts in ways their counterparts at Fox don’t at all, but MSNBC knew when it hired them that they leaned left, hence you get, yes, a pro-Obama bias at MSNBC.
MSNBC also hired at least a few people who it knew would almost never deviate from a slavish support for Obama — people like the insufferable Al Sharpton, the comically bellicose Ed Schultz and the opportunistically obsequious Martin Bashir. MS doesn’t get plausible deniability just because it doesn’t order these people to say exactly what it knew they were going to say when it brought them on board. True, MS offers genuinely smart counterpoints to its generally left-leaning sensibilities — unlike Fox, whose token liberal guests are always little more than tomato cans designed to confirm its audience’s worst preconceptions about the left — but it knows which side its bread is buttered on. By being a network that largely — not always, but largely — supports the Obama administration, at best fairly highlighting its achievements and at worst, again, giving it the benefit of the doubt, it’s carved out a niche for itself in cable news that’s both successful and highly profitable.
There is a pro-Obama bias at MSNBC. The bias isn’t as institutional as we’ve seen at Fox News and because of that not every single person or show is on board since it’s not expected to be — but it exists in a letting-nature-take-its-course kind of way. The thing is, at least MSNBC admits its leanings. Which immediately puts it leaps and bounds above the network it’s so often compared to these days.
By the way, if you read the original Bob pieces that spawned this one — or the Ben pieces that followed up on them — you know that Glenn Greenwald plays a role in all this hand-wringing over MSNBC and its political leanings. Why didn’t I bother to bring Greenwald up in detail? Because fuck him, that’s why.