I’ll make this quick because it’s Friday and I have no desire to work late tonight.
MSNBC’s heading faster and faster down a dangerous road and it needs to put the brakes on. Now.
For a couple of years now the network has been fielding accusations of being the liberal answer to Fox News and for a couple of years now I’ve defended it as being nothing of the sort. While Fox News has had a top-down political mandate from the start, one that’s not only allowed to but is expected to directly impact every single facet of its coverage, MSNBC has always been in a more precarious position journalistically. That’s because MS has always had to answer to the NBC News mothership, which is insistent on balance and objectivity to a fault. NBC is so dedicated to the notion of non-bias that it will proudly behave as if all political stories have two equal sides, essentially turning its journalists into little more than stenographers dutifully reporting the conventional wisdom from whichever side of the aisle they happen to be assigned to — and MSNBC had to at least nominally toe that company line because not to would hurt NBC News’s reputation as a whole.
Yes, there were a lot of programs on MSNBC that leaned left, particularly in the prime time opinion block, but the shows were basically hosted by progressives who provided a leftward slant rather than having that leftward slant dictated to them from on-high.
But lately a lot has changed at MS. The dayside block of shows, which for the most part used to consist of well-balanced, straightforward news, has now had a giant pile of pure left-leaning provocation dropped right in the middle of it in the form of Alex Wagner’s daily troll-fest, Now. Then a couple of weeks ago it was announced that the network was bringing Robert Gibbs and David Axelrod aboard as paid contributors, essentially throwing any illusion of fairness right out the 3rd floor window of 30 Rock. For the record, no news organization anywhere should employ any member or former member of a sitting president’s administration. That’s journalism 101. Finally, a couple of nights ago MS seemed to go fully down the rabbit hole by either mocking for a scant few seconds or entirely ignoring Rand Paul’s 13-hour filibuster over the nomination of John Brennan as CIA chief.
Look, Paul’s a self-righteous little turd and his filibuster wasn’t much more than a grandiose publicity stunt aimed at improving his Q-Score and grabbing tightly onto an anti-Obama issue that might actually have legs, rather than the usual right-wing cacophony of made-up nonsense. But that said, the filibuster deserved coverage. O’Donnell gave it a few minutes and Maddow, predictably, was all about due diligence but for the most part everyone else pretended it wasn’t happening. For 13 hours. That’s the kind of crap Fox News pulls when someone not on its side makes news that can’t instantly be painted as bad for the country. Perfect example: Just recently Fox hyped the hell out of the Robert Menendez Dominican prostitute “scandal” but when the whole thing fell apart it ignored it completely, not even bothering to inform its audience that the initial report was horseshit. That kind of thing isn’t simply bad journalism, it’s bad for the country because it reinforces, more and more and more, each side’s epistemic bubble. The job of a news outlet is to provide an unflinching look at the stories of the day and to broadcast or report only echo chamber items is a gross dereliction of duty.
MSNBC still tops Fox News in that it relies much more heavily on facts and independent reasoning than its nemesis. Its stable of conservative personalities is also far more robust than the typically ineffectual tomato cans Fox trots out as red meat for its right-wing prize fighters. But it’s becoming increasingly hard to defend MSNBC as being something other than what its critics have long called it: the liberal Fox News.
And that’s really depressing.
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.
Last week, Michael Calderone of The Huffington Post published an extensive item on MSNBC’s alleged pro-Obama, pro-Democratic Party bias, as well as network president Phil Griffin’s defensiveness about the conventional wisdom’s perception of his programming.
I don’t have any qualms with Calderone’s reporting or the article itself, but the observations he collected were indicative of a chronic and unfair view of MSNBC. Make no mistake, the network has its problems, but a liberal (or Democratic) bias isn’t one of them.
As fellow liberals have discussed for years, the entire notion of a liberal media bias is a joke. The news media, and especially cable news, is exceedingly deferential to Republicans and is, in fact, predominantly owned by Republicans.
The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism published a bizarre and misleading report about the cable news coverage of the presidential election. This study was the centerpiece of Calderone’s article.
The most alarming determination in the report was that during the final week of the election, 51 percent of MSNBC news stories about President Obama had a positive tone, while none of the network’s Obama stories were negative. Concurrently, zero percent of the network’s stories about Mitt Romney were positive, and 68 percent were negative. Meanwhile, Fox News Channel’s stories about Obama were only 5 percent positive and 56 percent negative. Fox News’ Romney coverage was 42 percent positive and 11 percent negative.
Needless to say, there are numerous flaws in both the study and the subsequent reactions.
First, what constitutes a “story?” Pew doesn’t say whether a story is a hard-news item delivered by a non-opinion-based anchor, or if it’s a segment hosted by one of the various pundits on each network. Pew’s study appears to have covered all shows from midday through prime time, so we’re left to assume that a “story” by Pew’s definition includes pundit-hosted segments, which case, the results are absolutely going to be skewed because we’re talking about two networks that are half anchored news and half opinion shows.
Speaking of which, MSNBC doesn’t hide the biases of its opinion hosts — unlike Fox News, which continues to hilariously lurk under the banner of “fair and balanced.” Bias is only really an issue when it creeps across that zero barrier from opinion into news. That’s why Fox News is such an atrocity. The entire network, from its hard news to, obviously, its opinion shows are driven by a pro-conservative, pro-Republican agenda. Robert Greenwald and others learned via secret memos and insider testimonials that Fox News deliberately chooses news stories that are favorable to Republicans, even if the reporting sounds even-handed. Though they often toss in bogus reporting with their “some are saying” qualifier. And on its opinion shows, Fox News routinely chooses liberal guests who confirm conservative stereotypes about liberals — awkward, ill-informed, weak and obnoxious (see Bob Beckel, for example). MSNBC’s opinion shows, on the other hand, invariably feature respectable conservatives like David Frum, Mark McKinnon and Steve Schmidt.
Okay, so what exactly happened during that final week of the election? Calderone noted that MSNBC didn’t cover Afghanistan, predator drone attacks, or the president’s alleged abuse of executive power. For better or worse, though, news cycles are hardly ever all-inclusive and generally focus on several revolving news items. In a week that was dominated by coverage of Hurricane Sandy, I’m not exactly sure what would prompt a hard news item or pundit segment on drones unless there was a drone-specific event that occurred.
Next, what constitutes a positive or negative story? And are they deliberately positive or negative?
Regarding Hurricane Sandy, the horrible reality of the storm happened to have presented an exceedingly positive news cycle for the president. Not only was Chris Christie popping up on every network praising the president’s leadership, but I don’t recall any obvious missteps in the administration’s response. Just because Fox News seems to have aired many negative stories about the president doesn’t make it so, especially as they continued to desperately seek a conspiracy in the attack on the consulate in Benghazi. Plus Fox News has been know to totally fabricate the news, which is to say they, you know, make it up.
If there’s a major crisis like the storm and the flooding of New York, and the president shows himself to be a strong leader in the process, the inherent factual positivity doesn’t constitute a pro-Obama bias. Likewise, the hurricane happened to be very negative for Mitt Romney. It hurt his chances for victory by the very fact that Obama received a polling bump due to the administration’s response. The storm also prompted another awkward reaction from Romney: his staged Ohio “food drive,” which was not unlike his bungled response to the Benghazi attack. And in terms of polling, the president’s numbers were climbing during that week. Should MSNBC have suddenly ignored the polls or reported the opposite? Of course not. Wait. On second thought, during the last week of the campaign, they did. Joe Scarborough referred to Nate Silver as an “ideologue” and a “joke,” while describing the election as neck-and-neck in spite of numerous polling averages that showed the president with a significant chance of victory.
I also mention this because it brings up another curious flaw in Pew’s study. They didn’t include morning programming and, as we all know, Scarborough is a conservative and his show airs for a full three hours — more than any other host on the network. Over on Fox News, the ridiculous Fox & Friends morning show is also decidedly conservative, while also being totally divorced from reality and intellectual honesty. (To be fair, Scarborough’s show is leaps and bounds better than Fox & Friends on its best day and there’s no comparison between the shows, other than a broad-stroke ideological one.)
But what if Pew had included the morning shows? Obviously, there would’ve been more MSNBC “stories” (opinion segments or whatever) that were negative for Obama and positive for Romney. The result would’ve been that MSNBC would’ve appeared less biased in favor of Obama, while Fox News would’ve appeared even more biased against him. I wonder why Pew chose to ignore mornings — the block of programming hosted by a pro-torture, anti-choice, pro-Reaganomics conservative.
Back to the Calderone article. It came as no surprise that the harshest critic of MSNBC was self-identified progressive Glenn Greenwald.
Greenwald told Calderone, “If the Democratic National Committee were to own a network and produce news programming designed to promote the party, it would look exactly like what MSNBC has become.”
It shouldn’t come as any surprise that Greenwald echoed typically right-wing attacks against MSNBC, probably because the network doesn’t align with his narrow priorities and view of the Obama presidency — a view that’s obsessively focused on a few specific foreign policy issue areas, namely the aforementioned drones, along with indefinite detention and national security whistle-blowers. Yet Rachel Maddow and Chris Hayes have both covered those stories on their respective shows. Greenwald noted that Maddow only rarely criticizes Democrats anymore. But just because Maddow doesn’t always cover the same three things that Greenwald writes about every day with his exact same ferocity and tenacity doesn’t mean she’s ignored the flaws of the Democratic Party. But of course Greenwald is going to say these things because it’s part of his agenda to shame anyone who dares to report on something — anything — positive about the Obama presidency. And having watched Maddow since she first appeared on MSNBC, I can tell you that she’s the most intellectually honest, the most insightful and the most empirical of any cable news host — possibly ever. If the administration does something wrong, Maddow usually covers it. If the president does something correctly, Maddow covers that, too, with an equal and opposite reaction.
If there’s one thing about Democrats and liberals, we each have our own agenda and it’s rarely if ever in lockstep with the party, contra-GOP which is lockstep on everything. Sure, there are at least two MSNBC shows that should’ve been canceled a long time ago — not because they’re biased (of course they are, and they don’t hide it), but because they suck and lack any real insight. As for the rest of the network’s hosts and anchors, is Andrea Mitchell a shill for the Democratic Party? Not in the slightest. What about Melissa Harris-Perry? Lawrence O’Donnell? They’re both independent-minded intellectuals more than anything.
What about David Gregory? Chuck Todd? Mark Halperin? Ask any liberal and they’ll hasten to tell you that the Gregory/Todd/Halperin trifecta is nothing less than insufferable, not to mention the fact that they always appear desperate to overcompensate for the liberal media bias fallacy by paying extra deference to Republicans. In fact, this self-conscious overcompensation for the liberal bias attack is rampant at MSNBC, as well as NBC News in general. They bend over backwards to avoid the bias label, and they often elevate Republican nonsense in the process. If there’s any reprehensible bias at MSNBC, it’s the bias towards the “both sides” meme — the notion that there’s an equal and opposite view on every issue. Greenwald knows this. Everyone knows this. Fabricated balance is far worse than having an ideological agenda — and it’s definitely worse than when TV hosts don’t cover your pet issues — because it mandates the elevation of unequal culpability (if Republicans are racist, then there has to be a mention of Democratic racists, even though there are exponentially more Republican racists), junk opinions, junk science and fringe politics for the sake of balance.
Ultimately, though, so what if there’s a progressive cable news network? As long as news outlets are forthright about their biases, people will know what they’ll be hearing. And, historically, news organizations have always had an opinion-page bias in one direction or another. Every city used to have a liberal rag and conservative one. This is merely an extension of that tradition. To repeat: as long as the bias doesn’t bleed into hard news reporting, and as long as opinions are based on well-researched empirical facts, what’s the issue here? As it stands, conservatives own all of AM talk radio and the highest rated cable news network, which, by the way, makes it a policy to blur the line between news and opinion. Shouldn’t there be a counterpoint to that dominance? And if there is, it stands to reason that a liberal Democratic president might not be as criticized as what you might hear on AM radio or Fox News. At the same time, what’s the point of having a liberal network if it’s constantly undermining and demonizing the liberal political party based on three or four issues that Glenn Greenwald says should have priority over deeply personal ones like health care, racial equality, reproductive rights, education and the economic recovery from the Great Recession?
Yes, MSNBC, please criticize the president when he deserves it, but don’t seek out random criticism simply because Glenn Greenwald and others hectored you into it. To do so would only serve as an extension of the awful and dishonest “both sides” meme, but, in this case, both sides of the left: the Obama wing and the Greenwald wing.
I certainly hope that Phil Griffin doesn’t reflexively alter MSNBC’s approach because of the Pew study. Regardless of its flaws, MSNBC is an important player in the cable news scene, and there are many upsides amidst the insufferable “both sides” programming and horserace coverage. Stephen Colbert coined the maxim: “Reality has a well-known liberal bias.” And MSNBC’s job is to present and debate it, especially while Fox News exists.
The Daily Banter Mail Bag!! Romney and Congress, Presidential Veggies, and Honey Boo Boo Retribution!!
Welcome to this week’s edition of The Daily Banter Mailbag! Today, Bob, Ben and Chez discuss the party balance in Congress, which food products to vote for, and retribution for a forced viewing of Honey Boo Boo.
Rachel Maddow had an interesting piece on her show Wednesday night about how Romney’s fundraiser comments could affect or damage close Congressional races. She also noted a number of Republicans who are trying to distance themselves from Romney almost like Republicans tried to distance themselves after that bonehead Akin made his “legitimate rape” comment. Do you see Romney’s “47%” comments having an effect on state races?
Ben: I think Romney’s comments will negatively affect the entire conservative movement if you ask me. The GOP hasn’t distanced itself from Romney’s comments enough so there will be a significant guilt-through-association effect. Plus it’s now become clear that that’s what the Republican Party thinks about poor people anyway – Romney was just saying it out loud. It’s hard to really assess just how seriously Romney has damaged his own campaign and the conservative movement, but lets put it this way – there’s nothing the Obama camp or anyone else could have dreamed of that would have been.
Chez: He definitely put a lot of Republicans in a tough position. They can’t exactly disown him but at least a few of them seem to be straddling a fine line and distancing themselves from what he said. The Romney campaign is certainly so inept, and it’s proven that it’s beholden to and working for only the very rich — which most voters aren’t — that I can understand the feeling by a lot of congressional candidates that they need to run their own campaigns independent of anything having to do with Romney. The overall Romney effect could definitely have an impact on the House and Senate. That said, I think that while what Romney said was boneheaded and offensive and should theoretically end his candidacy in a giant explosion of shame, once we get out of this news cycle — and onto the next one Romney will find a way to embarrass himself in — and if you remove yourself from the objective news outlets and think of only how this is all being portrayed on Fox, he’ll be fine with a lot of Republican and right-leaning voters.
Bob: It’s the 47% remarks along with the broader context of a failing campaign due to an ongoing series of mistakes. Voters are losing confidence in the Republican Party’s ability to not only be consistent but, in fact, serious. Romney represents a generally scattered and spastic party — he’s the perfect candidate to underscore what’s wrong with the GOP. If the GOP loses the house and gains nothing in the Senate, everyone will blame Romney, but it’s really all about the Republicans in general.
If President Obama, Vice-President Biden, Mitt Romney, and Paul Ryan were food, what food would each one be and why do you think so?
Bob: The president would be something from “Chopped” — a mix of random ingredients forming a kick ass dish that’s both clever and smart, with a hint of food poisoning danger in there because, well, you know, drones. Joe Biden is a Denny’s Grand Slam with a Dr. Pepper. Literally. Mitt Romney is whatever the hell he needs to be from second to second. One minute he’s a hot pepper, the next minute he’s a replicated food pellet from the Borg hive. There’s no way of knowing.
Ben: Hmmm. Bizarre question, but an interesting one! Here’s my take: Obama would be some sort of eclectic fusion dish you’d find in a hip restaurant (think spicy chicken, Asian glass noodles and a basil dressing) reflecting his multi cutural roots, Biden would be spaghetti carbonara – boring but predictably decent tasting, Romney a stale loaf of bread (no need to elaborate here), and Ryan an appetizing looking steak from somewhere near Fukushima….
Chez: Obama would be a cucumber, because he’s cool and, as Mrs. Marion Wormer said so eloquently in “Animal House,” it’s very sensual. Biden’s a vegetable but for different reasons. Romney would be a waffle, obviously. Or maybe a McRib sandwich since I guarantee you that fucker only comes once a year and when he does it’s a big deal and he never shuts up about it. Ryan would be a giant cock. You say that’s not food? You’ve obviously never seen a Sasha Grey video. On the other hand, Romney and Ryan together can both be crackers.
Let’s just a say friend’s wife made him watch an entire episode of Honey Boo Boo against his wishes. What should the consequences be? Divorce? Free weekend pass? On-demand BJ’s?
Chez: Two words: Drew Peterson.
Bob: Hey, suck it up. There’s no harm in witnessing how fucked up the middle west of America is. Pretend you’re Jane Goodall or something. Take notes. Study it. Unless we’re aware of these problems and, thus, know how to squelch them, they’ll grow like viruses — really fat, stupid viruses.
Ben: I’ve only seen clips of Honey Boo Boo, but judging from the 60 seconds or so that I’ve seen, I’d say it was immediate grounds for divorce. An ex used to make me watch ‘Project Runway’ that often left me on the verge of suicide, and stupidly I didn’t negotiate compensation. Honey Boo Boo is on a completely different level however, and I can’t think of any compensation that would make up for the torturous hour.
Got a question for the mailbag? Email us at TheDailyBanter@gmail.com!!!