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MSNBC and the Well-Known Liberal Media Bias

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By Bob Cesca:

Last week, Michael Calderone of The Huffington Postpublished 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.

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