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There Is No Pro-Obama Bias on MSNBC

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By Bob Cesca:

Glenn Greenwald wrote a response to the Michael Calderone Huffington Post article from last week about MSNBC's so-called "pro-Obama bias." (My response to the Calderone piece is located here, and here's Ben Cohen's excellent response to the Greenwald piece.)

Predictably, this new Greenwald rant is a continuation of his ongoing crusade to badger progressives who don't make it part of their daily routine to screech at the president regarding Greenwald's preordained three or four pet issues. Greenwald operates under the mandate that because drones are his primary concern and the prism through which he evaluates the president, so it should be with everyone else. The slightest deviation from that narrative in lieu of delivering news of a presidential success is a punishment-worthy trespass.

But of course, with regards to the alleged pro-Obama bias of MSNBC and the progressive media, he misses several major points.

First, what is the "progressive media?" I assume he's talking about MSNBC, because his lede specifically references the cable news network. But he might also be talking about progressive writers from other networks and publications. We don't know.

Second, as with Calderone, he accepted the results of the Pew study at face value instead of realizing its major flaws. Rewinding momentarily, the Pew study of the press and social media coverage of the last week of the presidential campaign showed that MSNBC didn't carry a single "story" that was negative about the president. As I wrote last week, I don't know what that really means. What does Pew consider to be a "story?" A hard news blurb? A pundit segment? We don't know. The Pew methodology was unclear on this. Likewise, what's considered a "favorable" pro-Obama story/segment/whatever? Is it flagrant praise -- an atta' boy to the president, or a news item in which the president legitimately achieved something, be it his leadership during the hurricane that week, or his increasingly positive poll numbers? We don't know that either.

And why didn't Pew include the morning shows when there's a conservative host with frequently conservative guests on MSNBC, the inclusion of which would've made MSNBC appear less pro-Obama, while the inclusion of Fox & Friends would've made Fox News appear more anti-Obama? Again, between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m., MSNBC is occupied by the pro-torture Reagan/Gingrich acolyte Joe Scarborough. The 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. hour is hosted by Chuck Todd, who's a "both sides" horserace villager. From 10 a.m. to 11 a.m., there's Chris Jansing who's more of a news anchor without any political agenda. Cutting to the chase, the first partisan left-wing pundit show airs at Noon with host Alex Wagner -- coincidentally the hour at which Pew began its tally.

But naturally, as I wrote last week, if there are left-leaning hosts on the MSNBC opinion shows, then it stands to reason there will appear to be a bias in favor of the left-leaning president. In this case, I suspect it's more a matter of circumstance than a mission statement (Greenwald's accurate mention of Sharpton notwithstanding). If Greenwald thinks Maddow or Hayes or O'Donnell have chosen to ignore mistakes by the president in pursuit of a pro-Obama agenda, I suggest Greenwald take it up with those hosts personally. My hunch, however, is that he won't because they'd rapidly prove him wrong.

All told, the notion of a pro-Obama bias in the press is hilariously nonexistent. Let's run some numbers. If we set aside the print press and list all of the cable news shows on Fox News, MSNBC, CNN, CNBC, Headline News and Fox Business, we have 144 hours of airtime per day. Of those 144 hours, there are approximately eight live hours hosted by liberals: Maddow, Schultz, O'Donnell, Matthews (sort of), Bashir, Sharpton, Wagner and The Cycle. That's it. 5.5 percent of the cable news day. And out of those ten hours, how many have admitted a pro-Obama agenda? One: Sharpton.

And so this is a problem? Where's the pro-Obama bias? To repeat what I wrote last week, we're talking about a Pew study of a week when much of the nation, including Republicans like Chris Christie rallied around the president's effort to mitigate the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. And comparing MSNBC with Fox News coverage is not an accurate measure of bias, since they're very different networks on just about every level. An Andrew Sullivan reader listed the ways in which MSNBC is different from Fox News:

1) They acknowledge their bias.
2) They don't ignore major news stories.
3) They don't invent news from fiction.
4) They don't fund/promote/create 'grass roots' movements and then cover them as spontaneous.
5) They don't attack and undermine non-partisan fact-checking sources
6) They (particularly Maddow) attempt to get actual important figures from the right to come on, though those figures usually decline
7) They don't employ politicians who are currently running for office while covering those same

After having spent way too much of my life monitoring MSNBC around the clock (not including the prison rape shows), I can assure you: it's not as liberal as it might seem. But when compared with the right-wing journalistic malfeasance perpetrated by Fox News, just about anything will seem hard-left by comparison.

I absolutely agree that the news media in general ought to be more critical of government. There needs to be more time and money pumped into investigative reporting and watch-dogging. But when it comes to progressive opinion shows, we're talking about the personal views of the hosts based on the top several news stories of the day -- much of the content condensed down to 42 minutes. If the news of the day involves drones or indefinite detention, and the host of the show has something to add, then absolutely include it. But to artificially shoehorn a drone story into a show just because Greenwald demanded it is not unlike shoehorning a pro-conservative viewpoint into a commentary for the sake of appearing balanced when such balance might not exist.

If a decision is made to be tougher on the president, then what happens when there's some sort of liberal achievement that directly involves the president? I don't believe pundits and reporters alike should avoid positive stories just so they will appear less biased, fearing that a Pew researcher will add it to the toteboard or Greenwald will accuse them of being an "Obama-lover." Nor should they report on a pro-Obama story, then box it on all sides by negative stories about the president. That stinks of the artificial balance nonsense we see every day -- the most egregious problem on television news today. In the end, they should simply report on what happened, either with a hard news item or a commentary segment, and let the events of the day guide the agenda for better or worse.

Ultimately, we'll never get the news media we want until it's divorced from profits, programming and ratings. Until then, if the president makes a mistake, the press ought to report it -- including the pundit shows. And if the president does something well, the press ought to report it, too. But to set about an preconceived mission to be "tougher" on the president irrespective of the actual events of the day is intellectually dishonest.

Adding... I can't help but to respond to this chunk of Greenwald's post:

But the other significant benefit of having all political disputes viewed through a partisan electoral prism is that it keeps partisans focused only on the evils of the other party and steadfastly loyal to their own. The desire to influence election outcomes in favor of one's own party subsumes any sense that political officials from one's own party should be checked in how they exercise their power.

This kind of encapsulates the constant through-line of Greenwald's work: a visceral disdain for the American political system in which there are two parties and regular popular elections. Partisanship has always been baked into the American system. Each of the two main sides pushes for a (hopefully) ideologically-consistent platform of ideas. We vote for one or the other, and advocate for the success of the side that best aligns with our values. Duh.

It seems as though Greenwald's alternative is a system, short of anarchy, in which there are dozens of parties or independent candidates representing narrow platforms, and we, as citizens, randomly wander from one faction to another without ever electing leaders with anything more than a tiny plurality of the vote. I can't even imagine the disastrous consequences of such a jumbled mess. And by the way, speaking of jumbled messes, if he thinks Democrats are lockstep on anything and suffers from being too monolithic, he's clearly mistaking the Democrats for the Republicans.

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