The Reporting and Moral Failures of MSNBC

Michael Arria, who writes for Vice’s Motherboard TV and Counterpunch, is the author of Medium Blue: The Poltics of MSNBC.

Martha Rosenberg: Your recent book takes MSNBC to task for many reporting and moral failures. One of the book’s most scathing chapters is its analysis of MSNBC’s coverage of Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden.

Michael Arria: Yes, the Manning and Snowden coverage shows how truncated liberal media can be. The leaks call into question the very objectives of our national security policies and domestic policies. While there was coverage of the collateral murder video [in which shows Americans shoot and kill 11 individuals not returning fire] MSNBC quickly morphed into smearing Manning and Snowden personally. Joy Reid, who has got her own show since I wrote the book, referred to Manning as someone, “seeking anarchy as a salve for [her] own personal, psychological torment.” MSNBC coverage swiftly turned to Snowden being a hypocrite for going to Russia. The horrifying revelations were lost in the game of personal attacks. Even the tepid defenses of the leaks, tended to focus on the right to leak, thus moving the conversation away from the content of the leaks.

indexMR: You also mention MSNBC’s relative silence on Manning’s solitary confinement.

MA: The UN special rapporteur on torture has accused the US government of cruel and inhumane treatment in the case of Manning. Chelsea Manning endured horrible conditions and many speculate it was an attempt to get her to “rat out” Wikileaks, the web site that disseminated her leaks. There was virtually no coverage of her trial at the network. The night of her verdict, Ed Schultz ignored the story, but did an entire segment on whether Pat Robertson believed sweaters could be possessed by demons.

MR: MSNBC host Rachel Maddow is widely beloved but you spell out definite criticisms about her in Medium Blue including how she mocked Iran’s “Martyrdom of Hazart Fatemesh,” implying that it commemorated a suicide bomber when, in fact, you write, “the word ‘Hazart’ is an esteemed title.”

MA:  Maddow gets her facts wrong a lot. Her perception of the Iran situation is murky and her stances on Israel, Libya and Ukraine are boiler plate. She has said in interviews that her job is to not give opinions but to “report the news,” yet she and the other MSNBC anchors do give their slant, if not explicitly but implicitly, by what they choose to report. For example, when it comes to drone strikes, Maddow might ask “were there memos legitimizing this?” instead of looking at the dirty underbelly of capitalism and proxy wars. Maddow is thought, by some, to be a kind of war critic, but her critiques tend to be logistical. She did some segments where she contrasted the flowery language of Obama’s Libya attack, with the cowboy rhetoric of Bush’s Iraq invasion. Like many liberals, she detects some vast importance in style, but if you’re living in a country that’s being bombed, I don’t think you care very much whether the President is an idiot or a great orator.

MR: You give many other examples of  MSNBC’s avoidance of morality for the glitzier reporting in your book.

MA: I don’t know if it’s glitzy, but the supposed cultural divide of the country definitely fuels a certain amount of the programming. For example, take the Benghazi issue. While the right wing has claimed a government cover-up and is continuing to investigate a cover-up, MSNBC and other liberal media, prefers to cover the right wing’s Benghazi obsession rather than the larger issue of Libya. Benghazi is part of a much wider story. MSNBC defended the NATO intervention vociferously and there has been almost no subsequent discussion about the current state of that country or what that intervention wrought. An ex-general named Khalifa Hiftar is currently leading a very bloody revolt there; he was granted refuge in the United States a few years ago. I guarantee there will be far less coverage of Hiftar than there will be about GOP politicians who have said harebrained things about the Benghazi attack.

MR: Covering the right wing and left wing duking it out is probably more entertaining to viewers — the same phenomenon exists on talk radio.

MA: Yes. For example, MSNBC and especially Maddow still cover the antics of Sarah Palin even though she is completely “over with” as a politician since she stepped down from the Governorship of Alaska. MSNBC also, essentially, admits that the Tea Party is no longer a force of any importance yet it will cover the Tea Party as if they are dominating the Republican Party. It works the same way on the other side: many conservatives seem to think Obama is a bumbling moron, while at the same time believing he is a crafty villain systematically destroying the country.

MR: Yeah — make up your minds! You write in Medium Blue that the issue is not so much left wing or right wing as MSNBC and other media serving their own financial interests.

MA: A clear example of ignoring news that threatens its own financial interests is how silent MSNBC was and is about the proposed Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger. Obviously, they have no incentive to cover it — that’s who pays them. Or take a look at the attempt, by Peacock Productions staff, to unionize. When the AFL-CIO urged MSNBC hosts to speak out in support of the workers and their attempt to collect overtime pay and posses collective bargaining rights, all the hosts were silent, though Chris Hayes did meet with group of workers, in a secret meeting. At the risk of stating the obvious, MSNBC is owned by Comcast. It’s hard to imagine them ever upsetting the bottom line.

MR:  So even though viewers think they are getting clear and unbiased news with MSNBC, they are still getting paid-for news messages?

MA: As I write in the book, MSNBC is Fox News for Democrats in many ways, but the comparison tends to overlook a very real distinction. The propaganda of Fox News tends to be tremendously blatant, many involved even seem like they’re in on the act. In the case of MSNBC, there seems to no coercion involved. The people involved really believe they can run any kinds of stories they want. In this respect, I think it’s even more insidious.

Martha Rosenberg is a columnist/cartoonist who writes about public health. Her first book, titled Born with a Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp the Public Health, has just been released by Prometheus Books. She can be reached at: martharosenberg@sbcglobal.net. Read other articles by Martha.