MSNBC Can Be Trusted by the Established Order – That’s a Problem

MSNBC’s slogan, “Lean Forward,” does not encourage actually moving forward

The central argument of Michael’s Arria’s lively new book about America’s so-called “progressive network” is not that MSNBC is bad at what it does, but that, all too often, even what MSNBC does well doesn’t do much good for most Americans. As Arria puts it in the introduction of Medium Blue (a spring 2014 release by CounterPunch Books):

This book doesn’t possess a hidden agenda. It’s an attack on MSNBC from the left, an attempt to highlight and track the problematic ties between the network and America’s ruling class. The message of MSNBC juxtaposed with the propaganda of Fox, forms a false dichotomy and leads Americans to believe a strong debate is gripping the nation…. [MSNBC] is very much part of the problem.

MSNBC is part of NBCUniversal, which is part of Comcast, and it would be naïve for anyone to expect much more than infotainment from a company that has a history of being a political style opportunist without any noticeable principles or ideology, those being mutually exclusive qualities. MSNBC is not “Fox for Democrats,” as Bill Clinton and others have claimed. Fox is reliably ideological and unreliably factual. MSNBC is not reliably ideological (at least not in the same predictable way – what would Democratic ideology sound like anyway?) but MSNBC is moderately reliable factually in the sense that what you hear on MSNBC is pretty much factual (at least in prime time). When MSNBC misleads, it’s mostly by indirection, through cliché and conventional demonization, by over-emphasis and omission.

As Arria sees it, “MSNBC is packed with true believers who preach the false hope of objectivity…. Everyone working for the station seems to believe that they operate without restriction, often defining themselves as independently minded journalists attempting to squash the lies of a deceptive media.”

Arria doesn’t call this self-regard delusional, but he provides ample evidence that it is. In America today, an “independent broadcast or cable news operation” would be an oxymoron (if it could exist at all), since ratings and corporate profits depend on predictability within a limited spectrum of perspective that excludes actual independence. Or as Arria succinctly makes the point: “How much disrupting can a network like MSNBC ever really do?” [emphasis in original]

Did MSNBC ever try to disrupt anything important, like a drone war?

Perhaps even more to the point, as Medium Blue argues with more than enough documentation, the question is whether MSNBC as a corporate entity wants to disrupt anything meaningful to the country as a whole. MSNBC’s history looks like rather inchoate groping to disrupt the cable news ratings, but not much more. As Arria argues, MSNBC programming predominantly reflects the conventional wisdom of the permanent government on “fundamental issues that impact our world … trade policy, nuclear disarmament, the World Bank, IMF, WTO, the private prison boom, the ‘War on Drugs,’ corporate welfare, Israel, Cuba, drone policy, the global assassination program, etc.”

Medium Blue does not attempt a comprehensive analysis of every program and every host on MSNBC, and such an exhaustive approach would likely be exhausting, and could never be timely. Arria’s book went to press in August 2013, and so inevitably misses more recent MSNBC performances such as under-reporting on Ukraine and over-demonizing Vladimir Putin, both of which inhibit rational understanding. But Medium Blue is rich with incidents from recent years that encourage the inference that the network’s inadequate coverage of Ukraine fits a dismal pattern that seems unlikely to be broken any time soon.

The defining moment for MSNBC came in the 2002-03 run-up to the Iraq war, when the Bush administration was lying and the New York Times was printing the lies on page one as if they were true. Voices challenging the dishonest rationale for war were few, but one of them was on MSNBC, Phil Donohue. Donohue first aired July 15, 2002, to good ratings, which soon dropped (to levels also registered on occasion by both Chris Matthews and Joe Scarborough, who remain on the air). In the fall, Donohue emerged as an open critic of the rush to war. By February, Donohue was MSNBC’s highest-rated show. On February 25, 2003, MSNBC cancelled the show “for poor ratings,” a false claim that CBS News reported as fact. Donohue was replaced by an expanded version of the war drum beating “Countdown: Iraq” with Lester Holt, and the Iraq War proceeded on its course of dismal failure that hasn’t ended yet.

MSNBC’s legacy, which it has yet to repair despite any “progressive” tendencies, is the common corporate complicity to sacrifice any short-term advantage for the sake of long-term accommodation with the powers that be. MSNBC said as much in an internal memo prior to Donohue’s firing. The memo called Donohue a “difficult public face for NBC in a time of war” (which hadn’t started). Then the memo clarified that there was no principle at stake, since Donohue might provide “a home for the liberal antiwar agenda at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity.”

Why can’t MSNBC hold onto its best news people?

The “new” MSNBC began to emerge in 2005. The network had shed assorted non-news hosts like Michael Savage, Don Imus, Mike Barnacle, and Alan Keyes, people around whom it would be impossible to build a coherent network brand, but there was little sign the people running the network had any clarity about what they wanted. And then, in the wake of the Bush administration’s newest failure in response to Hurricane Katrina, on September 5, 2005, Keith Olbermann broadcast a “special comment” full of moral outrage at the amoral callousness of the American government’s lack of urgency in helping thousands of Americans whose lives were threatened (a threat that was never posed by Iraq). Here was a former sportscaster speaking from the heart, speaking truth to power, speaking to an abuse of power even as it was happening, and the effect was electrifying. The special comment went viral on YouTube.

Even so, it took almost a year for MSNBC to institutionalize Olbermann’s special comments. His next, on August 30, 2006, took Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to task for defending Guantanamo because it had volleyball and basketball courts (but no judicial court worthy of the name). Olbermann had a good run at MSNBC, despite some turbulence, before exiting abruptly in January 2011. Not apparent at first glance, this is the Donohue pattern in extended form: the network’s ultimate inability to accommodate a truth teller, albeit a reportedly difficult personality. There has never since been anyone else exercising Olbermann’s level of intense integrity at MSNBC (although some come close). So “difficult personality” looks like a bogus cover story. Truth-telling is more complicated than news and it doesn’t fit into most corporate business plans.

While Olbermann has no true successor and likely never will, his most obvious legacy at MSNBC is Rachel Maddow, who got her audition moment filling in for Olbermann on “Countdown,” where she impressed MSNBC exec Phil Griffin. In July 2008, Griffin became MSNBC’s president, and the next month he gave Maddow her own show, right after Olbermann’s, and she’s still in the same time slot, where she hasn’t noticeably made waves (despite insults from Bill Maher, Bill O’Reilly, Politico, and Alec Baldwin).

Rachel Maddow calls herself “liberal,” evokes Phil Ochs song

Michael Arria wickedly quotes Maddow as saying, “I’m undoubtedly a liberal, which means that I’m in almost total agreement with the Eisenhower-Era Republican Party platform.” His chapter on “Maddow’s World” especially critiques her apparent infatuation with the American military, including her “ringing endorsement of NATO’s attack on Libya.” Turning to Iran, Arria takes Maddow to task for omitting the CIA coup of 1953 (Eisenhower era!) from the context for Iranian behavior; for misrepresenting what Iranian leaders have actually said about nuclear weapons; and for applauding the sanctions that, by barring drug imports, have aggravated cancer and AIDS in Iran.

Medium Blue makes equally trenchant assessments of other MSNBC hosts. For example:

  • Chris Hayes – “stands in as what passes as the far-left in today’s media climate.”
  • Ed Shultz – “satisfying those perplexing progressives who pined for a Democratic Rush Limbaugh.”
  • Melissa Harris-Perry – “To hail a centrist President for following in King’s footsteps flies in the face of nearly everything MLK stood for.”
  • Ari Melber – his “connection to the ruling class obscured to the naked eye” (part of a devastating recital of attorney Melber’s conflicts of interest)

Whether one ends up agreeing with each of Arria’s assessments, he provides sufficient detail (Hayes and Harris-Perry each have a chapter) for a reader to make an informed judgment or to pursue more information. Arria’s point is less about the people than about the corporate culture in which they seem to thrive. He makes this clear in his chapter “The Host Is the Message,” in which he quotes Phil Griffin saying to Cenk Uygur: “We’re insiders. We’re the establishment.” Whether the quote is apocryphal or not, it describes the apparent reality of news presentation at MSNBC: there are lines you don’t cross, but within the lines you’re free and independent.

Sometimes a network president is just another messenger

Cenk Uygur, like Donohue and Olberman, could not be relied on to play well within the lines. His early evening show, “The Young Turks,” lasted just six months on MSNBC, despite drawing a good audience in the 18-34 demographic. But Griffin told Uyger that “people in Washington” did not like his tone and content. MSNBC forced Uygur out by moving him to a less desirable weekend time slot. Instead, Uygur moved his show to Current TV, until that effort died, and it is now online. Uygur’s replacement was Al Sharpton, “who has publicly vowed to never criticize the President” reports Arria. The host is the message.

Omitted from Arria’s analysis until a brief, passing mention three pages from the end of the book is Lawrence O’Donnell. Given the harsh assessments of his fellow news hosts, omitting O’Donnell may be something of a backhanded compliment. O’Donnell is the MSNBC host most clearly in the Donohue-Olbermann-Uygur line.

The last chapter of Arria’s 90-page book is “The Betrayal of Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden,” a betrayal that is hardly unique to MSNBC. That the truth about America made available from these two whistleblowers has not been widely celebrated in American media is no surprise, and perhaps shouldn’t be surprising even at what Phil Griffen says is “really the place to go for progressives and people who are looking for smart, thoughtful analysis.” Or not, if the place is MSNBC, where the service to their country by these two truth tellers has been mostly ignored. Alternatively, as Arria documents, MSNBC hosts have treated Manning and Snowden with contempt and ad hominem attacks that avoid the substance of their revelations.

A sad thing about American media culture is that MSNBC may be the best one can hope for from corporate television (viewer-supported Democracy NOW! is only an hour a day) and should be consumed with care. Unlike Fox, MSNBC does not rely on distortion and denial in service to an ideology. MSNBC’s bias is a variable that allows many stories to be reported accurately within a pragmatic restraint that serves MSNBC’s place in the power structure. Sometimes a story goes unreported for obvious reasons, like MSNBC’s silence on the controversial proposed merger between its parent company, Comcast, and Time Warner Cable. And sometimes MSNBC gets an important issue like voter suppression exactly right, much to the annoyance of both Fox and the N.Y. Times. News should be consumed with care and knowledge. Michael Arria’s Medium Blue is a useful and provocative consumer’s guide.

William M. Boardman has over 40 years experience in theatre, radio, TV, print journalism, and non-fiction, including 20 years in the Vermont judiciary. He has received honors from Writers Guild of America, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Vermont Life magazine, and an Emmy Award nomination from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. A collection of his essays, EXCEPTIONAL: American Exceptionalism Takes Its Toll (2019) is available from Yorkland Publishing of Toronto or Amazon. This article was first published in Reader Supported News. Read other articles by William.