Michael Arria's new book Medium Blue: The Politics of MSNBC is a nice summary of how a liberal corporate or liberal partisan television network falls short -- something of an update from Jeff Cohen's Cable News Confidential and the bad old days when MSNBC dumped Cohen and Phil Donahue for being anti-war. It turns out the good new days of MSNBC-gone-liberal are seriously flawed as well.
The flaws do a disservice to a large section of the population, many majority perspectives, and large numbers of people whose opinions would improve if their information did.
Yes, of course, it's nice to have a 24/7 channel that everybody receives making fun of Republicans. But the Comedy Channel (Comedy Central) does that too. The comedy fake news shows also make fun of Democrats and anyone else they can identify; they build cynicism and disgust without offering any better course of action than a mass Rally-for-Nothing to give people too smart to attend other rallies a chance to rally ironically.
But what does MSNBC offer? Beyond its mocking of Republicans, it gives a significant pass to Democrats, resulting in dishonest presentations of facts and a proposed course of action that's doomed to fail. There are many exceptions, of course, and MSNBC easily soars over the low bar of producing more honest and useful commentary than CNN or Fox. In fact, a book that collected the highlights of MSNBC would be quite interesting as well. It would feature a good bit of Chris Hayes, of honesty about climate, even a bit of reckoning with Israel. (In fact, I make no claim to know what all it would include, which is why I'd find it useful.) Such a collection might encourage networks, including MSNBC, to realize what can be done without the sky falling. But the lowlights, and the lines of limitation that are not crossed without corporate penalty are crucial and are the focus of Arria's book.
MSNBC gives voice to one side in a series of narrow debates, the side previously represented by the likes of Alan Colmes. But the change is basically one to a larger microphone, rather than to a wider range of opinion. The debate remains framed within the same limitations. A prime example is war and militarism. MSNBC is in favor of wars with a different wrapper, rather than of eliminating wars from U.S. foreign policy.
Rachel Maddow, Ed Schultz, Chris Hayes (not at first, but he came around), and other MSNBC voices were all in favor of bombing Libya, and as far as I know are not particularly focused on the horrendous results.
Maddow declares Iran a dictatorship, and dates that dictatorship to 1979, never 1953. She's lied that Ahmadinejad was known for publicly defending Iran's "pursuit of nuclear weapons." And she grotesquely distorts the history of Palestine and Israel, claiming that Israel innocently declared independence and was attacked the next day by five nations. As Obama pushed for missile strikes on Syria, Maddow did a story on how many nations she believed a President John McCain would have attacked.
Ezra Klein finally turned against the war on Iraq, years too late, because "the odds were high we couldn't do it right" -- using "we" in the usual way for a media outlet that identifies with the government, and maintaining the important pretense that attacking foreign nations can be done correctly or incorrectly.
Touré defended the drone murder of Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki. Martin Bashir insisted that a guest not doubt the integrity of "a senior military officer." Adam Serwer demanded that "service members" all be "supported" "unconditionally."
Are these unfairly handpicked examples of military-worship on MSNBC? I doubt it. When Chris Hayes questioned whether every dead U.S. soldier is necessarily a hero, he was then apparently faced with the choice of taking a stand and losing his job or doing what he did instead: apologize for the outburst of honesty. Cenk Uygur, in contrast, took a stand for critical coverage of the Obama administration and was fired by MSNBC President Phil Griffin, who told him, "We're insiders. We're the establishment."
Was Hayes right to apologize in order to maintain his voice on the air, a voice that's better than some of the other ones? I don't have a strong opinion on that question. My interest here is in pointing out, along with Arria, that a voice willing to question whether every hired killer in every popular and unpopular and illegal war is without question a hero is not permitted on MSNBC.
When I say that the best of MSNBC is its coverage of Republicans, I don't mean to give a blanket endorsement to all such coverage. The over-obsession with the right wing gives prominence to much that would better be treated with silence -- silence that instead is reserved for the left.
MSNBC follows the lead of the party and politicians it has given its loyalty to. And it doesn't just follow their lead. MSNBC has hired Robert Gibbs and David Axelrod, among others who can bring the Obama line straight to the viewers of a network that has more than once debated whether Obama should be added to Mount Rushmore. "My President Obama? Is he your President too?" Ed Schultz demanded of a guest while insisting that Libya be bombed as Obama desired.
Schultz even ignorantly claimed that Obama couldn't have been elected if he'd campaigned on increasing troops in Afghanistan -- as of course Obama had very prominently done. But think about Schultz's defense of Obama, rather than his ignorance of basic facts. Schultz is claiming that Obama lied about ending a war in order to get elected, and then escalated the war once in office. That's the good Obama of Schultz's imagination. That's Obama on the model of Wilson and Roosevelt. There's a reason Bill Clinton calls MSNBC "our version of Fox."
I said MSNBC promotes a program of action that Comedy Central does not. But its program of action is not principled issue-based nonviolent engagement; it's voting for one political party as a path to progress. Anything else is unrealistic, MSNBC ridiculously maintains. Melissa Harris-Perry claims that supporting Obama despite any failings is "realist." She says that critics of Obama from the left are, in fact, not just unrealistic but racist. She dismissed the Chicago teachers' strike and proposed that they solve their problems by voting in public elections. She also insisted that Edward Snowden should have worked within the system. How realistic is that, exactly?
The MSNBC worldview generally pretends that everything was good in 1999 and easily can be again. Says Rachel Maddow: "I'm in almost total agreement with the Eisenhower-Era Republican Party platform." So, maybe a bit earlier than 1999.
The perspective that MSNBC believes its viewers hold, and which it relentlessly instructs them to hold was exemplified by a recent comment that Chris Hayes made to Glenn Greenwald: "People feel they have to choose between Barack Obama and Glenn Greenwald and there are millions of people in this country who are like if that is a choice I choose Barack Obama." Hayes then gave reasons to choose Obama. No doubt Hayes believes he was simply articulating the spontaneously generated view of the masses, of which a good organizer must be aware for better or worse. But he never suggested the slightest critique of the way of thinking that he was in fact modeling on national TV. He demanded that Greenwald alter his "tone" to accommodate such a idiotic perspective, but he never hinted at the possibility that people might alter their idiocy, that they might stop choosing between personalities and deal with facts, that they might vote for politicians and simultaneously critique their failings, that they might view elected officials as representatives rather than deities.
Of course, Hayes wasn't just referring to the unknown unwashed masses when he claimed that millions of people place loyalty to a president above their duty to know what their government is doing and hold it accountable for its abuses; he was referring to his colleagues and the official policy of his employer. And that is the limit of a partisan, corporate, insider media outlet of any flavor.
Now, we have alternatives, including Democracy Now, Free Speech TV, Dennis Trainor, the RealNews.com, RT, Youtube, etc., and the written word. We may manage to replace MSNBC or circumvent it. We may manage to come up with media outlet(s) that will produce an Occupy movement and sustain it. But I think it's an open question whether improving MSNBC would actually be bad for its profitability. For years, TV executives seemed to believe that creating a Democratic Fox would not succeed as well as creating a second lesser Fox. They eventually proved themselves wrong. Now, they are clearly convinced that creating an independent populist challenge to a government that 80% of the country believes is broken wouldn't succeed outside of Comedy Central.
It's possible they're wrong. It's possible that going where the majority is on corporate trade pacts and single-payer healthcare and wars would increase viewership. It's possible that access to such viewers would attract politicians and advertisers as well or nearly as well as softball interviews and corporate friendly views. We'll never know unless someone gives it a try.