Reporter's note: This blog has been updated slightly after receiving feedback from readers. The basis thrust remains the same, but some additional context I think was helpful.
A miraculous thing occurred about a week to 10 days ago. The office of special counsel Robert Mueller delivered his Russian meddling report to Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general.
This was amazing because both men, who assumed their posts in 2017, had been repeatedly fired on MSNBC. Please note that MSNBC did not want them fired. The network’s commentators just had heard rumors that it was about to happen. And then MSNBC trotted out a series of talking heads to explain why such actions would be terrible and likely to play a role in whether President Donald Trump would be impeached.
After each “firing” Mueller and Rosenstein went back to work and MSNBC made no note that the rumors turned out wrong and happily re-fired them once new rumors emerged. No mea culpas. No “we were wrong” about the firings. Nothing. They just pretended it never happened. Over and over again.
It’s hilarious to note that one brief iteration of MSNBC’s branding established the network as the one that “holds all accountable.” This was a monstrous bit of misrepresentation. MSNBC holds Trump and Republicans accountable, albeit in over the top and distorted ways, but the network does not hold Democrats accountable and does not hold itself accountable.
MSNBC is bad for democracy and bad for America.
Here are some items and incidents to chew on:
Fairness: I grew up believing that it was the job of the media to present both sides and let the voters decide. MSNBC presents only one side. Oddly enough it’s the Republican side. Night after night the network criticizes the Trump administration, offering exaggerated and biased reports on the president and his actions. It seldom, if ever, presents Democratic policies. And there are no polite disagreements. You are either on the MSNBC side ... or demonized.
Breadth: MSNBC essentially covers Trump. If something blows up somewhere, they will cover it. But it leaves on the cutting room floor massive amounts of news and information that could be valuable to viewers. There is little or no discussion of climate change, education, popular culture, technology, international affairs and any number of other topics that television news division SHOULD include. Yes, NBC has a nightly newscast, but it's 30 minutes long. The MSNBC parade of commentators goes on for six hours.
Scope: MSNBC also is following a trend — I can’t blame them for starting this one — in which the executive branch of the U.S. government is covered to a far greater extent than the other branches. Congress is mentioned only in terms of how it reacts to Trump’s initiatives. The Supreme Court is mentioned when there is an opening or an abortion decision. The American people wind up with a distorted view of how government works, and one in which the White House is always driving the train.
Guests: MSNBC invites in people who are supposed to agree with the hosts. There are no debates. That’s not to say that there aren’t times in which the guests have cogent, relevant things that are said. Clearly there are. Yet, twice in recent months MSNBC has aired Fox News clips of Chris Wallace sternly questioning Trump about the mid-term election results and Sarah Huckabee Sanders about immigration. It is INCONCEIVABLE that an MSNBC host would grill House Speaker Nancy Pelosi about the failures of her party's legislative proposals or the chairman of the Democratic National Committee about the Dems' inability to take back the Senate.
Aside on Fox: And, yes, it should be noted that Fox plays the same game that MSNBC does, with the main difference being that Fox is a blunter instrument. Google "Media Matters Ocasio-Cortez" to see a six-week survey on how Fox has treated freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Amazing report. Some of the criticism that Fox levels at her is so stupid and infantile that you want to throw up. Media Matters, it should be noted, only reviews conservative media. They are a counter to the Media Research Center, which reviews only liberal media. Another problem: Everyone is countering someone else. No one is fixing anything./
Exaggerations: Yes, President Trump exaggerates and says things that aren’t true. So does MSNBC. Clearly, clearly, cleary Trump has more impact because has the power to ACT on his exaggerations while MSNBC and its guests do not. Host Lawrence O’Donnell consistently notes at White House departures that the person was the worst (fill in the blank with the job title) in White House history. I remain skeptical that O’Donnell has such expertise.
Distortions: The Gazette-Times is owned by Lee Enterprises. We have a national desk that forwards us lists of stories available for our use. One day the Lee email noted that the New York Times had published a breaking news Russia probe story about a meeting between Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. They were hoping to provide such a story for the Lee papers. I went to the NYT website and read the story. When I got home there was MSNBC host Rachel Maddow concluding that the story signaled obstruction of justice on the part of Trump. There was no mention of obstruction of justice in the 40-inch Times story. How did Rachel get there? It’s a mystery.
Cherry picking: MSNBC can choose what sound bites and tape it uses to show with its stories. These choices can be telling, such as the occasion during the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearing in which Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois asked the nominee if he believed in “democratic institutions.” While reasonable people can disagree on whether Kavanaugh is a good fit for the court, it is hard to take seriously that he doesn’t believe in democratic institutions. And yet of the hours and hours of available testimony MSNBC chose that clip. Why? Because it cast Kavanaugh in the worst possible light. On another broadcast MSNNC aired a clip in which a “reporter” kept yelling “Mr. President are you a racist!” at Trump as he walked away from a photo opportunity. These are terribly poor choices that reflect badly on the network’s judgment. But play to its base as they say in the politics biz.
Friendly witnesses: At the end of a Maddow interview with Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York he expressed “thanks for all you do.” Clearly they are on the same team. Host Chris Hayes went on the road to Detroit to ask African-American voters how excited they were to be voting in the mid-terms. Clearly, he was not expecting them to cast ballots for the GOP. During the federal budget shutdown another MSNBC host asked Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer the best way out of the dilemma. Schumer suggested a Democratic Congress. “We think so, too,” the commentator said. I, on the other hand, was appalled.
Labels: MSNBC posts a “breaking news” bar at the bottom of the screen. Every day. Whether there is breaking news or not. And sometimes the “breaking news” is 36 hours old. MSNBC used the headline “Convention Chaos” on the screen days before the GOP convention at which Trump was nominated. Without the predicted chaos. A guest says that “Republicans are getting more and more worried every day” after more than 700 days of the Trump presidency (I know the number because host Brian Williams told me). Lawrence notes that 2019 will be the worst year of Trump’s life. Rachel adds that that happens a lot to seventh-graders. Rachel waits until 16 minutes into her Mueller report story to note that there were no new indictments.
And on and on.
American television viewers deserve better. And American voters definitely deserve better. MSNBC is harmful to democracy.