In the past few years, the Democratic Party’s rank and file have shifted left on major issues. From healthcare to legalization of drugs to taxes, the heart of the party has grown more progressive—and, in many instances, overtly socialist in nature. Forty-seven percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents now identify as both socially liberal and economically moderate or liberal, up from 39 percent in 2008 and 30 percent in 2001.
In contrast, nominally liberal media—or major media whose editorial line is reliably pro-Democratic—have drifted rightward. On Wednesday, MSNBC announced it had hired torture-supporting, climate-denying, anti-Arab racist Bret Stephens, a recent hire at the New York Times opinion page. Stephens—whose very first article at the Times had to be corrected due to his misunderstanding of basic climate science—will be an “on-air contributor” for both MSNBC and NBC.
This pickup continues a conservative hiring spree at MSNBC, including former George Bush adviser Nicolle Wallace, right-wing radio host Hugh Hewitt, old-school conservative Washington Post columnist George Will, and former Fox News stars Greta Van Susteren and Megyn Kelly (though Van Susteren’s show has already been canceled due to comically low ratings).
Despite their ratings going up as their marquee liberal firebrands rail against Donald Trump on a day-to-day basis, MSNBC has decided not to double down on this approach, but rather is populating its 24-hour broadcast with an increasing number of Bush-era also-rans and ex–Fox News personalities. At the same time, the New York Times has added the far-right Stephens to its coveted and influential list of full-time columnists—joining fellow #nevertrump conservatives David Brooks and Ross Douthat.
As notable as their outreach to the right is these outlets’ resolute resistance to introducing any new voices to the left of the party’s corporate center. Forty-three percent of Democratic voters backed Bernie Sanders in the primary, yet the New York Times and MSNBC editorial teams don’t have one vocal Sanders supporter. Some, certainly, are sympathetic to him, such as MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and Chris Hayes, and the Times’ Charles Blow. But none openly back him in the way Paul Krugman, Gail Collins and Joy-Ann Reid (FAIR.org, 4/20/17) openly spin for his more centrist primary opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. (Indeed, MSNBC’s Reid spends an unhealthy amount of time on Twitter dragging the Vermont senator for being inadequately obsequious to the corporate wing of the party.)
Obviously, sitting around waiting for corporate-owned media to embrace subversive left political commentary—or even Sanders’ brand of soft European-style social democracy—is a fool’s errand, and one should be under no illusions this will ever happen. But the lack of any effort to represent a major sector of their audience is still worth pointing out. If the media were “all about the clicks” or “the views,” a major network would jump at the chance to at least have one token leftist to appeal to this underserved demographic. Yet they keep going in the other direction, hiring more right wingers without any apparent marketing reason to do so.
Shaping ideology and public opinion is less about the voices we hear, and more about those we don’t. The range of debate is set by liberal gatekeepers like the Times and MSNBC, and it’s clear, with each additional hire, the Overton window at these institutions won’t budge one inch to the left, regardless of how much their consumers do. One is left to conclude that MSNBC and the New York Times are not veering right despite Democratic voters’ increasing embrace of left policies; they’re doing so precisely because of it.
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