The Right Dictates MSNBC’s Programming Decisions

By Glenn Greenwald – Salon | MSNBC’s announcement that it is replacing Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews with David Gregory as anchors for its main political events (the upcoming presidential debates and election) vividly illustrates several long-obvious facts. First, nothing changes the behavior of our media corporations more easily than vocal demands and complaints from the Right, which petrify media executives and cause them to snap into line. From today’s New York Times article identifying some of the causes for MSNBC’s decision:

The change — which comes in the home stretch of the long election cycle — is a direct result of tensions associated with the channel’s perceived shift to the political left. . . . When the vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin lamented media bias during her speech, attendees of the Republican convention loudly chanted “NBC” . . . . Mr. Olbermann, a 49-year-old former sportscaster, has become the face of the more aggressive MSNBC, and the lightning rod for much of the criticism. . . . The McCain campaign has filed letters of complaint to the news division about its coverage and openly tied MSNBC to it. . . . Al Hunt, the executive Washington bureau chief of Bloomberg News, said that the entire news division was being singled out by Republicans because of the work of partisans like Mr. Olbermann.

This was preceded by an episode in May in which White House Counselor Ed Gillespie “sent a scathing letter to NBC News, accusing the news network of ‘deceptively’ editing an interview with President Bush on the issue of appeasement and Iran.” Gillespie warned NBC as follows:

I’m sure you don’t want people to conclude that there is really no distinction between the “news” as reported on NBC and the “opinion” as reported on MSNBC, despite the increasing blurring of those lines. I welcome your response to this letter, and hope it is one that reassures your broadcast network’s viewers that blatantly partisan talk show hosts like Christopher Matthews and Keith Olbermann at MSNBC don’t hold editorial sway over the NBC network news division.

Yesterday, Gillespie got exactly the “response” that he demanded from a super-compliant MSBNC. There is no question whatsoever that the Bush administration, the McCain campaign, and the Right generally have recently made it a top priority to force MSNBC to remove Olbermann (and Chris Matthews) from playing a prominent role in its election coverage, and MSNBC has now complied with the Right’s demands. Does it need to be explained why it is disturbing in the extreme that the White House and the McCain campaign can so transparently dictate MSNBC’s programming choices?

Second, in response to media criticism that the press is insufficiently substantive and adversarial to political power, the claim is frequently made that media outlets are simply driven by the profit motive, and that their programming choices are nothing more than a by-product of ratings. But in MSNBC’s case, that is plainly untrue. Back in 2003, they actually canceled their highest-rated program, Phil Donahue’s show, for purely ideological reasons — because, at a time when the establishment “liberal media” were systematically amplifying the Government’s pro-war views and excluding anti-war views, that short-lived MSNBC show was one of the only venues in America where one could hear anti-war viewpoints, and NBC’s fear of angering the Government and the Right clearly caused them, first, to impose extreme and unusual restrictions on the show’s content, and then to cancel it altogether.

And now here is MSNBC publicly removing (and therefore diminishing) the person who is, by far, its most valuable asset: Keith Olbermann. The NYT article noted:

As Mr. Olbermann raised his voice, his ratings rose as well, and he now reaches more than one million viewers a night, a higher television rating than any other show in the troubled 12-year history of the network. As a result, his identity largely defines MSNBC. “They have banked the entirety of the network on Keith Olbermann,” one employee said. . . . At an anniversary party for Mr. Olbermann in April, [NBC CEO Jeff] Zucker called “Countdown” “one of the signature brands of the entire company.”

The irrefutable fact is that nothing attracts ratings for MSNBC — and nothing has attracted ratings in the entire history of that channel — the way that Olbermann does. Yet here is MSNBC removing him from the anchor position, reducing his role in its political coverage, and clearly diminishing his stature (and implicitly criticizing his coverage). That is extraordinary for a media company to publicly embarrass, diminish and tarnish its own principal asset. It is plainly doing so for ideological, not ratings-based, reasons: namely, it fears doing anything to anger the White House, the McCain campaign and the Right in this country.

Third, this episode demonstrates what Eric Alterman documented several years ago: that the greatest and most transparent myth in American politics is that the U.S. has a “liberal media.” That is a myth that is maintained, first and foremost, by defining anyone who isn’t Rush Limbaugh as a “liberal.” Hence, people such as the wife of Bush official Dan Senor (Campbell Brown) is a “liberal,” as is Alan Greenspan’s wife (Andrea Mitchell), along with establishmentworshipers such as Rush-Limbaugh-admirer Brian Williams, right-wing-talking-points-spouting Charlie Gibson, and anyone who writes for the war-enabling New York Times and Washington Post.

Perhaps nothing demonstrates this absurd dynamic more than the painfully inane perception that Chris Matthews — for years a prime target of liberal media critics — is some sort of “liberal.” That’s the same “liberal” Chris Matthews who, over the years, has said things like this:

I like [George Bush]. Everybody sort of likes the president, except for the real whack-jobs, maybe on the left . . . We’re proud of our president. Americans love having a guy as president, a guy who has a little swagger, who’s physical, who’s not a complicated guy like Clinton or even like Dukakis or Mondale, all those guys, McGovern. They want a guy who’s president. Women like a guy who’s president. Check it out. The women like this war. I think we like having a hero as our president. . . . Why don’t the damn Democrats give the president his day? He won today. He did well today. . . . Thank you very much. James Jeffrey, assistant to Condoleezza Rice. We’re huge fans [of Rice] — bring her back with you next time.

Or see the “liberal” Matthews fawning over Fred Thompson’s attractive manliness and Rudy Giuliani’s powerful authority and the charming masculinity of Republicans versus the “geekier, nerdier” Democrats. That is who is deemed to be a “liberal” in our political culture because the reality, as Atrios frequently puts it, is that the only hard and fast rule is: “Your liberal media: no liberals allowed.”

This has been going on for years. As I wrote in response to the uproar generated at places like The New Republic over the fact that MSNBC has now given an actual liberal, Rachel Maddow, her own show and is thereby jeopardizing non-partisan, objective, high-minded journalism:

Over the past seven years, the following people have hosted prime-time cable news shows: Joe Scarborough (MSNBC), Michael Savage (MSNBC), Glenn Beck (CNN), Tucker Carlson (MSNBC), Nancy Grace (CNN), Bill O’Reilly (Fox) and Sean Hannity (Fox). None of that seemed to bother the likes of [TNR’s Sacha] Zimmerman. None of that was depicted as the downfall of objective journalism or the destruction of civil, elevated, high-minded discourse.

Several of those hosts had and continue to have atrocious ratings (Carlson, Beck, Scarborough), yet were kept for years.

Beyond that, network and cable shows routinely convene panels filled with right-wing views and devoid of anything remotely approaching liberalism, and that creates no controversy. Just this past weekend, I subjected myself while traveling to ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos, and the panel discussing Sarah Palin was composed of right-wing ideologue George Will, establishment-spokesperson Cokie Roberts, and reporter Sam Donaldson. That is typical for television panels: right-wing partisans such as Will are “balanced” not by any liberals but by allegedly “neutral journalists” such as Roberts or Donaldson. That’s because the Right has created a reality where anyone who isn’t explicitly Rush Limbaugh is deemed to be a “liberal” (hence, Donaldson likely qualifies) and no actual liberal ever needs to be included. That’s how we have a “liberal media” where the principal rule is that actual liberals are systematically excluded, and it’s why the ascent of Olbermann (who is, in fact, far more of a Bush critic than a doctrinaire liberal) has created such turmoil — because it violates that central rule prohibiting liberals from appearing in the Liberal Media.

Finally, and perhaps most notably of all, Olbermann’s role as anchor somehow destroys the journalistic brand of both MSNBC and NBC, while Fox News continues to be deemed a legitimate news outlet by our political and media establishment. Fox does this despite (more accurately: due to) its employing Brit Hume as its main anchor — someone who is every bit as partisan and ideological as Keith Olbermannn is (at least), who regularly spews the nastiest and most vicious right-wing talking points, yet because he’s not a liberal, is deemed to be a legitimate news anchor.

The Washington Post’s Howie Kurtz — while repeatedly lamenting the ascent of Olbermann (and Maddow) as a threat to objective journalism — proclaims that “Hume is no partisan brawler” while Charlie Gibson gushes: “He has a wonderful style which makes you want to hear what Brit has to say, in an age when so many people are in your face.” The Associated Press recently declared that Fox News has never gone as far as MSNBC in producing partisan news coverage, asserting that “Olbermann’s popularity and evolving image as an idealogue (sic) has led NBC News to stretch traditional notions of journalistic objectivity” and that “Fox has never done that, perhaps mindful of the immediate controversy that would result.” Even the NYT article this morning echoed this view of Fox, noting:

While some critics argued that [Olbermann’s] assignment was akin to having the Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly anchor on election night — something that has never happened — MSNBC insisted that Mr. Olbermann knew the difference between news and commentary.

The proper analogy to Olbermann as anchor is not O’Reilly as anchor, but Brit Hume as anchor. Hume explicitly acknowledges his political conservatism. His entire show relentlessly promotes a right-wing narrative. Every night, he convenes panels composed of right-wing partisans such as Bill Kristol, Charles Krauthammer, Fred Barnes, and Mort Kondracke, and — at most — sometimes “balances” that with one of those allegedly neutral journalists such as Mara Liasson. Everything Brit Hume touches is designed to promote a right-wing perspective, yet he continues to be held out as some sort of legitimate news anchor — he actually hosted a Democratic Party presidential debate in 2004 — while MSNBC’s promotion of Keith Olbermann is some unique threat to the profession of journalism.

The single dumbest claim in our political culture is that the huge corporations which own our establishment media outlets promote a “liberal” ideology. Why would General Electric ever use NBC and its other media assets to promote political liberalism? They lavishly benefit from the whole panoply of right-wing policies — from endlessly expanding defense spending to deregulation. Their multiple businesses depend upon maintaining good relations with the right-wing ideologues who run our Government. Even ignoring all of the above-documented empirical facts, the very idea that a corporation like GE — or Viacom (CBS), Disney (ABC) and Time Warner (CNN) — would actively promote a left-wing agenda in its news divisions and undermine the very Government power centers on which they rely has been the most self-evidently moronic premise one can imagine. As Viacom CEO Sumner Redstone confessed in 2004:

Senator Kerry is a good man. I’ve known him for many years. But it happens that I vote for Viacom. Viacom is my life, and I do believe that a Republican Administration is better for media companies than a Democratic one.

And yet the myth of the large-corporation-owned “Liberal Media” persists, and even intensifies.

This decision by MSNBC is as alarming as it is illustrative. They just implicitly chided and overtly demoted their most popular and valuable news personality because the White House, the McCain campaign and the Right demanded that they do so. It’s fine for Brit Hume to host a “news program” and for hard-core right-wing ideologues to dominate cable news. The fact that Dick Cheney (understandably) viewed Tim Russert’s Meet the Press as the ideal forum to allow the White House to “control the message” bothered nobody outside of a few online critics, and didn’t remotely impede the perception of Russert as the Beacon of Tough and Objective Journalism. But MSNBC’s ratings-based decision to feature Keith Olbermann is a grave threat to modern journalism and must be stopped. So decrees the White House and the McCain campaign, and so the GE-owned MSNBC complies.

UPDATE: There’s one other point really worth making here. Throughout the primary season, Clinton supporters were furious at what they endlessly complained was MSBNC’s biased coverage in favor of Obama and, more so, its intensely hostile coverage of Hillary Clinton. Whatever one’s views on the primary war were, there is no question that Olbermann and Matthews in particular were extremely hostile to Clinton and supportive of Obama. But MSNBC executives ignored those complaints, even derided and mocked them, with MSNBC executive Phil belittling angry Clinton supporters in The New Yorker as nothing more than abused, disillusioned girlfriends with nowhere else to go:

[J]ust as Obama must work to win Clinton supporters for the fall campaign, Phil Griffin has to repair a fractured audience base, a portion of which saw sexism in his network’s Clinton coverage and vowed to boycott MSNBC. Griffin knows that some of that anger is aimed at his star anchor. “It was, like, you meet a guy and you fall in love with him, and he’s funny and he’s clever and he’s witty, and he’s all these great things,” Griffin said of the relationship between Olbermann and the Clinton supporters among his viewers. “And then you commit yourself to him, and he turns out to be a jerk and difficult and brutal. And that is how the Hillary viewers see him. It’s true. But I do think they’re going to come back. There’s nowhere else to go.”

Again, regardless of what one thought of the primary wars or even MSNBC’s coverage of the Clinton/Obama race, the contrast between (a) MSNBC’s dismissive reaction to complaints of bias from Clinton supporters and (b) its obedience to similar complaints from the Right is stark and revealing. The overriding attribute of the Liberal Media is a deep and abiding fear of angering the Right.

Relatedly, I’ll be on Rachel Maddow’s radio show tonight (exact time posted once I know it) to discuss the Right’s complaints about media bias in the context of the presidential campaign. Local listings and live audio feed are here. Rachel’s MSNBC show debuts tonight.

Glenn Greenwald was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator in New York. He is the author of the New York Times Bestselling book “How Would a Patriot Act?,” a critique of the Bush administration’s use of executive power, released in May 2006. His second book, “A Tragic Legacy”, examines the Bush legacy.

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