US comedian Bill Maher is publicly ending his romance with the MSNBC news network.
The liberal entertainer and commentator, an unapologetic supporter of President Obama and donator to his Super-PAC, has finally been persuaded to look for love elsewhere because even though they share a similar core ideology, MSNBC has become too strident and partisan in its approach to delivering the news. In short, he claims, MSNBC is becoming Fox News:
Whatever we had is not working any more. You’re obviously interested in another man: Chris Christie. You’re obsessed with him. So I wanted you to hear it from me first. I’m going to start seeing other news organizations. I’ll miss what we had. It was a rocket ship ride. We were both passionate flaming liberals and we didn’t care what the world thought of us. It was a glorious time. We finished each other’s Sarah Palin jokes. But now we never talk about any of the things we used to talk about: global warming, gun control, poverty… All because Chris Christie came along and put you under his spell.
Look at yourself. You’re turning into Fox News. Bridgegate has become your Benghazi, and this isn’t easy to say, but you and I are no longer on the same news cycle. Sure, you read me the results of a recent Gallup poll, but you never really ask me how I’m feeling. It’s not you, it’s… Chris Christie.
While the reality is not quite so black-and-white, it is certainly true that MSNBC’s programming has suffered lately as editorial focus (particularly in January) seized on New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s political travails at the expense of almost everything else, abandoning any significant discussion of public policy in favour of personality-based and partisan attacks.
Sure, Chris Christie may yet be proven to be at fault in the Bridgegate scandal, and the network’s intrepid main anchor and personality, Rachel Maddow, was covering the story long before it exploded into the national consciousness. But the degree to which the network then seized on the issue, to a far greater extent than other news networks, shows the Fox mentality starting to manifest itself in a very real way at MSNBC.
Bill Maher has long been able to draw laughs from his audience by pointing out the formulaic approach to journalism that lies behind the success of Fox News, as shown in this typical excerpt:
Here is the key quote:
They [Fox News and other populist right wing media outlets] have discovered that there is a fortune to be made keeping a small portion of America under the illusion that they are always under attack, from Mexicans or ACORN or Planned Parenthood or gays or takers or global warming hoaxers…it doesn’t matter. They don’t want a majority, they want a mailing list. A list of the kind of gullible Honey Boo-Boos out there who think that there’s a war on Christmas, and that the socialist policies of our Kenyan president have been so disastrous that the end of the world is coming.
The fact that Maher now sees parallels in MSNBC’s programming should concern anyone who has an interest in promoting a free and principled media providing a service essential to democracy over an array of narrowly-targeted niche outlets, each making their money by reinforcing the existing fears and prejudices of their respective audiences.
And the extent of MSNBC’s decline does not stop there. Any reader of MSNBC’s facebook account would struggle sometimes to distinguish it from President Obama’s. They trumpet the same initiatives, promote the same causes, celebrate (or invite their readers to celebrate) the same successes.
And, increasingly, they are starting to get touchy when called out on it:
Ultimately, the problem extends far beyond Fox News and MSNBC who are only the latest media organisation trying to emulate Fox’s success. The real problem occurs when any news outlet decides that its primary purpose for being is to help “balance the debate” in response to perceived slanting or bias from elsewhere.
The Fox News Channel proclaims itself to be “Fair and Balanced”. But when probed further about specific instances of right-wing bias on-air, Fox’s journalists, editorial staff and managers do not rush to draw public attention to the Fox News editorial guidelines or their policy on political impartiality. Instead, they draw attention to what they see as the liberal bias of the “mainstream media” and describe their role as being to correct the bias by offering an alternative point of view.
But as soon as you start seeing yourself as a counterweight to something else, you can no longer plausibly claim to inhabit the centre. This is what has now happened to MSNBC. That network watched for a long time as Fox News grew, prospered and humiliated them in the ratings by offering their viewers a diet of politically conservative-skewed infotainment, and now appears to have decided to copy and emulate large sections of their business plan, likely out of a twin desire to reap the same success and to give liberal voices an equally brash, punchy voice. Thus, their motto “Lean Forward”, is becoming increasingly descriptive of what they do, and not for the better.
Progressive opinions and ideas can expect to be given more airtime and favourable editorial consideration on MSNBC, while dissenting conservative voices will be fewer and further between. It is true that many of the new generation of Republicans, hailing from conservative gerrymandered districts and used to sympathetic media, are virtually incapable of taking part in real fact and reason-based debate, and shy away from MSNBC anyway. But even more so than has already been the case, when conservatives do feature on MSNBC it will more likely be as the targets of scandal-related investigative journalism along the lines of Bridgegate.
This is not a positive trend. Were it to continue, the only feature of MSNBC preferable to Fox News will be the honesty of their motto. “Lean Forward” at least strongly hints at the network’s political leanings, whereas “Fair and Balanced” is a running joke in the media world, so clearly does it contradict Fox News’ real motives.
There is probably an initial rush of euphoria to be had, discovering and catering to a new, thus far neglected market of strident and angry liberals who are happy to be fed the Obama administration line. And it may be some time until the network misses the favour of Bill Maher and others who are happy to wear their liberalism on their sleeve, but do not wish to be condescended to by being fed a heavily curated and redacted leftward spin on the news.
But, if they do not change course, the time will come when MSNBC regrets taking the low road. Bill Maher was not the first to compare MSNBC to Fox, and he won’t be the last. Perhaps when the two brands become equally synonymous with partisan propaganda, the executives in charge will realise what they have done.