Rachel Maddow and MSNBC

Chris Christie recently referred to MSNBC as a ‘partisan network that has been openly hostile’ to his administration, and ‘almost gleeful’ in their efforts to bring him down.  I’ve also noticed my conservative friends attacking MSNBC, including a few people who linked to this national review piece, which describes MSNBC as an alternate universe, where ‘the political center of gravity and all things Good are defined by the preferences of the faculty at Berkeley and the comments section of the Daily Kos and in which anyone who dissents from this position is believed to possess two heads, a black heart, and a pocket copy of Mein Kampf.’  The Christie administration has also suggested that MSNBC is entirely under the malevolent control of Rachel Maddow.  Shudder.

It makes sense.  Since Fox News is the preferred network for conservatives, it makes sense that conservatives would accuse MSNBC of being a liberal (or ‘ultra-liberal’) alternative.  In some ways, it’s as though American journalism has moved towards a European/British model, in which papers (and TV talk shows) openly display political bias, and voters are defined by the news sources we favor.  Since we’re presumably seeing everything through a partisan lens, it makes sense that media bias would be celebrated.  Traditionally, the idea was that news networks would try to stay as scrupulously unbiased as possible.  People trusted Walter Cronkite because they didn’t know, or even suspect what his biases and prejudices might have been.  He was just reporting the news.

I don’t think that anyone nowadays believes that objectivity is possible.  We’re defined by our life experiences, by our culture, by our backgrounds and family ties and religious beliefs and political experiences. The question isn’t whether or not objectivity is possible; it’s whether or not objectivity is desirable.  Is this something we should be striving for?  Let’s suppose that you’re a journalist, and you are also an admirer of President Obama. And you learn something that you believe to be true, but that reflects badly on his administration.  Should you report it?  I think the obvious answer is ‘yes.’  Of course you should.  Journalism is about telling the truth (to the limited extent that it’s discernible) about people in power.

The National Review attack on MSNBC points to the damning ‘fact’ that 85% of the network’s schedule is given over to commentary, and only 15% to news.  Fox, on the other hand, is more balanced; ‘55% opinion, and 45% news.’

I watch both networks, though, and there are clear differences between them. First of all, let’s admit this: both networks try to cover big stories more or less the same.  Hurricane Sandy, or the Boston bombings, or a Presidential election–those kinds of big, all hands on board stories get full coverage on both networks.

But the rest of the time, when there’s not that One Big Story, Fox has some real journalists on their network, and they do straight news shows, but they inject commentary and opinion into, essentially, everything.  When it comes to opinion shows, like Bill O’Reilly’s show or Sean Hannity’s show or now Megyn Kelly’s show, the model is basically that of talk radio.  This is not a put-down.  Talk radio is really really hard to do.  But the bullying tactics of O’Reilly when he has a guest on that he disagrees with, that’s all straight from conservative talk radio.  I think that may be why Megyn Kelly’s show doesn’t work; her inexperience in long-form chatting shows.  She’s an agreeable camera presence, and she’s not as confrontational in her interviews as some of her colleagues have been, but let’s not pretend her show is better than it is–she’s got a long way to go.

Because whatever you may think of their politics, if you listen to Rush Limbaugh or any of his radio colleagues, what they do is astonishing.  David Foster Wallace once explained it; try sitting down at your kitchen table, and just talking on any subject you want to for an extended period of time.  Say twenty minutes.  You have to speak, ex tempore, on any subject at all, for twenty minutes, without repeating yourself, without babbling or pausing or stopping, and you have to make cogent, reasoned arguments, and you have to make sense, and, also, it has to be entertaining enough for thousand/hundreds of thousands/millions of people to want to listen to it.  It’s incredibly difficult.

I did it for awhile.  I did radio for years, and I had a sports call-in talk show.  My gosh was it hard.  I listen to someone like Jim Rome, who does sports talk for a living, and I’m kind of in awe.  He’s projecting personality and attitude, while also getting his facts right, and he does for hours every day, and it’s never boring and it’s never less than riveting.  Amazing.

For some reason, though, political talk radio is almost entirely dominated by conservatives.  I don’t know why that is; it might be that the conservative heroes/villains narrative is easier to construct and maintain than the liberal heroes/villains narrative, for whatever reason.  But Fox News is the beneficiary. Rush Limbaugh, it turns out, doesn’t wear well on television, nor does Dr. Laura or a lot of other radio personalities, but some do very well indeed, including Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity.  Megyn Kelly doesn’t have that background, and it shows.

But the only person on MSNBC with a radio background is Rachel Maddow.  And it shows on her too.  For one thing, she repeats herself.  This is a useful rhetorical skill on radio, but it can be a little grating on TV.  She’ll say,”the one person, the only person, the single person most responsible for . . . .”  It’s used for emphasis, yes, but also a helpful habit to keep radio listeners, who are probably driving somewhere in their cars, posted on what’s going on.

But the other MSNBC news/opinion shows are really not very good.  Martin Bashir comes across as pompous and arrogant, all the things that make conservatives hate liberals.  Lawrence O’Donnell can be astonishingly self-righteous and especially intolerant of religious people.  Poor old Reverend Al Sharpton just seems sort of out of it a lot of the time.  Chris Hayes was pretty good, and I think Steve Kornacki’s new show has some promise.  But for the most part, Rachel Maddow is the main reason to watch MSNBC at all.

And she’s terrific, mostly because what she does ISN’T really commentary, it’s journalism.  Here’s why I say that:

She always acknowledges her news sources.  She’s great about it; saying ‘most of the story comes from reporting by the (local newspaper).’  She wants to get the story right.  If she has a guest on, she’ll say ‘you’ve seen our coverage about this story.  You know more about it than I do. How have we done? Did we get anything wrong, and if so, what?’  She documents everything; every allegation.  If she doesn’t know something,she’ll say so. And when she does offer her opinion, it’s pretty modestly stated.  She’ll say ‘now, this is just my conjecture. . . .’

It is true that she’s really gone after Governor Christie’s administration a lot lately.  And she can come across a bit gleeful.  But she’s not anti-Christie, except in the same sense in which Woodward and Bernstein were anti-Nixon.  She’s got a whale of a story in her sights, and like any good journalist, she’s going to pursue it.  And for months, she’s been the only mainstream journalist interested in ‘Bridgegate.’  Small wonder that she’s excited about how that story seems to be unwinding.

She wrote a terrific book last year, about the military and above all our nuclear arsenal.  It was a superbly researched book of sheer journalism.  She’s really a good journalist more than anything.

There certainly is some sense in which Fox is the cable network for conservatives and MSNBC is the cable network for liberals.  But there’s some solid journalism being done on MSNBC. Where both networks are deficient is in the area of policy analysis. With Ezra Klein leaving the Washington Post, abandoning the immensely valuable Wonkblog, there’s a real opportunity for a non-partisan, policy driven, wonkish TV show that just looks at the facts of various policy proposals out there.  Does raising the minimum wage cost jobs, for example?  Ezra Klein was great at just running the numbers for us, on Wonkblog.  There’s talk that he will be given a show to do just that on MSNBC.  That’s where he belongs, honestly.



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