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Fear Factor: The Right vs. MSNBC

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Fear Factor: The Right vs. MSNBC

There were two moments during MSNBC’s coverage of the Democratic and Republican conventions when I changed the channel to CNN (or Fox News, out of curiosity): once when protesters with handmade signs calling for the “truth about 9/11” were inexplicably allowed to stand around and scream behind the cable network’s outdoor news-anchor desk, and once after Barack Obama finished his acceptance speech and commentator Keith Olbermann proceeded to have an on-air orgasm. On the season premiere of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher the following night, Maher joked that Olbermann (and presumably co-host Chris Matthews) wanted to have sex with the Democratic presidential nominee. The suspicion that Olbermann and Matthews have man-crushes (or at the very least, biases) led to the announcement on Monday that NBC News is replacing the pair with MSNBC host David Gregory during the forthcoming presidential debates and election night.

Olbermann’s bias toward Obama was made clear during the Democratic primary, and both he and Matthews were criticized for their comments about Sen. Hillary Clinton. Olbermann’s political views (and, unlike his Fox News contemporaries, his acknowledgement of those views) made him an odd pick for primetime news coverage: If you wanted an objective opinion during the Democratic convention in particular, you had to switch to CNN or network TV or wait for—gasp!—Pat Buchanan to toss in his (usually fair and balanced) two cents.

One of the so-called controversial moments reported by The New York Times occurred on the final night of the Republican convention, when Olbermann apologized to viewers after airing an RNC video billed as “a tribute to the victims of 9/11.” Atop images of the World Trade Center in flames, a foreboding voiceover reminded us of “buildings burning,” “bodies falling” and “beautiful faces and those loving voices, now gone forever.” Anything but a tribute to those who died on that day, it was the politicization and exploitation of the deaths of thousands of people in order to win an election, and it was clear that the RNC hoped to stir up the specter of fear and loss that helped George W. Bush win the 2004 election:

During the convention, Republicans repeatedly, amusingly spoke about taking Washington back, attempting to squash efforts by Democrats to paint John McCain’s policies as a continuation of Bush’s, but the 9/11 “tribute” only confirmed those associations. Since September 12, 2001, Bush and his party have used fear to move their domestic and foreign political agendas forward. Our patriotism and unity were exploited for political gain, and Olbermann spoke for those of us who watched the video with mouths agape and stomachs turning.

While I don’t agree with Salon’s Glenn Greenwald that MSNBC is removing Olbermann and Matthews solely because of right-wing pressure (is it not possible that complaints confirmed what they, like I, already felt?), his take on the Liberal Media Myth is spot-on, particularly his observation that cable news panels typically balance out their right-wing guests with neutral correspondents—perpetuating the right-wing lie that neutral equals “liberal” and therefore the media must be liberal. (This myth is most effectively debunked by so-called liberal papers like The New York Times, who practically rolled out a red carpet for the U.S. military’s invasion of Iraq.) By instilling the fear that a news outlet will be painted blue (and thus see its perceived objectivity diminished), the right has found a way to control the media. Anchors are forced to bite their tongues or remain “neutral” even in the face of hard facts, giving the same weight to both sides of an argument when one side doesn’t deserve it. Climate change skeptics, for example, are given equal time when the science simply doesn’t support their views. The Equal Time Rule might be fair and balanced for presidential candidates, but not for news.

In his New York Times article about the NBC News shakeup, Brian Stelter referred to both Olbermann and Matthews as “politically incendiary.” Matthews is undoubtedly incendiary, but politically? Though much of the Hardball host’s positive commentary about Republican politicos could be interpreted as old-fashioned sexism (he likes ’em tough and stopped just short of calling Hillary Clinton a bitch during the primary), Matthews is one of the most passionate, evenhanded commentators on cable news today. If he seems biased in a 2008 snapshot, it’s because he’s disappointed by the way the Bush administration—an administration, it should be noted, for which he voted in 2000—has conducted itself over the last eight years and has behaved as any news reporter should: as a watchdog. Perhaps the NBC brass was trying to spare Olbermann’s ego by taking Matthews down with him. Both men will still be opining as “political analysts” through November 4th, and Gregory is competent (at least we’re not getting more Dan Abrams), but Matthews is MSNBC’s most undervalued asset.

UPDATE: I can’t bring myself to write anything substantial about this whole “lipstick on a pig” ridiculousness (Greenwald said it all in his column today), but note the poll question posted on MSNBC’s website today for further proof that either a) the myth that the media, and specifically MSNBC, is “liberal” is just that—a myth, or b) the right is succeeding at shaping the tone and political bias of said liberal media, specifically MSNBC. It asks, “Do you think Sen. Barack Obama went too far with his ’lipstick on a pig’ remark?” and then offers three options, none of which are “No, the right wing wants you to pay attention to shallow sideshows to make you forget what they’ve done to the country over the last 8 years”:

1. Yes, he has crossed the line this time.
2. No, this is just part of the rough-and-tumble of political campaigning.
3. I don’t know.

This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.