vendredi 29 juillet 2011

Is MSNBC deliberately trying to taint its own brand?

Pundits whose brains are incapable of holding two thoughts at the same time think that MSNBC is "the left's Fox News". But while most (not all) of MSNBC's news/commentary shows lean to the left of what passes for the center these days (which really resembles 1964 Goldwater conservatism more than anything else), there is one characteristic of MSNBC's hosts that does not apply to Fox: With the exception of Joe Scarborough, who's still living in a delusional Republicanland where idiotic mouth-frothing teabagger lunatics don't control his party, MSNBC hosts don't just pull lies out of their asses and pass them off as demonstrable fact. And especially now that they've unwisely jettisoned the oh-too-confrontational Cenk Uygur, MSNBC represents the genteel left. Like it or not, you're never going to see Lawrence O'Donnell (who admirably fought bravely on as Joey "What ABOUT Lori Klausutis, anyway?" the Scar tried to filibuster him yesterday morning) call Rep. Peter King an asshole on the air. And even Rachel Maddow, who is now completely free to do pretty much whatever she wants, as MSNBC's reigning star, tends to wield tiny poison darts at those she demolishes rather than of carrying a big stick -- and doing it all with a smile. It's a successful formula that has managed to survive, and even thrive, in the post-Olbermann era, even as people like me have returned to the Olbermann fold, preferring to watch "The Last Word" as time permits the next day.

But aside from the factual differences between MSNBC's coverage of current events and that of Fox, MSNBC's point of pride is hat it hasn't acted as the propaganda arm of a political party the way Fox News does. O'Donnell is a bit too much of an Obama cheerleader for my taste; obviously still subscribing to the 11-dimensional chess theory of Obama rather than what increasingly looks like the reality -- that at best Obama is twisting himself into pretzels to appeal to and appease the right because of his unique childhood baggage, while at worst he really IS a moderate-right conservative. At least O'Donnell has arrived at his views through a coherent thought proess and is prepared to argue his points rather than just spouting talking points. But as we found out with the jettisoning of Cenk Uygur, MSNBC is first and foremost about access, and when opinion interferes with that access, Phil Griffin steps in.

The best spin on the decision to replace Uygur with Al Sharpton, despite strong ratings, is to add more diversity to MSNBC's all-white lineup (though it seems to me that with Muslims and gays being the hated minorities of choice on the right these days, a lineup that has an out lesbian in Rachel Maddow as its public face, the British-of-Pakistani-origins Martin Bashir on in the afternoon and Uygur, who was born in Turkey to Sunni Muslim parents, is more diverse than ANY on other news channel). So when MSNBC decided to replace Cenk Uygur with Al Sharpton at 6 PM, I had to scratch my head. Sharpton? Yes, Sharpton can be incisive and even funny when talking off-the-cuff, and he stole the show at the 2004 presidential debates, but even cable news is not journalism school. And for a sizable portion of the population, the name "Al Sharpton" is still far too closely associated with the image of Tawana Brawley insisting that "No one manipsnates (sic) me or my family."

Sharpton is a bright guy and has been a media star, or at the very least a media figure, for a long time; and even Rachel Maddow had that deer-in-the-headlights look for a few weeks in the beginning as she became more comfortable with a teleprompter. I'm sure that once he's more comfortable, we'll see the witty side of Sharpton come out, but demeanor isn't Sharpton's only problem. As Glenn Greenwald notes, Sharpton really IS the left's equivalent of a Fox News host -- to the detriment of the MSNBC brand:
On Sunday, Cenk Uygur was interviewed by CNN's Howard Kurtz about Uygur's departure from MSNBC, and Ugyur claimed that Al Sharpton -- widely reported to be his replacement -- vowed in a 60 Minutes interview never to criticize President Obama under any circumstances.  When I first heard Ugyur make this claim, I assumed it was hyperbole -- until I watched the video and read the transcript of the Sharpton interview.  The 60 Minutes segment was aired on May 19, 2011, and chronicles what it calls Sharpton's "metamorphosis: today he's down right tame. So much so, that he has made his way into the establishment."  It includes this:

Sharpton told us that having a black president is a challenge: if he finds fault with Mr. Obama, he'd be aiding those who want to destroy him. So he has decided not to criticize the president about anything -- even about black unemployment, which is twice the national rate.

The segment also described Sharpton as "now a trusted White House adviser" and recounts that "given his loyalty and his change from confrontational to accommodating, the administration is rewarding him with access and assignments."

How can a media outlet such as MSNBC that purports to be presenting political journalism possibly employ someone as a journalist -- even an opinion journalist -- who publicly and categorically pledges never to criticize the President of the United States under any circumstances?  That would be like hiring a physician who vows never to treat any diseases, or employing an auto mechanic who pledges never to fix any cars, or retaining a pollster who swears never to make any findings about public opinion.  Holding people in political power accountable is the prime function -- the defining feature -- of a journalist, including a pundit; if you expressly and publicly vow never to do that, how can you possibly be credibly presented as being one?  And how can the political analysis of someone who takes this pledge possibly be trusted as sincerely held, let alone accurate?  Note that this vow was not from three years ago; it was from two months ago.

There's an ongoing battle going on over at the Great Orange Satan about how much to criticize Barack Obama. And even here, I see comments every now and then telling me to STFU about Obama, that to criticize Obama is to want Mitt Romney to be president (speaking of not being able to hold two thoughts in one's head at the same time). But when we are seeing play out before our very eyes what happens when people put rigid ideology (and in the case of criticism of Obama, keeping one's mouth shut isn't even about ideology) or party loyalty ahead of the national good, it's difficult to justify keeping silent while President Obama time after time proceeds to blow whatever chance he had at being the transformational leader he could have been. It does the nation no favors, and in Al Sharpton's case, it taints whatever journalistic cred he's trying to build.

So here is MSNBC, a network that's established a niche, that can even point to the high morning ratings of Joey What Happened To Lori Klausutis as showing diverse points of view and Andrea Mitchell and Chris Matthews as the faces of "traditional journalism", that genuinely CAN be described as "fair and balanced" for the most part, getting rid of some of its most formidable talent for speaking too much to power and replacing one of them with a guy who has steamer trunks of credibility-tainting baggage.

It makes me wonder if Sharpton was hired specifically so that if he doesn't get Cenk's ratings, it will be deemed an excuse to abandon its even vaguely left-of-lunatic-right leanings and again try the "Let's Be Like Fox" tactic.

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