The emergence of liberal evening hosts on General Electric’s MSNBC has been welcomed by Democrats and others on the American Left as a counterweight to the right and center-right bias of much of the U.S. news media. But there is a difference between GE testing out whether this lineup will produce a ratings boost and actual independence in journalism.
That point was underscored in a New York Times article describing how GE responded to corporate pressure from Fox News by having GE chairman Jeffrey Immelt strike a deal with Fox News boss Rupert Murdoch, a truce that muzzled MSNBC host Keith Olbermann’s criticism of his Fox rival Bill O’Reilly, in exchange for O’Reilly muting his attacks on GE.
Though one can agree that the Olbermann-O’Reilly sniping was getting out of hand – and that there are far more important matters facing the country – the larger message is that the Left’s enthusiasm at having a few news shows reflecting a liberal outlook survives only at the forbearance of GE executives.
There is, after all, a big difference between Murdoch’s News Corporation’s longstanding commitment to a right-wing perspective on Fox News and General Electric experimenting with a lineup of a few liberals after other ratings strategies had failed.
News Corp. has shown that it is not going to budge on its right-wing content, while GE’s record suggests that it would jettison Olbermann, Rachel Maddow and Ed Schultz in a heartbeat if that would advance its corporate interests.
Already, the speak-no-ill-of-Fox mandate appears to be influencing the news content on MSNBC. Not only has Olbermann silenced his attacks on O’Reilly, but MSNBC has left out a key element of the recent right-wing disruptions of Democratic “town hall” meetings on health-care reform – that the hooliganism is being openly encouraged by Fox News.
Olbermann and Maddow have provided in-depth coverage of those near riots that confront congressional Democrats as they speak with their constituents about health care. But it fell to Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart to highlight the circular involvement of Fox News in promoting the anti-reform talking points, egging on the disruptions and then giving them favorable coverage.
Olbermann and Maddow focused on the behind-the-scenes role of medical industry lobbyists but appeared to be wearing blinders when it came to the instigating role of Fox News.
The emergence of the Olbermann-Maddow-Schultz lineup on MSNBC also may have the unintended consequence of lulling American liberals into complacency over the need to build independent media that will fight for truth and rational discourse without fear of corporate pressures.
One of the great myths that I have encountered over the years in trying to raise money for independent journalism at Consortiumnews.com is the notion that a pendulum will automatically swing back from the far right without much exertion or check-writing.
The experimental MSNBC lineup is viewed as proof of that theory, since even a conglomerate as deeply enmeshed in the military-industrial complex as GE is producing some liberal content.
However, the real history of MSNBC – and its sister network CNBC – should give pause to any celebration. As the truce with Fox News suggests, GE will put its larger corporate interests ahead of any commitment to truth-telling.
Since its founding in 1996, MSNBC has rarely confronted the serious political challenges facing the United States – and more often than not – has contributed to the problems.
During the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, the network showed little skepticism about Republican motives and sat mostly mute – along with the bulk of the U.S. news media – as George W. Bush stole the White House by blocking a Florida recount after Election 2000.
In 2003, as Bush marched the nation off to war in Iraq, MSNBC dumped its one skeptical host, Phil Donahue, and set out to “out-fox Fox” with flag-waving super-patriotism. As the war hysteria built, MSNBC sent a correspondent and a crew to give all-day coverage to some diner that had renamed French fries as “freedom fries.”
As the invasion began, MSNBC adopted the Bush administration’s title for the war – “Operation Iraqi Freedom” – and emblazoned an American flag on the corner of its screens, just like Fox.
Parent network NBC also cast aside any objectivity with anchor Tom Brokaw sitting among retired military officers on March 19, 2003, the night of the Iraq invasion, and observing, “in a few days, we’re going to own that country.”
As U.S. troops pressed toward Baghdad, MSNBC aired sentimental salutes to the troops, including mini-profiles of U.S. soldiers in a feature called “America’s Bravest.” The network also broadcast Madison Avenue-style promos of the war that featured images of heroic U.S. troops and happy Iraqis.
Left out of MSNBC’s frame were blood-stained images of overflowing hospitals, terrified children or grieving mothers. The individual promos carried messages, such as “Home of the Brave” and “Let Freedom Ring.”
Reporting about U.S. military reversals during the early days of the war also brought swift reprisals. When veteran war correspondent Peter Arnett observed accurately to an Iraqi TV interviewer that Iraqi military resistance was stiffer than U.S. military planners had expected, he was fired by NBC and kicked off its MSNBC affiliate.
As unprofessional as MSNBC’s behavior may have been, this flag-waving journalism worked where it counted most – in the ratings race.
Though MSNBC remained in third place among U.S. cable news outlets, it posted the highest ratings growth in the lead-up to war and during the actual fighting, up 124 percent compared with a year earlier. Fox News, the industry leader, racked up a 102 percent gain and No. 2 CNN rose 91 percent. [WSJ, April 21, 2003]
Though some Americans switched to BBC or CNN International to find more objective war coverage, large numbers of Americans clearly wanted the “feel-good” nationalism of Fox News and MSNBC. Images of U.S. troops surrounded by smiling Iraqi children were more appealing than knowing the full truth.
As Baghdad fell in April 2003, nearly the entire U.S. press corps was on its knees before “war hero” Bush. MSNBC’s “Hardball” host Chris Matthews was all softballs for Bush and his neoconservative advisers. “We’re all neo-cons now,” purred Matthews.
MSNBC also led the way in punishing out-of-step Americans. Host Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman, singled out former U.N. weapons inspector Scott Ritter, who had doubted the existence of Iraqi WMD, as the “chief stooge for Saddam Hussein” and demanded that Ritter and other skeptics apologize.
“I’m waiting to hear the words ‘I was wrong’ from some of the world’s most elite journalists, politicians and Hollywood types,” Scarborough said. “Maybe disgraced commentators and politicians alike, like [Sen. Tom] Daschle, Jimmy Carter, Dennis Kucinich, and all those others, will step forward tonight and show the content of their character by simply admitting what we know already: that their wartime predictions were arrogant, they were misguided and they were dead wrong.”
Scarborough also thought it was entirely appropriate to punish Iraq War critics by denying them employment. He mocked actors Sean Penn and Tim Robbins for complaining about career retaliation for their war opposition.
“Sean Penn is fired from an acting job and finds out that actions bring about consequences. Whoa, dude!” chortled Scarborough.
As justification for depriving Penn of work, Scarborough cited a comment that Penn made while on a pre-war trip to Iraq. Penn said, “I cannot conceive of any reason why the American people and the world would not have shared with them the evidence that they [U.S. officials] claim to have of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.”
MSNBC, of course, was not alone in its attitudes. CNN’s Lou Dobbs questioned the patriotism of the few skeptical journalists, saying: “Some journalists, in my judgment, just can’t stand success, especially a few liberal columnists and newspapers and a few Arab reporters.”
A couple of weeks after Baghdad’s fall, the George W. Bush cult literally took flight when Bush donned pilot gear and landed on a U.S. aircraft carrier off the California coast. On May 1, 2003, he appeared under a “Mission Accomplished” banner and declared the end of major combat.
Much of the U.S. news media rhetorically swooned at Bush’s feet.
“We’re proud of our President,” Matthews said. “Americans love having a guy as President, a guy who has a little swagger, who’s physical. ... 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.”
Despite MSNBC’s unprofessional groveling, the network discovered that it could not win over a significant number of Fox News viewers who could spot the real thing when they saw it. So, as the Iraq War dragged on and especially after Bush’s debacle over Hurricane Katrina in summer 2005, MSNBC began its drift toward a more liberal posture.
Olbermann’s “Countdown” show, which debuted in 2003, became increasingly critical of Bush as the President’s poll numbers declined. Olbermann often ended his show by noting how many days had passed since Bush had declared “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq.
Still, GE’s TV networks, including MSNBC, remained generally either mainstream or tilted to the right. For instance, CNBC filled its ranks of hosts with free-market extremists who fawned over corporate CEOs and disdained government regulation.
Even in recent months, as MSNBC has added evening shows for liberal radio hosts Rachel Maddow and Ed Schultz, CNBC has remained a bulwark against anyone who would question right-wing free-market theories.
Despite the financial meltdown of 2007-08 -- caused by excessive Wall Street risk-taking and the Bush administration’s anti-regulatory zeal -- most CNBC hosts act as if nothing happened that would shake their free-market ideology.
Though President Bush himself acknowledged that government intervention was needed to save the country from falling “into a depression greater than the Great Depression,” CNBC host Larry Kudlow and his various sidekicks refuse to acknowledge the obvious: that their free-market principles had failed.
As U.S. stock markets rebounded – after trillions of dollars of government bailouts had stabilized Wall Street banks – Kudlow declared this week that a “bull market” had arrived “despite” the actions of Washington. The taxpayer’s role in pulling the markets back from the abyss would not be acknowledged.
So, the American Left shouldn’t feel too confident that MSNBC’s liberal evening lineup would survive a shift in the political winds or weather a renewed buffeting of GE corporate offices from an outside storm of pressures.
In that sense, the New York Times story about silencing Olbermann’s feud with O’Reilly is instructive. In 2007, O’Reilly moved beyond attacking Olbermann’s network bosses and “started to shift his attention from NBC, up to its parent, GE,” the Times reported.
“Mr. O’Reilly had a young producer, Jesse Walters, ambush Mr. Immelt and ask about GE’s business in Iran, which is legal and which includes sales of energy and medical technology,” the Times wrote.
Last April, critics of MSNBC – accompanied by one of O’Reilly’s producers – stormed a GE shareholders’ meeting in a disruptive tactic that is similar to what is now being deployed against health-reform town meetings. The pressure on GE appears to have worked.
At an off-the-record summit of corporate CEOs in mid-May, PBS interviewer Charlie Rose asked GE’s Immelt and News Corp.’s Murdoch about the cable TV feud and elicited expressions of regret from both executives.
Soon afterwards, the Times reported, Immelt’s and Murdoch’s “lieutenants arranged a cease-fire.” By early June, Olbermann’s regular references to “Bill-O the Clown,” who often topped the show’s “Worst Persons in the World” list, had stopped.
If the truce redirects Olbermann’s attention to topics beyond insular cable TV rivalries, some good might come of it. But it also could impose silence on Olbermann when Fox News is a major factor in right-wing politics as it works to frame issues and to rally the troops, as comedian Jon Stewart noted.
In that sense, censorship can be a disease that may seem harmless at first, even reasonable. But the infection can quickly spread, eating away at the quality and credibility of journalism.
Also, once the first compromises are accepted, other more important ones may follow, especially if corporate executives fear that telling some uncomfortable truths might inflict bottom-line damage.
For those reasons, corporate journalism will never be a substitute for truly independent journalism that operates without fear or favor.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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This story was published on August 5, 2009.