If MSNBC is really "leaning left," why does Chris Matthews keep saying African-Americans aren't "regular people"?
The past several months have brought a congealing conventional wisdom among many reporters and pundits that MSNBC is lurching to the left. It is perhaps unsurprising that this story line would emerge. It is, however, nonsense.
Why is the story line unsurprising? Quite simply, several of its most prominent advocates have a clear interest in MSNBC being seen as liberal.
Fox News' Bill O'Reilly, for example, attacks MSNBC (and its older sibling, NBC) for purported liberal bias. But O'Reilly is anything but a disinterested observer. Fox has always justified its right-wing agenda by claiming it is a necessary counterbalance to the "liberal media." With more and more Americans realizing how thoroughly the media are in the tank for John McCain, Fox's entire rationale for existing, always dubious at best, is in danger of vanishing altogether. On top of which, O'Reilly and MSNBC's Keith Olbermann seem to legitimately despise each other and to delight in their mutual disdain. Finally, the MSNBC-Fox feud goes beyond the rival anchors: Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes reportedly called NBC chief executive Jeff Zucker last year and threatened that if Olbermann kept criticizing Fox, Ailes would turn O'Reilly loose on MSNBC -- and that the New York Post, Fox's tabloid sibling, would join in the fight.
Then there is Howard Kurtz, who writes about the media for The Washington Post and is widely considered the most influential media analyst in the country. Last week, Kurtz wrote a 1,300-word article about MSNBC headlined "MSNBC, Leaning Left And Getting Flak From Both Sides."
Oddly, though, Kurtz didn't actually present criticism of MSNBC from "both sides" of the debate over whether the cable channel is "leaning left." Kurtz detailed claims from John McCain's campaign that MSNBC is "an organ of the Democratic National Committee" and is "a partisan advocacy organization that exists for the purpose of attacking John McCain." And Kurtz included criticism from supporters of Hillary Clinton that the cable channel has favored Barack Obama. But Kurtz didn't so much as hint at any concern by anyone that MSNBC routinely traffics in conservative misinformation and effusively praises John McCain. No, the "both sides" Kurtz presented were conservatives who see MSNBC as anti-Republican and Democrats who see MSNBC as pro-Obama. That's Fox-style "balance" (in which the cable channel features Republicans who criticize Democrats and Democrats who criticize Democrats) in the pages of The Washington Post.
Kurtz's transparently skewed assessment of MSNBC makes it impossible to avoid wondering whether Kurtz's relationship with CNN got in the way of his judgment. Kurtz hosts a weekly television show on CNN -- an obvious conflict of interest that Kurtz did not disclose in his MSNBC article. To borrow an analogy first made by Charles Kaiser, this is like The Washington Post allowing a business reporter to write an article critical of Ford while working on the side for General Motors -- without disclosing the financial relationship with GM.
Just this week, TVNewser quoted a "high level source inside MSNBC" referring to the cable channel as "the in-house network of Barack Obama." In relating the comments, TVNewser reported that "MSNBC has drawn criticism from pundits from both parties, other journalists and the White House, for the perceived, and often obvious, leftward shift of their lead political anchors Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann."
But this increasing chatter about MSNBC's "leftward shift" overlooks countless examples of the cable channel spreading conservative misinformation, a small sampling of which follows. (Note: According to the Associated Press, "The network has emphasized that MSNBC and NBC News are synonymous." Good enough for me. The examples below involve NBC, MSNBC, and CNBC reporters, though the overwhelming majority occurred on MSNBC, not on the sibling channels.)
One of the defining characteristics of MSNBC's political coverage is mockery and ridicule of progressives. Hillary Clinton was the target of a great deal of this, but so were Al Gore (as Bob Somerby has extensively documented) and John Kerry and Bill Clinton and others. And Barack Obama has received such treatment from MSNBC personalities in the past and will only face more now that he is the presumptive Democratic nominee.
Don't believe me? Almost immediately after Obama went over the top in the delegate count Tuesday night, Matthews began attacking him. Matthews went on an extended rant about Obama's purported inability to connect with "most Americans," because, according to Matthews, Obama has been poor, and he has been rich, but he has not been in the middle.
Later, after guest Harold Ford pointed to the fact that Barack and Michelle Obama were still paying off college loans just a few years ago as evidence that Obama is familiar with the economic concerns of middle-class America, Matthews' colleague Keith Olbermann retorted: "[T]here are people who are saying, ' "Still owe money on my student loans?"; we were so poor, we dreamed of having student loans.' "
So, according to Matthews, Obama's problem is that, having been poor and wealthy, he cannot relate to the middle class. And according to Olbermann, Obama's familiarity with middle-class concerns alienates him from the poor. According to MSNBC's election-night anchor duo, Obama has been too rich, too poor, and too middle class to relate to voters.
Given how frequently he invokes what he describes as Obama's inability to connect with "regular people," one can only assume Matthews must give the topic great consideration while lounging at the pool of his multimillion dollar Nantucket vacation home.
Matthews' election-night portrayal of Obama as out of touch with "most Americans" was striking in its intensity, but it was not a new theme. MSNBC personnel, particularly Matthews, have been trying out this anti-Obama theme for months. Matthews has attacked Obama for shooting pool ("[I]t's not what most people play. People with money play pool these days.") and obsessed over what he claims is Obama's inability to connect with "regular people" in "a dinette." And Matthews and David Shuster mocked Obama for the grievous sin of ordering orange juice in a diner.
Matthews has said of Obama, "[T]his gets very ethnic, but the fact that he's good at basketball doesn't surprise anybody, but the fact that he's that terrible at bowling does make you wonder." On another occasion, Matthews suggested that Obama's lack of bowling prowess "tells you something about the Democratic Party." Matthews has contrasted "regular people" with "people who come from the African-American community." He has suggested Obama should pick a Jewish running mate because he "need[s] some ethnic balance." Matthews has said Obama "seems a little foreign" and that he and Jeremiah Wright are "different faces of the same guy." And he has criticized other people, including comedian Jon Stewart, for using Barack Obama's middle name -- despite the fact that Chris Matthews was the first person to invoke Obama's middle name in a political context in any news report available on Nexis.
Cara at the blog Feministe has much more on Chris Matthews' troubling commentary about Barack Obama.
But Matthews isn't alone among MSNBC employees when it comes to insulting Obama.
Joe Scarborough has described Obama's bowling as "dainty" and suggested Obama is "prissy" and not a "real man." He criticized Obama for saying that he doesn't share all of his grandmother's beliefs -- less than a week after Scarborough himself had said the same thing about his own parents. Tucker Carlson accuses Michelle Obama of having "a chip on her shoulder."
MSNBC personnel like Scarborough and Pat Buchanan routinely refer to Obama as the most liberal member of the Senate, apparently relying on a deeply flawed National Journal ranking based on only a portion of votes cast during only one year. (A less subjective survey placed Obama in a tie for the ranking of 10th most liberal member of the Senate -- and McCain as the eighth most conservative. For some reason, MSNBC doesn't ever get around to telling viewers that McCain is closer to being the most conservative senator than Obama is to being the most liberal.)
MSNBC military analyst Jack Jacobs asserted that "Obama doesn't know what he's talking about" -- and, to support his assertion, misquoted Obama. That was just one of many times MSNBC reporters have distorted Barack Obama's record.
Howard Kurtz didn't mention any of that (or any other negative portrayals of Obama) in his article -- though he did quote McCain strategist Steve Schmidt describing MSNBC as "an organ of the Democratic National Committee."
Kurtz also quoted Schmidt calling MSNBC "a partisan advocacy organization that exists for the purpose of attacking John McCain."
In fact, MSNBC reporters have at times seemed like they were auditioning for a job in McCain's communications shop.
Again and again, MSNBC anchors and reporters have portrayed McCain as independent by pointing to his differences with his party on taxes, immigration, and other issues -- without noting that McCain has changed positions on those issues in order to align himself with the Republican Party. Other times, they have directly, and falsely, claimed that McCain has "stood his ground" on those purported departures from party orthodoxy. And they have adopted McCain's false explanations for his shifting views. And they have described statements that McCain has shifted positions on taxes, and on his own reasons for his positions, as "claim[s]" rather than clear facts.
John Harwood, among other NBC reporters, has called McCain a "Maverick" over and over and over. Even while acknowledging that McCain had a "phase in 2007 when he was getting a lot of flak for sort of flip-flopping and trying to court the right," Harwood declares that McCain's "maverick brand is intact." In contrast to the cable channel's treatment of Barack Obama, MSNBC's Mike Barnicle praises McCain as someone who "absolutely comes off as" an "Irish Catholic working-class hero."
MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski once suggested McCain is "the perfect candidate" (forgetting to mention that her brother advises McCain). Brzezinski's comment recalls Chris Matthews' frequent assertions that McCain "deserves to be president." Not to mention Matthews' statement to McCain that "you're in my heart" and "you show a lot of courage out there." Matthews has also said having to report on problems in McCain's campaign is "the worst part of my job"; described McCain as "a firm man"; compared McCain to Martin Luther; admitted, "The press loves McCain. We're his base"; admitted he was rooting for "a McCain-Giuliani ticket"; and asserted that "a lot of people ... like the cut of John McCain's jib."
In a promo for a McCain documentary, MSNBC declared that the Arizona senator has "mastered the art of straight talk," which raises a few questions: If he has "mastered" the "art," is it really "straight talk"? Did McCain have to practice telling the truth? MSNBC doesn't seem to care -- they just love repeating the McCain campaign's talking points.
In April, Matthews wondered why people "still think" McCain is "a straight-talk maverick when he's been in league with the president." Two days later, Matthews interviewed McCain ... and told him "you've been a maverick and a lot of people like you because of that." During the same interview, Matthews said "[W]e've had enough softball, Senator. ... Is Barack Obama an elitist?"
Matthews asserts that McCain's strength is his "integrity." (Matthews has also described McCain as someone who has "always been honest" and who displays "candor" and engages in "straight talk," despite McCain's numerous false assertions and inconsistencies.)
David Gregory flatly stated that McCain "is not going to pander to the right," despite the fact that McCain already had, again and again. MSNBC reporters have downplayed the extent to which McCain actively sought the endorsement of the controversial Rev. John Hagee. And Joe Scarborough has claimed McCain "has never attached himself to these people on the far right that say if you're gay, you're going to hell, et cetera" -- despite McCain's embrace of John Hagee and Rod Parsley, and his attempts to cozy up to Jerry Falwell -- who McCain once branded an "agent of intolerance" -- last year.
Kelly O'Donnell uncritically reported the McCain campaign's claims that they were surprised by controversial comments made by a talk-show host who introduced McCain at a rally -- despite the fact that the host has a long history of making exactly the same inflammatory comments.
Chuck Todd calls McCain a "moderate" -- a label even John McCain does not apply to John McCain. Mike Barnicle similarly claimed McCain is "in the middle." In fact, McCain consistently ranks among the 10 most conservative members of the Senate.
MSNBC repeatedly gave free air time to a McCain ad that attacked Hillary Clinton over her support for an earmark -- and MSNBC didn't tell viewers that McCain hadn't bothered to show up for the vote. And the cable channel repeatedly aired right-wing advertisements attacking Barack Obama while crediting John McCain for taking a "very strong" stand against the ads -- but without noting that McCain didn't actually do anything to stop them.
During the GOP primaries, David Gregory spread McCain's false claim that Mitt Romney had "disparage[d] the service and courage" of World War II veteran Bob Dole. That was not only a false claim by McCain, it was one that was premised on the notion that any criticism of a veteran constitutes criticism of the veteran's military service -- not a standard McCain has applied to veterans like John Kerry, but one that would be advantageous to McCain were it to take hold now. Naturally, MSNBC went along with it.
On another occasion, MSNBC gave free air time to a McCain ad that accused Romney of "chang[ing] positions like the wind" on his support for "the Bush tax cuts." Incredibly, MSNBC did not note that McCain himself flip-flopped on the Bush tax cuts.
David Shuster asserted that McCain may be able to "tarnish the image of Obama's political purity" by criticizing Obama for opting out of the public financing system for the general election -- but Shuster somehow forgot to mention that McCain's own "image of ... political purity" might be tarnished by the possibility that McCain is breaking campaign finance law on a daily basis.
MSNBC anchors and reporters have sat quietly by as McCain supporters falsely claimed that McCain called for Don Rumsfeld's resignation. Norah O'Donnell went further, asserting it herself. When she corrected the record the next day, she didn't mention the fact that McCain himself has dishonestly claimed to have called for Rumsfeld's resignation.
David Shuster uncritically repeated McCain's spin that he "flew coach" during the 2007 portion of his presidential campaign -- ignoring the fact that McCain's campaign expenditure reports show he used his wife's corporate jet.
When John McCain repeatedly confused Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Joe Scarborough leapt to his defense, saying that "99 percent of Americans wouldn't know." (Scarborough did not offer an estimate of the number of Americans who think it is OK if the president of the United States doesn't know any more about Iraq than they do.)
Mika Brzezinski suggested, and allowed a McCain surrogate to directly state, that McCain only once admitted a lack of economic knowledge. In fact, McCain has repeatedly admitted he doesn't know much about economics. And Chris Matthews has praised Sen. John McCain's "candor" and "honest[y]" for, in Matthews' words, "admitting that his strong suit is not the economy" -- while ignoring the fact that McCain had recently, and falsely, denied making such concessions.
Scarborough praised a McCain ad, saying it would "probably work" -- but didn't bother to note that its central claim was false. Two separate MSNBC anchors claimed that McCain's proposed gas tax "holiday" would cut gas prices by 20 percent. Actually, it would be 5 percent at most. (MSNBC later "apologize[d] for the confusion.")
Contessa Brewer described a McCain speech about the housing crisis as "specific and detailed on what the economy needs." In fact, the speech was so short on details, National Journal reporter Adam Aigner-Treworgy responded that McCain "didn't necessarily roll out any new economic policy today. Much of what he said, he has said before," adding, "I don't know necessarily whether it showed that he had a really strong grasp on all the details of a possible solution."
Mika Brzezinski has cherry-picked polling to claim "McCain's crossover appeal is apparently even greater than" Obama's -- even though two polls more recent than the one she cited showed precisely the opposite.
When news broke that John McCain sent a letter to the FCC on behalf of Paxson Communications, a company with which McCain had close ties and whose employees had contributed to McCain's campaign, Contessa Brewer asked "is it unusual if you get a letter from a constituent or a lobbyist on a matter, and you're concerned about it, that you would move on it?" A.B. Stoddard, associate editor of The Hill and a regular MSNBC guest, answered that it is not unusual. Neither mentioned that, in fact, Paxson is not a "constituent" of McCain's -- the company was based in Florida, not Arizona -- or that then-FCC chairman William E. Kennard expressed concern about McCain's letter, calling it "highly unusual." Downplaying McCain's letter was a pattern on MSNBC: Pat Buchanan said it was "in the normal course of business of a congressman."
And, unable to argue with a straight face that the media have not been kind to McCain, MSNBC personnel have instead justified the media's failure to scrutinize McCain.
Howard Kurtz, though, forgot to include a single example of MSNBC treating McCain favorably in his assessment of the channel's purported leftward tilt.
I've written a great deal about MSNBC's sexist and misogynist treatment of Hillary Clinton and numerous other women -- progressives, conservatives, and journalists among them. And about the appalling performance of Tim Russert and Brian Williams during last October's Democratic debate in Philadelphia. (And about Russert in general.)
Time and space prevent a full recitation of the evidence of misogyny at MSNBC, much of which can be found at the links above. It is worth mentioning, however, that even after David Shuster was suspended for saying Chelsea Clinton was being "pimped out" by the Clinton campaign, and even after Chris Matthews was forced to apologize for one of his many offensive comments about women, the boys at MSNBC -- and that is what they act like: a collection of 13-year-old boys with below-average wit -- still haven't learned to behave.
David Shuster and Tucker Carlson drove that point home in late April as they mocked Clinton's laughter during a segment in which Shuster gave Carlson a pen shaped like Hillary Clinton's head, with a mouth that moves as the pen makes a laughing noise. Thanking Shuster, Carlson said: "I'm really going to miss that cackle." Somehow, Shuster and Carlson managed to stop short of accusing Clinton of having cooties.
Pat Buchanan reinforced the point when he responded to criticism of his mockery of Clinton's voice by (incorrectly) quoting Samuel Johnson: "To see a woman speaking is to watch a dog walking on its hind legs. ... [Y]ou're surprised not to see it done -- not that it's not done well, but to see it done at all."
But the questionable commentary on MSNBC is certainly not limited to sexist remarks -- not on the cable channel that brought you Michael Savage, Ann Coulter, and Don Imus.
On Morning Joe recently, co-hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski declared themselves "sick[ened]" by the story of a pregnant transgender man:
Scarborough said, "I'm not going to look at this," and Brzezinski said: "I'm going to be sick. I am going to be sick." Scarborough also asked, "What are you doing to me?" ... Later Scarborough said: "Please, let's move on. I really do feel sick."
In February, MSNBC's Buchanan bravely spoke up on behalf of white males, whom he defended as "the only guys signing the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence" (one assumes that there were quite a few women and black people in America who would have been happy to sign a Declaration of Independence, if only the white males had let them). Buchanan went on to falsely assert that white males accounted for "all the dead at Gettysburg, all the dead at Normandy."
And just this morning, MSNBC entertainment reporter Courtney Hazlett said: "Spike Lee got really uppity about Clint Eastwood and about how there were no African-Americans involved in the filming of Flags of Our Fathers or Letters from Iwo Jima."
The examples of conservative misinformation on MSNBC above are limited to this year, with a very few exceptions -- and they are by no means a comprehensive accounting of the problems with the cable channel's political coverage over the past five months. Given that all of that -- and so much more -- has happened on MSNBC in just the past few months, does that seem like a news outlet that is "leaning left"?
And that brings us to the other key problem with Kurtz's article (the first being his odd decision not to include a single example of MSNBC treating McCain kindly or Obama poorly): He suggested the cable channel is drifting to the left, but made no attempt to assess where MSNBC was starting from.
Kurtz didn't even mention Michael Savage or Ann Coulter or Don Imus. Didn't mention that MSNBC fired Phil Donahue for being critical of the Iraq war. Didn't mention any criticism of Iraq coverage at all. (The day Kurtz's article appeared, two former NBC reporters -- Katie Couric and Jessica Yellin -- criticized the network's prewar coverage; Yellin said she actually felt pressure from colleagues to take a pro-administration approach. Obviously, Kurtz couldn't have included this information in his article -- but the point that MSNBC -- like other media -- was excessively pro-war is not a new one.)
Has MSNBC moved slightly leftward over the past six months? Perhaps -- but look where it started: As the network of Imus and Savage and Coulter and Carlson; of relentless misogyny; of mocking Democrats as abnormal and weak and ineffectual and elitists; and of absolutely fawning coverage of John McCain (and, before him, George W. Bush). Even if MSNBC has begun to move leftward, it has a long way to go before it stops regularly trafficking in conservative misinformation.