Time to Pull the Plug on MSNBC?

Time to Pull the Plug on MSNBC?

By Carl M. Cannon - November 22, 2013

Last Friday, MSNBC anchorman Martin Bashir suggested that anyone who uses the word “slavery” too lightly should be forced to eat human feces. Although Bashir had Sarah Palin in mind for this torture, his own standard might have necessitated its infliction closer to home -- as Bashir has used the same metaphor himself.

Bashir’s detractors immediately pointed out this inconsistency. Several of these critics said this disgusting punishment would be more befitting Bashir.

I have a better idea. NBC could just yank this kind of programming. If it did, the network that provides its anchors a platform for crude daily rants would be honoring its own legacy, which harks back to the very beginning of the medium.

NBC’s roots date to 1916, when a Russian immigrant named David Sarnoff wrote a prescient memo to his boss, Edward J. Nally. Both men were up-and-coming executives with the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Co. of America, a firm founded by Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi. Initially, Marconi hoped the telegraph would improve maritime safety. (Two of his operators -- only one of whom survived the voyage -- were aboard the Titanic the night it sunk 101 years ago. Their last message: “We are sinking fast, passengers being put into boats.”)

From the start, visionaries saw wider applications for this technology. In May 1914, shortly before World War I made sailing the Atlantic a dangerous undertaking, Wanamaker’s department store in New York used the technology to transmit music to ships at sea. One of those who heard those tunes was David Sarnoff.

Subsequently, he began communicating with Nally about his “music box scheme,” by which he meant using the airwaves to transmit sound around the country instead of just sending messages in Morse code. After the war, Marconi’s company was bought out by General Electric, which formed RCA. It spun off the National Broadcasting Co. in 1926.

While the golden age of radio was still in its heyday, Sarnoff foresaw the possibility of transmitting images over the airwaves. On April 20, 1939, at the dedication of the RCA building at the New York World’s Fair, he said, “Now we add sight to sound.”

“It is with a feeling of humbleness that I come to this moment of announcing the birth, in this country, of a new art so important that is bound to affect all society,” Sarnoff added. “It is an art which shines like a torch in a troubled world. It is a creative force which we must learn to utilize for the benefit of all mankind.”

More than seven decades later, at least on commercial cable news programs, Sarnoff’s “torch” is often employed more like an arsonist’s weapon than a beacon.

Success Breeds . . . Vitriol

Change occurred gradually, but the eventual runaway commercial success of Fox News Channel left rival cable networks scrambling to adjust. Fox’s roster of talk show hosts was undeniably conservative. The same was true, said critics, of its news reporting. Although Fox executives asserted they were presenting a “fair and balanced” report, occasionally they would concede that they see themselves as the counterweight to an overwhelmingly liberal media establishment.

But the suits at those traditional news outlets soon confronted a problem of their own.

Although their newsrooms were indeed full of liberals, these organizations attempted to present opposing views. But cable technology had splintered the public into niche audiences. This implied a new economic paradigm. Fox surpassed cable news pioneer CNN, attracting huge audiences (at least by cable television standards). These viewers were loyal, too. They watched Fox every day, meaning that advertisers could count on them. “Branded” news programming became profitable.

Third-place MSNBC took note and, in 2008, it emerged as a reliably sympathetic outlet for Barack Obama. The same year, MSNBC veteran Phil Griffin was made network president, and he began stocking MSNBC’s airwaves with commentators who were not only liberal Democrats, but openly hostile to Republicans.

Publicly, Griffin sounded like the newsman he was trained to be -- even when announcing a new network motto, “Lean Forward,” that was barely distinguishable from a 2012 Obama re-election slogan. “‘Lean Forward’ captures the spirit of everything we do and everything we believe,” Griffin said. “It’s about celebrating the best ideas, no matter where they come from.”

But Sharon Otterman, the network’s chief marketing officer, was more edifying. “We’re not just creating advertisements,” she said. “We are building a stronger consumer brand that differentiates us from the competition.”

And so, MSNBC blazed its own path, encouraging Chris Matthews to channel his inner advocate and hiring people such as Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, Martin Bashir, even Al Sharpton. Not unintelligent people, certainly, but not reporters, either -- and in some cases, not journalists at all. Meanwhile, except for the successful “Morning Joe” program, MSNBC dropped its token conservative voices and for the most part eschewed original reporting in lieu of talking heads.

The upshot has been uneven. More money for MSNBC, as it slipped by CNN in the ratings, but more controversy, too. Griffin likes to tell people MSNBC is not the mirror image of Fox, and he is right, but not in the way he means. It’s worse.

An analysis of programming on the three main cable news networks by the Pew Research Center in November and December of 2012 found that Fox and CNN distributed airtime pretty evenly between reporting and opinion. CNN featured more newsgathering than opinion (54 percent to 46 percent), while the Fox News Channel reversed this ratio.

MSNBC was the outlier. Fully 85 percent of its airtime was devoted to commentary -- virtually all of it left-leaning -- while only 15 percent went to news reporting. Even allowing that this approach is driven by business considerations (newsgathering being more expensive than bloviating), there are a couple of intrinsic problems with this approach.

The first is that relentless partisan criticism invariably leads to name-calling. It’s like a drug addiction -- you need more and more. Once you’ve called George W. Bush stupid a hundred times, audiences want something a little different, so you graduate to “worst president in history,” and finally, as Olbermann often did, a demented war criminal. Sometimes on that network, conservatives are labeled “Hitlerian.”

Sarah Palin starts out in 2008 as someone who can’t tell Katie Couric what newspapers and magazines she reads and is then spoofed as a provincial by Tina Fey for saying something she never said (“I can see Russia from my house!”). She ends up last Friday, at least in Martin Bashir’s telling, as “America’s resident dunce” with a reputation as a “world-class idiot” -- all as a buildup to that weird riff on defecation.

To his credit, Bashir apologized profusely on Monday, rightfully describing his remarks as “wholly unacceptable” and “unworthy of anyone who would claim to have an interest in politics.”

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Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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