by Chaz Bufe, author of The American Heretic’s Dictionary
MSNBC and Fox News are comparable in some ways, but differ in others. They’re similar in that they’re primarily opinion channels, and they both have political agendas. Fox is unabashedly right-wing evangelical Republican and outright Obamaphobic, while MSNBC is moderately secular-Democratic and outright Obamaphilic. Both have hired politicians as hosts and commentators, Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin being the most prominent GOP politicians on Fox, and Washington Democratic insiders Chris Matthews and Lawrence O’Donnell being the most prominent on MSNBC.
But that’s where the similarities end. Fox at least makes a pretense of being a news channel, while MSNBC doesn’t–it consists of little but pro-Obama opinion. Fox spends about four times as much as MSNBC on news coverage, though the quality of that coverage tends to be poor. Fox viewers are the least well informed of all news viewers. They’re so poorly informed that people who do not follow the news at all are better informed, while MSNBC viewers are just barely better informed than those who don’t follow the news.
Another place in which Fox and MSNBC vary is in their approach to news and opinion. Fox “News” hosts get daily directives from the head of Fox “News,” Roger Ailes. Ailes tells them what stories to emphasize and even, apparently, the talking points they should use, as witnessed by the identical and near-identical phrasing Fox hosts routinely employ. (Catch “The Daily Show” for examples of this on a regular basis.) As well, Fox day in and day out does its best to manufacture stories that will benefit the Republican Party, reinforce Republican positions, and bolster the fears and hatreds of Fox viewers. Examples include outright false reports about ACORN perpetrating voting fraud; grossly exaggerated reports about the tiny New Black Panther Party intimidating voters; repeated reports about the relatively few cheaters using the SNAP program (food stamps–most beneficiaries are children and the elderly); and the never-ending blather about the “war on Christmas” and supposed attacks on religious freedom, which invariably turn out to be the government’s refusing to allow right-wingers to use public facilities for religious purposes or the government refusing to give bigots the right to discriminate based on their religious “principles.”
Rather than employing the same Machiavellian manipulation of the news, MSNBC takes a simpler approach: It seems to hire only hosts who share the same rather narrow, Obama-worshipping ideological views. Several of MSNBC’s most prominent hosts–Chris Matthews, Ed Shultz, Al Sharpton–virtually never criticize the Obama Administration for anything, while routinely heaping fulsome (in both senses of the word) praise on it. Other hosts will occasionally criticize Obama and his administration, though their criticisms tend to be muted, and they also routinely defend Obama. The most prominent hosts in this category are Rachel Maddow and Laurence O’Donnell. One suspects that even the most independent host on MSNBC, Chris Hayes, who dares to routinely criticize the Obama Administration from a left-leaning/civil-liberties viewpoint, mutes his criticism.
This brings up another apparent part of MSNBC’s approach: self-censorship. MSNBC hosts avoid certain topics like the plague. One very noticeable example is the Israeli brutalization of the Palestinians, and more especially the stranglehold of AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) on American politicians and policies regarding the Middle East. MSNBC hosts never examine this stranglehold, and rarely mention it even when AIPAC (which represents the Israeli extreme right) and its numerous minions in Congress are trying to stampede the U.S. into war on Israel’s behalf.
Other matters that MSNBC hosts do their best to avoid include the Obama Administration’s assault on whistleblowers and civil liberties, and its massive, illegal surveillance program. Some MSNBC hosts even take the part of the Administration. Ed Schultz, for example, called whistleblower Edward Snowden a “punk,” and Lawrence O’Donnell a few nights ago smirked about Snowden’s being unable to criticize Putin’s policies in Russia because the U.S. government has trapped him there.
MSNBC is also careful to avoid critical examination of the role of the media in politics. This is especially so in its failure to analyze or to report on the role of the media in the run-up to the Iraq War. Last year’s documentary by Rachel Maddow, “Hubris: The Selling of the Iraq War,” is the prime example. Remarkably, in this documentary, Maddow only analyzes the actions of Bush, Cheney, Rice, Rumsfeld, et al., not those of the media. This is remarkable, because without the active complicity of the media (including MSNBC), Bush and company would never have gotten away with that massive con job.
Maddow apparently made a deal with the devil. She apparently thought that telling half the truth to a relatively large audience was better than telling the whole truth to a smaller one (that is, not on MSNBC).
Her documentary exemplifies the primary difference between Fox and MSNBC: Fox actively manufactures “news” to fit its political agenda, while MSNBC avoids news that threatens its political agenda.
Beyond that, Fox appeals to the absolute worst in its viewers: cruelty, a preening “patriotism,” feelings of victimhood, and fear and hatred of scapegoats–poor, black, brown, gay, feminist, and nonchristian human beings. By and large it succeeds in this.
MSNBC appeals primarily but not exclusively–there’s a heavy dose of hero-worship/bootlicking in the mix–to the best in its viewers: hope and compassion. And then it strives to turn those admirable qualities into support for politicians who cynically and systematically betray its viewers’ hopes.
Which is worse, the cynicism and viciousness embodied by Fox, or the cynicism and betrayal of hope embodied by MSNBC? You decide. I can’t.