Balt Sun Media Critic: MSNBC 'Pumping Irrational Fear' Into Viewers

November 4th, 2010 6:15 PM

There's a cable news channel out there operating with a single partisan voice, and doing its best to scare the pants off of viewers as the new Congress approaches. Listening to much of the media, you might think that network was Fox.

But in fact Fox has a wealth of opinions on air, though most of its prime time hosts are consistently conservative. And while certainly a number of critics try to paint FNC as "fear-mongers," it's been MSNBC that has really gone full force with the doom-saying this week.

Baltimore Sun media critic David Zurawik is absolutely livid about it, and has devoted considerable space this week to bashing MSNBC for its apocalyptic tone.

Zurawik wrote on Wednesday:

If you look at no other cable TV coverage of election night, you need to see this from MSNBC. It is the reaction of a the panel that spent the night at a desk analyzing the results for viewers.

Some might call it an anchor desk, but I would not debase the word "anchor" by putting it in front of a desk that includes folks offering this kind of analysis. The team includes: Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews, Lawrence O'Donnell and Eugene Robinson.

This is their reaction Tuesday night to the victory speech of Rand Paul, the new U.S. senator from Kentucky. Check out O'Donnell's words, in particular, against MSNBC's claim that Fox News, not MSNBC, is the cable channel trafficking in fear. O'Donnell says Rand is now "empowered" to "creat a worldwide despression."

Zurawik followed up with another column on the topic on Thursday:

But I do not think we should let the outrageous behavior that took place on MSNBC Tuesday night go by the boards after one day of ridicule. This is not just analysts gone wild for one night. This is the crossing of a line in the way that mainstream media engages government, the electoral process and the citizenry.

And the guilt goes beyond the five people on the set: Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, Larry O'Donnell, Chris Matthews and Eugene Robinson, hectoring and mocking politicians while pumping irrational fear into the audience about those politicians. It extends to NBC News and the highest levels of NBC management. I wrote about it yesterday under the headline "MSNBC embraces the fear factor on election night." Read that and see the video here of O'Donnell going off after the victory speech by newly elected U.S. senator Rand Paul.

I supposed some will say MSNBC's last-place ratings on election night are punishment enough. But that's not true. With MSNBC's business model, NBC will still make money off this kind of behavior, which cuts to the heart of our civic life. It isn't a laughing matter -- "oh, look, what fools they are."

Zurawik's own apocalyptic language about the damage MSNBC's election night coverage could do to "civic life" is a bit overblown. Less than two million people watched the channel's prime time coverage Tuesday evening, after all. And as James Taranto noted, in discussing the "Rally to Restore Authority", as he called it:

the vast majority of Americans do not watch the controversy-driven cable news shows [Jon] Stewart deplores. Even the most popular among them, Fox News Channel's "The O'Reilly Factor," draws considerably fewer viewers than the "CBS Evening News," the lowest-rated of the major-network newscasts.

That said, Zurawik is not the only one who has warned of the immense, even existential dangers of partisan rhetoric on cable television. The difference is that usually they're talking about Fox. Fox is hoping to start a race war, or Fox is trying to get President Obama killed, or Fox wants Osama Bin Laden to drop a nuke on American soil on the Fourth of July (seriously).

If those critics are not willing to concede the utter absurdity of those statements, perhaps the immense hypocrisy in singling out Fox will get them to moderate their own rhetoric.

The most oft-repeated claim is that Fox uses fear to promote a conservative agenda. If one accepts that point - I do not - is there any doubt that MSNBC is doing the same thing to take the new Republican Congress down a peg?