Filmmaker: MSNBC Needs 'Bogeyman' Sarah Palin for Ratings

January 27th, 2011 1:04 PM

On Wednesday, the Hollywood Reporter tried to dissect cable news's strange fascination with Sarah Palin. For Fox it's more apparent: Palin is a paid contributor, after all. But for MSNBC, whose primetime hosts have mentioned her more than any other cable news personalities, it seems to be a case of mutual dependency. MSNBC needs Palin.

In a response to the THR article, filmmaker John Ziegler delved deeper into the lefty cable network's strange obsession with all things Palin. Ziegler made plain what THR only touched on: Palin fits perfectly the "bogeyman" role that MSNBC needs to keep its lefty viewers tuned in.

As for MSNBC programmer BIll Wolff's insistence that the channel simply "holds up a mirror" - tells it like it is, in other words, with no partisan spin - Ziegler callled the claim "laughable."

Ziegler's new documentary, "Media Malpractice: How Obama Got Elected and Palin Was Targeted", discusses what he calls "unprecedented and dangerous media coverage" during the 2008 election (you can read NB's review here). Ziegler had offered Keith Olbermann $100,000 to discuss Palin with him on air. Olbermann never took him up on the offer, and for obvious reasons it no longer stands.

In his full THR interview, Ziegler discussed why MSNBC continues to incessantly talk about Sarah Palin. Sure, it's a political decision, he says, but at the heart of it is the need for a "bogeyman" against whom to direct viewers' partisan rage. After George W. Bush, Palin filled that role nicely.

HR: Why is the media still obsessed with her (especially cable news)?

Ziegler: In order to maintain a sustainable base audience to support sufficient advertising, “news” channels of all types require a “go to” topic during slow periods which instantly captures their core audience’s attention without requiring the time and effort to introduce a brand new character into the soap opera. Sarah Palin is the perfect subject to fit that mold. She is already known by everyone, which is very rare in this era, she creates beautiful pictures, she riles up the extreme partisans on both ends of the political spectrum who tend to watch cable “news,” and there is the continuing narrative of whether she will run for president which creates the drama needed to fuel the story into perpetuity and let’s them pretend they are following her just because it is “news.”

HR: If MSNBC and others didn’t have Palin to discuss would it hurt their ratings?

Ziegler: Absolutely! They would have almost nothing to talk about. With their favorite candidate in the White House they need a “bogeyman” to excite the far left into watching. Without Palin who would it be? John Boehner? Please. That would be ratings death. MSNBC will never find anything like Sarah Palin. All of those liberals who watch them 24/7 are made to feel better about their miserable lives by seeing someone who appears to have it all, like Sarah Palin, be made fun of. It is all very insidious but really rather transparent. They know exactly what they are doing and it is disgraceful.

HR: What topic would fill the void?

Ziegler: Real news coverage is far too expensive to do on a 24/7 basis for the rather small ratings that the cable networks get when there is not a massive story going on. This why the “debate” format takes up so much air time. It is much cheaper than real news and Sarah Palin is the easiest topic to debate that producers know will get ratings, or at least won’t get them in trouble if it doesn’t work. When in doubt, just take Sarah Palin, add guests, some hatred, and mix. No other topic can replace her right now because that would require actual reporting which doesn’t exist anymore or at least a populace that cares about real news, which doesn’t either.

Key parts of Ziegler's remarks were reiterated by THR, in a report that, Ziegler claims, "edges right up to precipice of plagiarism."

But more troubling to Ziegler, apparently, was the fact that THR "soft-pedals the level of agenda that MSNBC clearly has against Sarah Palin. It actually takes seriously MSNBC programmer Bill Wolff’s laughable assertion that it is 'ridiculous' that his network is 'beholden to one side or the other.'”

Here is the full quote, as written in THR:

Wolff called it "nonsense" that MSNBC is driven by politics or even profits when it comes to how much airtime it devotes to Palin.

"MSNBC does not have a political agenda. The idea that we’re beholden to one side or the other is ridiculous," he says. "And if Sarah Palin is so good for business, why would we want to destroy her? We tell the truth. We hold up a mirror and say, 'This is what’s going on.' We’re not so crass to think that she’s good for business, therefore we'll talk about her."

MSNBC may not be "beholden" to a side (what would that mean, anyway? That the channel owes the Democratic Party a favor or something? It has done quite a bit of fundraising for them.), but it sure likes one side better than the other. As for Palin, surely Wolff knows that someone as popular as Palin is not likely to be "destroyed" by a cable channel whose top prime time show gets about a million viewers.

As for the "hold up a mirror" comment, well, one need only look through NB's MSNBC archives to dispel that notion. But if NewsBusters doesn't convince you, perhaps MSNBC president Phil Griffin might.

We'll let Ziegler have the last word: is quite obvious that anyone who is capable of defending Sarah Palin is simply not likely to appear on MSNBC and that fact alone is proof that there is no journalism in that network’s Palin fixation. Instead, it is really all about making the many Palin haters in their audience feel better about themselves and reaping the ratings that apparently comes with engaging in such communal therapy for liberals.