Seasoned MSM Journalist Asks: 'Time to Pull the Plug on MSNBC?'

Carl Cannon, a former White House reporter for The Baltimore Sun and National Journal, is now the Washington Bureau Chief of the Real Clear Politics website. He raised eyebrows with his latest article: "Time To Pull the Plug on MSNBC?"

"Last Friday, MSNBC anchorman Martin Bashir suggested that anyone who uses the word "slavery" too lightly should be forced to eat human feces," Cannon began. "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." Cannon wants Bashir's type yanked by NBC.

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.

The cable-news paradigm changed when "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."

So Phil Griffin changed up the MSNBC lineup:

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.

Cannon isn't against MSNBC being a liberal network, but he wants more news reporting and fewer jeremiads. He wants a 21st century equivalent of NBC News in the 1960s:

A cable network informed with progressive sensibilities devoted to unearthing hard truths about this society is something people might watch. They did watch it in the 1950s and 1960s. It was NBC's "The Huntley-Brinkley Report," anchored by two newsmen with great gravitas, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley.

In those days, NBC hired regional reporters with talent, people such as Frank McGee, John Chancellor, and Tom Brokaw, who would go on to become anchors themselves. The network distinguished itself covering the civil rights movement.

Their politics surely skewed liberal, but they told their stories with shoe-leather reporting that required physical courage when they went to the Deep South and good humor when going into the hornets' nest of Republican politics.

It could be argued that CNN has represented that old-school style -- especially since so many journalists from the broadcast networks have taken a turn there. The promoters of the New Shrieking won't bend easily. They'll keep pushing, and then apologizing, thinking that's the way to success.

Tim Graham's picture

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