MSNBC’s de facto firing of Cenk Uygur yesterday should serve as a reminder that the most pervasive myth in American politics — that of the liberal media – is utterly and demonstrably absurd. Despite every major media outlet being owned by powerful corporations, which are typically owned or run by economic conservatives, there exists this wild idea that newsrooms are entirely independent of their corporate masters run by liberals bent on influencing American policy through bias.
That’s pure fantasy.
The “paper of record”, the New York Times, supposedly the most liberal paper in the country, uncritically repeated questionable Bush administration claims about Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq and allowed those officials to anonymously smear critics of the war without any accountability. Despite breaking the story of Bush’s illegal domestic wiretapping program, the Times held it back for over a year, until Bush had safely won reelection. That same paper today quotes anonymous Obama administration officials in precisely the same way, continually serving what has become the primary function of the American media: securing access to powerful politicians and administration officials so they can faithfully repeat and amplify anything said as willing state-run propagandists and stenographers.
The Times once employed William Kristol as a regular columnist, who was one of the loudest cheerleaders for the Iraq war.
There are two other major papers with great influence on American politics. The Washington Post, whose op-ed pages regularly overflow with essays from former Bush administration officials, conservative economists, party operatives, former GOP politicians, neo-conservatives urging war with Iran, torture apologists, and movement luminaries like Sarah Palin.
The Wall Street Journal, the third of the trio, is owned by scandal plagued News Corporation, which owns Fox News. The editor was hand picked by Rupert Murdoch himself and has become so corrupted by conservative politics that the former owning Brancroft family has said publicly that it regrets selling the paper and is deeply worried about its legacy.
Little need be said about Fox News, or CNN – which created virulent anti-immigration pundit Lou Dobbs and flame thrower Glenn Beck and now obsessively covers every Tweet and Facebook post by Sarah Palin. Nor should it be necessary to point out how conservatives dominate talk radio and command the largest audiences in the country.
Sunday talk shows like Meet the Press – NBC News’s crown jewel – often hosts panels where conservatives outnumber liberals three-to-one. Its current moderator, David Gregory, is an outstanding example of how pathetic the modern crop of TV journalists are and regularly illustrates how embarrassing establishment journalism has become. When former Bush Press Secretary Scot McClellan went public with criticism that the press became far to deferential to the Bush administration in the run-up to the Iraq war, Gregory went on MSNBC and said “it’s not our role” to take claims made by politicians and call out the lies as lies.
MSNBC is an essential and nearly indispensable part of that rotten and corrupt media establishment. It’s one of the few things that anyone can point to as a place where liberal politicians and pundits appear as more than token offerings. While it’s true that MSNBC hosts more liberal commentators than any other television outlet, its legacy will be one of propping up a destructive and absurd myth, and of doing more to silence liberal voices willing to speak truth to power than just about anyone.
Evidence of that is everywhere.
During the House debate over the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the stimulus), a study found that every cable network hosted more Republican lawmakers as guests than Democrats, sometimes nearly by a factor of two-to-one. That included MSNBC, which was significantly more unbalanced and biased towards conservative guests than even Fox News.
Uygur is actually the third host with solid ratings to be fired by MSNBC for being too liberal. Phil Donahue was the biggest liberal media star in the last decade on cable news television. Despite hosting the network’s highest rated program, Donahue was supposedly fired due to poor ratings. But leaked memos eventually revealed that the network brass was bowing to political pressure from conservatives to be more pro-American (or more accurate, more pro-government and hence pro-Bush) during a time of war, as if being critical of what turned out to be a disastrous and unpopular war somehow meant you weren’t quite patriotic enough.
That memo said that Donahue presents a “difficult public face for NBC in a time of war”, that “he seems to delight in presenting guests who are anti-war, anti-Bush and skeptical of the administration’s motives” – which happens to be the most basic and fundamental description of what a journalist does – and expressed concern that Donahue’s show would become “a home for the liberal antiwar agenda at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity.”
During a time when anti-war criticism was virtually non-existent in papers and on television – remember that even the liberal New York Times was leading the cheers for war — MSNBC had the only venue available to critics, and the network was working desperately to shut it down. During an interview with Sean Hanity in 2004, Donahue revealed that MSNBC execs had forced him to have two conservatives on his program for every liberal – and that was before he was fired outright.
Given all of that, I’d be hard pressed to blame anyone for thinking that I’ve got the names mixed up, and that we’re actually talking about Fox News here. But all of this is true, and that was just the beginning of MSNBC’s fall to mediocrity.
Donahue was replaced by Michael Savage, a flame-throwing right-wing radio host who was subsequently fired by MSNBC after telling a caller who had AIDS that he was a sodomite that should just die.
Joe Scarborough, a movement conservative and former Republican Representative, was eventually given a three hour program that consumed more air time than Countdown with Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow’s show combined. Scarborough’s show is currently the lowest rated program on the network, but has yet to be canceled or otherwise asked to make changes. In fact, Phil Griffin banned Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas from appearing on any MSNBC show because of statements Moulitsas made about Scarborough on Twitter than Scarborough didn’t like – even over the objections of hosts who wanted him on their shows.
In what possible reality is MSNBC a far left progressive network when it consistently fires its highest rated liberal hosts and bans people like Moulitsas from the entire network because the former Republican Congressmen got his undies in a wad?
Olbermann’s quick rise to power greatly irritated MSNBC president Phil Griffin, Scarborough’s biggest supporter. It was Griffin who pulled Olbermann and Chris Matthews from the news anchor’s desk while the two were covering the Republican National Convention, based on unfounded complaints of bias and unfair treatment by John McCain, the then-GOP nominee for President. But unfounded complaints were more than Griffin needed to stuff the network’s biggest star into a box, which he long wanted to do anyway.
Olbermann had little to no power when he rejoined MSNBC to rebuild a low rated show on a low rated network. He wasn’t a threat back then, it took years for that success to happen and that put years of wear on Griffin’s shoulders as he became increasingly at odds the man more responsible for MSNBC’s rise during the Bush administration than he was.
For a time, Olbermann was MSNBC’s most valuable asset. He introduced Rachel Maddow to television through guest hosting opportunities on Countdown – Maddow’s ratings were competitive and often better than those when she received her own show, contributed special segments to the NBC Nightly News broadcast, and joined NBC’s pre-game NFL program. MSNBC continually renegotiated Olbermann’s contract upwards as his power expanded. But Phil Griffin was still president and he had had enough, and Olbermann was eventually forced out just like Donahue was, tired of interference from corporate hacks which he saw as stepping on his journalistic independence.
Then it was his turn.
Cenk Uygur has a long running Internet program called The Young Turks that progressives have been pushing hard to be picked up by MSNBC as a one hour program. Uygur guest hosted for a while and eventually was given the 6pm slot as MSNBC shuffled its schedule in the wake of Olbermann’s departure. And like all of his predecessors, Uygur wore out his welcome with the conservative Griffin and was pushed out sometime yesterday with an ultimatum.
A prior meeting with the network suits left Uygur with marching orders. He should “be more like a Senator”, which in and of itself is a horrifically corrupt thing to say to a journalist, and be less confrontational with guests. The implication was clear: stop being a journalist, and start being a stenographer. Don’t challenge people or call them out for making misleading statements, just nod your head like a good little bitch and let them be on their way to their next propaganda session.
Like Olbermann before him, Uygur had no interest in letting political leaders walk all over him and pull a snow job on the American people. Another meeting followed, where Uygur was given the choice of leaving the network, or accepting a demotion from hosting a weekday show to a weekend program that nobody would watch. The one and only example of the liberal media, MSNBC, loves liberals so much that it can’t stop firing its liberal hosts that dare challenge the professional media orthodoxy of blind subservience to the establishment.
When the Times reported that Griffin told Uygur that MSNBC “was part of the ‘establishment,’ and ‘that you need to act like it'”, he wasn’t kidding. Phil Griffin perfectly understands his role as government megaphone and president of an establishment media company, and he has done nothing other than shape MSNBC to be exactly that: establishment lapdogs that don’t rock the boat.
The greatest threat to the establishment media is people who think for themselves and are willing to challenge others in the debate of important issues – especially elected leaders — because that often reflects badly on the party in power and the government itself due to the near constant corruption and wrongdoing in Washington. MSNBC wanted Uygur to host guests – more Republicans he was specifically told, naturally – and to stop challenging them. A core function that enables the establishment media is simple stenography. A Democrat said this, and a Republican said that, and then on to the next segment.
The establishment media has become so confused and corrupt that it thinks pointing out lies by politicians is the kind of bias they are supposed to avoid. Instead it dedicates its time to protecting the powerful, in the private sector and in government. Not just to secure its privileged access to information and people with power so that establishment journalists can feel special and powerful themselves, but to protect themselves from their own mistakes like bending over for the Bush administration (and everything else) instead of challenging it with skepticism.
That’s not journalism, but it’s how the mainstream press operates. And Uygur was a threat to all of that. If a politician couldn’t rely on an MSNBC host to set the table and then make unsupported claims to sell an agenda with only superficial challenge, they wouldn’t come on the network anymore. That has shifted the priorities of the media such that the number one goal is gaining favor with powerful politicians that will then whisper sweet nothings into the ears of “journalists” that can breathlessly report their hard earned exclusive on the evening news.
People like Donahue, Olbermann, and Uygur are a threat to that cozy relationship between government and media.
So when liberal hosts became too critical of the Iraq war and the Bush administration – or merely commit the crime of giving airtime to other critics who represent the views of tens of millions of Americans without the power to ask questions and make their thoughts known — the dissent must be silenced so the news outlet can remain best friends with Washington power brokers. When they become too critical of the Obama administration or any other, risking critical insider access to administration officials who only share anonymous quotes with lapdog journalists and sycophantic media outlets like MSNBC, again it’s the liberal hosts that are sacrificed on the alter.
Meanwhile, the network’s lowest rated program continues, and its host, who wouldn’t challenge the government or the establishment media with a gun to his head, remains.
I believe Atrios is the one who coined a phrase that couldn’t possibly be more true and succinct: “Your liberal media: no liberals allowed.”