MSNBC’s identity crisis


    Two weeks ago, there was quite a controversy over the MSNBC’s suspension of Keith Olbermann for making political contributions without having first obtained permission from who ever it is the NBC News Division requires you’re supposed to ask. The controversy was of course about the fact that Olberman is an unapologetic partisan, and the NBC News Division was trying to maintain a reputation that apparently only they held for it. Olberman found wide support among liberals, especially on the internet.

     Olbermann’s suspension brought to the forefront an argument that has been happening in the shadows of mainstream media for about a decade, maybe longer. This argument goes round and round the question of objective journalism, and media bias.

    This week, Joe Scarborough has been suspended for the same thing. He apparently made five hundred dollar donations to a number of family members, friends and family friends who were running for local offices. Politico, which unearthed the Olbermann donations was also the first to report about Scarborough’s donations, even though Scarborough has a weekly column on the site. Politico deserves some respect for running the story, in spite of the fact that it was about someone who is a weekly contributor, and who was brought on at least in part because his name recognition would help bolster the site’s traffic.

    I can commend MSNBC for at least applying the policy without regard to party identification. Joe Scarborough makes no secret of being a Republican and a conservative, just as Olbermann isn’t trying to hide being a liberal democrat. At least the standard is applied fairly. In truth, if MSNBC were being the kind of news organization it is trying to portray itself as with that policy and those suspensions, neither would be necessary.

    MSNBC, like most of television and print news media, is suffering an identity crisis. In MSNBC’s case, it’s not about how they are going to survive and what they are going to be in the media of the future. The question is about whether or not they want to be a partisan network. Do they want to be the left’s version of Fox or do they want to be a “legitimate” news organization?

    Add to this that Ted Koppel, one of the few living remainders from the days when many of the members of the news media were actually trying to be objective and legitimate, wrote an op-ed entitled “Olbermann, O’Reilly and the death of real news.” In it, Koppel excoriates both Fox and MSNBC, and obviously Olbermann and O’Reilly for their clearly partisan perspectives, and more or less laments the death of “an objective perspective” in the news. Olbermann, took the attention brought about from his suspension and the Koppel op-ed to make his case for the reason he began taking his show in a partisan direction, saying the so-called “objective, legitimate” media failed the nation and the republic miserably by never putting up any real objections to the Bush administrations reasoning for going to war in Iraq when in fact the reasoning and evidence presented by the administration was patently false.

    The question of MSNBC’s future and what their public image is going to be will eventually be decided through their own decisions and the reaction those decisions draw from their viewership. The subject of their viewership is actually what all of this is about. Olbermann’s push to the left brought his ratings up substantially, and in the years that progressed, Olbermann became their highest ratings draw. In response, they started bringing on other liberal commentators to host shows. MSNBC decided they were going to be the liberal Fox.

    There is something that MSNBC isn’t taking into consideration in this calculation though. Being a liberal Fox doesn’t mean presenting only a liberal perspective. It doesn’t mean creating controversy where none exists or creating facts that suit the liberal narrative out of thin air. It doesn’t mean being a stenographer and water carrier for the Democratic party’s talking points (though they seem to have enough trouble getting their talking points circulated amongst themselves these days). It means presenting real reporting, good journalism, and yes, an objective perspective when presenting those things. It doesn’t mean taking Olbermann, Maddow, McDonnell or Chris Matthews off the air. It means taking Lock Up off the air, and instead, presenting good, fact based, compelling presentations on the real topics of interest to liberals.

    Instead of the kind of sensationalist programming about the craziest of the crazies and the worst of the worst in our prisons, wives who lose their minds and hide their husbands bodies in the basement crawlspace or the varieties of different doom and gloom which they spend their weekends saturating the airwaves with, they could be creating content giving the factual evidence at work behind the failure of the war on drugs, Blackwater’s very interesting businesses, many other varieties of corporate corruption, governmental corruption, etc. The difference that MSNBC is looking for, and trying to create by continuing to enforce the kind of policy that has resulted in the suspensions of both Olbermann and Scarborough, is in creating an actual reputation based on the reality of their programming that proves they are a news organization by providing real news in their programming.

    Watching MSNBC’s daytime programming is painful if you’re actually interested in information. This isn’t something exclusive to MSNBC, CNN has exactly the same problem. One second they’re covering the Iranian uprising, the next they’re covering the what part of today’s celebrity is uncovered, and in between, giving an update on the latest stock exchange numbers, the latest heartwarming story of childhood wonder or the newest instance of horror born from the American dream of domestic bliss. It’s a frightening, boring programming schizophrenia.  

    Let’s not forget that all of this started with a story by Politico, one of the most successful websites to start in the last ten years, and it covers only one thing. Politico covers nothing but politics, and those things that are at least somewhat related to politics. They don’t cover Lindsay Lohan’s latest escapade, the new season of Dancing with the Stars or American Idol. MSNBC could cover politics as well as Politico does, because they have the entirety of the NBC News Division at their disposal. Their foreign coverage could also be something much more in depth and informative than Politico could ever be capable of.

    MSNBC, like every other news outlet, moving forward, is going to have to decide exactly what it is they want to be. If MSNBC’s parent company wants to make sure it is covering all of it’s bases, trying to be everything to everyone, it’s not going to be able to do that through one outlet. If they’re going to try to cover entertainment, MSNBC or aren’t ever going to be able to compete with The AV Club, /Film, HitFix, Entertainment Weekly or Entertainment Tonight, they aren’t going to be able to do that by creating either a site or news programming that is trying to be everything to everyone. They’re never going to be able to draw the kind of hard core geek audience sites like Ain’t It Cool News, Badass Digest, or CHUD do unless they dedicate a website and/or programming specifically for that. The future of media journalism is not only going to be on the internet, but by doing something specific, extremely well. The future is not going to be in being everything for everyone.