POLITICS MAY 27, 2008
Two weeks ago, on the night of Barack Obama’s big win and narrow loss in the North Carolina and Indiana primaries, respectively, I turned my television set to MSNBC, as I normally do on election nights. It was early in the evening, and Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann were discussing the first exit polls that were trickling in. Considering that the exit polls in these contests have been--to say the least--a bit unreliable, I assumed that they weren’t going to put much stock in the numbers. Just two weeks earlier, I had watched MSNBC’s coverage of the Pennsylvania primary, where an excited Matthews practically gave the state to Obama, only to acknowledge later that Clinton had easily won. Surely, Matthews and company were not going to make the same mistake again.
They didn’t--but only because the exit polls, predicting a good night for Obama, happened to be right; the coverage itself was exactly the same. And this was only the latest example of the network’s undeniable Obama favoritism. David Shuster’s comment about the Clintons’ “pimping out” their daughter, Chelsea, was clearly boneheaded, but, as Clinton campaign spokesman Howard Wolfson pointed out, it caused such a stir among Clintonites because it highlighted the rest of the network’s anti-Hillary coverage. Now, that’s not to say that their slant has been bad for business; to the contrary. And it has certainly made for some enjoyable television--Matthews is often supremely engaging (who, after all, does not enjoy watching someone exclaim that seeing Obama speak gives him a “thrill going up my leg”), and however withering he can be, Olbermann is frequently hilarious. But the network’s coverage has helped create a bubble around Obama supporters that in the end is neither healthy nor desirable.
In fact, MSNBC’s bias has actually hurt the Illinois senator. After all, it was the Obama cheerleading from MSNBC (among others) that helped lead to Clinton’s New Hampshire comeback. And even if you think (as I do) that the Clintons have made too big of a deal out of the “sexist” and “unfair” portrayal their candidate has received in the press, if you watch enough MSNBC, you realize that their claim isn’t without truth. How could you believe otherwise when Olbermann, with his trademark hauteur, told Hillary that “voluntarily or inadvertently, you are still awash in this filth [of the campaign],” or when Matthews took such self-evident glee in trouncing Clinton in between the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary? Similarly now, by mocking Clinton’s decision to stay in the race, Olbermann has only bolstered her argument that “the boys” are trying to push her out. And finally, on a number of primary nights, but most notably in Pennsylvania and Ohio/Texas, MSNBC has become so excited by early exit polls that it has raised expectations that Obama ultimately could not live up to.
Now, the question of whether the network’s coverage is healthy for Obama supporters is a little more subjective. If you are someone who gets his international and “hard” news elsewhere, MSNBC is particularly appealing. I increasingly started watching the channel last year because of its political focus, and for the novelty of seeing outspoken liberals on television. How often does one hear a news anchor rant against the corruption of Bush’s Washington, after all? As the campaign progressed, however, it became clear that neither Matthews nor Olbermann could stand Hillary Clinton. This, I must admit, I found appealing, too--especially because I agreed with the hosts that some of the Clinton campaign’s tactics have been either ridiculous or dirty or both.
Still, a downside quickly surfaced. Shuster’s “pimping” remark and Matthews’s crude (even if somewhat accurate) comment about the Monica Lewinsky scandal being a boon for Hillary’s political career were notable precisely because they had nothing to do with policy or ideology. It wasn’t as if Shuster and Matthews and Olbermann were siding with Obama on the issue of individual mandates. Rather, by giving “the personal” precedence over “the political,” the network was using Hillary Hatred to fuel its coverage in a similar fashion to how Fox News uses Democrat Hatred to excite its viewers. But there is a distinction here that makes MSNBC’s agenda almost more disquieting than Fox’s. With Fox, I have to believe that most people know they’re watching something that approximates GOP talking points (seeing an analyst like Paul Begala spin for Hillary on CNN doesn’t really stick, either; everyone knows he’s an apparatchik). With MSNBC, however, the bias is much harder to pin down. Does it stem from a personal vendetta? Sexism? Corporate diktat? Who knows? If an Obama presidency were to bomb in a way similar to George W. Bush’s (unlikely, sure, but I’m speaking hypothetically here), it’s difficult to imagine that MSNBC would treat Obama as reverentially as Fox still does Bush. (In fact, I could see an issue like press access leading to a break between the channel and President Obama even if he thrives in office.) Conservatives have ably chipped away at the press’s credibility these past few years, with disturbing results; now--consciously or not--with their aggressive, intra-Democrat side-taking, MSNBC is doing the same thing.
Dangerously, too, MSNBC's coverage can lead to a perverse sort of cognitive dissonance in viewers like, well, me. Throughout the primary process, I often found myself much more bullish on the Illinois Senator's chances after watching MSNBC than I had any reason to be. After Obama's Iowa victory, for instance, I remember hearing Matthews' description of a giant "wave" of Obamamania sweeping across the nation; surely, the race was over. Likewise, during the month of February, when Obama won eleven straight primaries, I recall watching the network and occasionally convincing myself that Clinton was certain to drop out before Texas and Ohio because her chances had become so diminished. The problem here is that when supposedly "straight" news anchors phrase questions in leading ways, and report one campaign's spin as if it were fact, it distorts what is actually going on in the campaign--even for those of us who make a living obsessing over and writing about politics. And when anchormen themselves shill for Obama, the distinction between his talking points and the truth grows even blurrier still. So, as much as I find MSNBC entertaining, their creation of a parallel, pro-Obama universe is the type of thing I'd expect of Fox. That's when I know it's time to change the channel.
Isaac Chotiner is a frequent contributor to The New Republic.