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MSNBC’s Flawed Coverage of Libya, Economy

(Photo: Jason Garber / Flickr)

When US bombs began to drop on Libya last month, representing the start of the third simultaneous US war (not including covert wars being waged by US Special Forces and the CIA in Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, and elsewhere), it was not surprising to see the media jump into a pro-war frenzy, as it so often does. One might hope, however, that perhaps MSNBC – on the liberal side of acceptable discourse in US cable media – would at least offer significant skepticism toward another expensive and bloody US war. This is especially true given that 74 percent of the US population opposed US intervention.

A close look, however, reveals the opposite is true. MSNBC, whose hosts align themselves closely with Barack Obama and the Democratic Party, has been perhaps the most hawkish station on cable news. Literally every single one of the channel's nighttime hosts (Ed Schultz, Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews, Lawrence O'Donnell and Cenk Uygur) has failed to oppose the war (the morning hours are hosted by Joe Scarborough, a reliable conservative). In many instances, they have vigorously supported the war, or at the least, have deflected criticism away from Obama and the Democrats. In fact, MSNBC has arguably defended President Obama's war policies with nearly the same vigor as their Fox News competitors did with President George W. Bush, when he pushed the US into Iraq in 2003. MSNBC's coverage of the intervention in Libya shows one of the great flaws of even the most critical corporate media in the United States. Such limitations do a great disservice to the prospects of a much-needed class-based movement. And given that a recent poll done by Alternet showed how influential MSNBC is – Maddow was overwhelmingly voted as the most influential progressive, and a number of other current or former MSNBC hosts were in the top 20 – it is important that the limits of MSNBC's independence and criticism be well understood.

A Pro-War Agenda

“The Rachel Maddow Show” on MSNBC, probably viewed as the most liberal show on television, provided arguably the most disappointing example of MSNBC's support for the war and used the war in Libya as a chance to provide further praise to Obama. Maddow observed that Obama, like Bush, was invading a Middle Eastern nation. But by initiating the attack without so much as a press conference to the American people, she argued, he was avoiding the “chest thumping” of previous administrations in an effort to “change the narrative” of US foreign policy. Obama's decision, she said in a March 21 broadcast, “to forego the chest-thumping commander-in-chief theater that goes with military intervention of any kind, that in itself is a fascinating and rather blunt demonstration of just how much this presidency is not like that of George W. Bush.” This was a rather absurd position: Maddow is literally celebrating Obama's brand of US imperialism because it is hidden from the public and carried out in a way that makes state violence more palatable to the world.

At least Maddow tried to make a point beyond platitudes, which cannot be said for Ed Schultz. In an interview with Jeremy Scahill, Schultz literally uttered phrases such as “Gadaffi is a terrorist … Obama said he has killed US troops – that that is all I need to hear.” In fact, Schultz refused to directly engage in any of the points Scahill made and simply responded each time with hyperbolic platitudes about “freedom”' and “trusting the president.” Despite Schultz's claims that this “is not Bush talk,” it clearly is very similar to the “debates” pro-war advocates were having in the media in 2002-03 leading up to Iraq.

As noted above, the rest of MSNBC's liberal hosts have been doing almost anything besides criticizing the war, or the president. Chris Matthews criticized Obama for not being hawkish enough at the outset of the unrest in Libya. Lawrence O'Donnell, host of “The Last Word,” did find some moral outrage within him, but it was all targeted at the Republicans, when he, wrongly, argued that a March 1 resolution calling for Qaddafi to step down negated the need for Congressional approval. (Of course, the extent to which it is accurate or fair to call O'Donnell or Matthews “liberal,” even within the typical corporate media framework, is very much up for debate.) This example shows the primary function of the channel; it is not to challenge power, but rather to defend one arm of power: the Democratic Party. In this case, O'Donnell did not bother to seriously examine Obama's decision to lead the nation into an expensive military campaign without vital national debate or a Congressional vote, but simply deflected the issue on to the GOP.

This was also evident in the channel's coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the case of Iraq, MSNBC was one of the chief culprits that celebrated the “end” of the war in Iraq, failing to recognize that more than 100,000 contractors, tens of thousands of US troops and permanent military bases remain. And when Maddow went to Afghanistan, she painted the US counterinsurgency strategy as a noble, if tactically difficult, endeavor. She made no major critique of the morality of the war, which has now been going on a decade, calling the mission “constructive, not destructive.” In short, MSNBC has arguably been as pro-war as any channel in US cable since Obama was elected president.

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Giving Obama a Pass on the Economy

MSNBC's emphasis on defending the policies of one of the ruling, corporate-backed political parties in the US political system is the rule, not the exception. Many examples of such coverage exist beyond foreign policy. In the case of Obama's economic policies and specifically his negotiations with Republicans, the channel has shown a remarkable ability to pretend Obama has not played a role in extending tax cuts for the rich – breaking a key campaign promise – or in contributing to the fetishization of budget cuts that now permeates Washington, DC.

Consider Obama's recent speech about budget priorities. While Obama did indeed engage in some glowing rhetoric about the importance of social programs, the real policy he proposed was to cut $2 in spending for government services, for every $1 in tax increases (while, as Jon Stewart pointed out, in true Orwellian fashion. Obama called tax increases “spending reductions in the tax code”). Bear in mind, this is his starting position; he is sure to concede more when he actually negotiates with the GOP. And yet, MSNBC acted as if Obama had finally found his progressive soul.

Maddow said the president's speech confirmed Obama's progressive values and ought to keep his base happy. Ed Shultz said the speech “could be a real game changer.” “President Obama's full-throated defense of liberalism was in full steam today,” Shultz said. “The president gave new life to the progressive values that I think made this country great. And instead of being on the defensive, the president went on offense today and described the Republican vision of America for what it is.”

This is remarkably naive. Despite Obama's pledge to protect the social safety net, he has made it clear his plan is really about austerity measures. He concedes that Social Security and Medicare are on the table. Further, he is not making the case for any kind of Keynesian stimulus package or jobs program (as he did in early 2009), the traditional social democratic approach to financial crises, and is actually advancing the conservative economic solutions, such as austerity measures. As the Nation magazine said in an editorial, “The president's vision of 'shared sacrifice,' … hits the poor and the middle class hardest,” while “wealthy Americans and the military are asked to sacrifice less, even though it was unfunded tax cuts and wars that got us a deficit in the first place.”

Purportedly Liberal Media Serving Dominant Ideology

The famous French philosopher Louis Althusser once described the way private entities – schools, the church, labor unions and, of course, the media – serve as “Ideological State Apparatuses” reinforcing state ideology. In the US, such ideology includes the idea that capitalism is the natural order of things, and that US intentions abroad are noble and selfless. MSNBC, despite its reputation as a critical, “liberal” voice of dissent, actually serves this function precisely. MSNBC hosts are indeed rightly critical of GOP failings and the excesses of the Tea Party, to give two examples. But they fail to challenge any of the major tenets of US ideology and, thus, serve to reinforce these tenets. The class war that is waged on workers by elites – who own MSNBC – is never mentioned. There is also virtually no discussion of the inherent flaws of having a two-party system dominated by corporate money represent the full spectrum of political choice in a “democracy.” In fact, the channel in many cases serves to perpetuate the narrow debate inherent in the two-party system, ignoring class issues and effectively acting as a communications arm for one elite political party.

In some ways, the limits of MSNBC reflect an even further problem: the limits of contemporary liberalism as a whole, Chris Hedges most recent book, “Death of the Liberal Class,” argues liberalism as a force for change and justice is dying. Liberal institutions, he argues, have become “useless and despised appendage[s] of corporate power.” The “greatest sin” of the liberal class is “its enthusiastic collusion with the power elite” in silencing, banning and blacklisting “rebels, iconoclasts, communists, socialists, anarchists, radical union leaders and pacifists.” Hope, argues Hedges, can only be found in a “return to the language of class conflict and rebellion.”

Hedges' analysis is fitting in the context of MSNBC. A recent interview between Maddow and Dean Baker over local budget cuts was telling. When Baker was sharply critical of Obama (“Republicans are playing against no opposition”), Maddow quickly came to the president's defense, arguing that there was little the president could do, since many cuts were coming from the state level. This is a common refrain among MSNBC's “liberals,” who often argue that Obama wants so badly to have progressive change, but is shackled by Congress, the system, and so on. At the end of the interview, she added that Democrats on the state level might fight the good fight on the issue, rather than Obama. This, in a nutshell, sums up the tragic limits of the corporate-owned “liberal” media. The solution is always to see what the Democratic Party can do. There is never any talk of movement building; it is always about why all change must come from above, through a corrupted political party.

While there is no doubt that MSNBC hosts do engage in some quality work and that Maddow is preferable to the likes of Tucker Carlson, who used to occupy her 9 PM time slot. But the channel is, at its root, a profit-seeking enterprise for corporate America, and beyond that, is tightly connected to a major power center, the Democratic Party, which needs to be challenged. The left should look more to the likes of Amy Goodman, the Real News Network, and other independent left-wing outlets, which do indeed challenge these power centers, for analyses of society that rightly seek out the root causes of problems and recognize the need for class consciousness, not merely partisan cheerleading. Such outlets provide voices to the voiceless and seriously examine the problems inherent within capitalism and within our broken democracy, which is corrupted by corporate power. It is also vital that more activists, journalists and editors create more independent media outlets, which serve as the main defense against the all-too-narrow presentations of reality created by corporate-owned media, such as MSNBC.

MSNBC's recent coverage of Libya and the economy show clear-cut examples of the failure of corporate-owned so-called “progressive” media. It also further demonstrates the need for those concerned with social justice to look beyond liberalism and the Democratic Party and fight – as a united working class – for change outside of these corrupted institutions, including MSNBC.

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