Saturday, April 27, 2013

Must Have Been a Slow News Day - They Asked Me Questions

I've been fooling around on a subdomain dedicated to politics, called, appropriately, Politix. A couple of days ago one of the senior editors asked me sit for an interview about conservative and liberal media. Now that the piece has been published at at, here are the raw questions and answers.

 - Has MSNBC gone "too far left" in any of its programming? If not, why do some say it has?

"Too far" is a slippery term largely defined by where the observer stands. What Matt Kibbe of Freedom Works calls leftist might be just right of center for Chris Matthews. The Catholic League's Bill Donohue certainly views gender politics in a dramatic diagonal from Rachel Maddow. I think the places media occupy along the political spectrum must be considered in tandem. For every Fox News there's an MSNBC; somewhere in between lies the true "fair and balanced". The confounding variable, though, is the relative market share of each outlet. Fox is the unquestioned gorilla in the political media room and has had much longer to inculcate its editorial world view in its fan base. To a large extent this gives Fox the ability to characterize other media in terms of the political spectrum, to either beatify or demonize. This includes the network's largely successful attempt to make "liberal" synonymous with "evil". To the question about MSNBC's "too far left" tendencies: I submit that any economic competitor to Fox News will earn the dreaded "liberal" sobriquet. Certainly the editorial stance taken by MSNBC is liberal, in a rather more generic sense, but "too far"? I would not say so. In the absolutist terms used by conservative media any distance in ideology is too much. By simply basing its programming on a set of assumptions that differ from Murdochian orthodoxy MSNBC has put daylight between itself and its much bigger competitor. That's bound to get the network talked about, particularly in conservative media circles.

 - Why did MSNBC lose the ratings war during the terror hunt?

I believe some of the post-crisis ratings might help us understand this dynamic. By some accounts, the clear ratings victor was the otherwise irrelevant CNN. As media consumers, we go to CNN for breaking news. As people trying to understand what just happened we choose analysis according to our political leanings. I'm always interested in what Chris Hayes or Ezra Klein has to say about the news, but I prefer Shep Smith for real time reporting.

 - In what ways is MSNBC better or worse than other cable networks?

MSNBC does some things very well. I think the analysis offered in its long form programming (Rachel Maddow and Chris Hayes, for instance) is very good. It's not persuasive, as a rule, but it does present an evidence-based perspective that can inform my own thinking on a topic. Its weakness lies in the depth of its practical journalism field. While it does share a number of seasoned journalists with parent NBC, that same sibling relationship dilutes, to some extent, MSNBC's perceived value as a breaking news outlet. If I hear Pete Williams say the same things on Nightly News he's already told Tamron Hall 5 hours earlier, I might elect to wait for Nightly. Chris Matthews may have a panel loaded with working reporters, but he himself is not significantly different from Bill O'Reilly - both men frequently interrupt their guests for ideological rather than factual reasons.

In the end I'll say this: there are no absolutes in media. Each outlet plays to a certain market niche that tends to reject any inputs from outside that niche. Fox has been enormously successful in its pitch to conservatives, MSNBC is succeeding in building a younger, more centrist/liberal audience. Both serve their audiences with content and formats that cater their particular position on the political spectrum. All other things being equal, both should survive for a long stretch into the future. But, as is the case with today's Republican Party, Fox's demographics are working against it. As its audience ages out, Fox will necessarily change its editorial policies to match an increasingly younger but still conservative market. This shift will allow MSNBC to move even further left as its relative position changes. It may be that someday Fox will resemble today's MSNBC while the smaller network morphs into something completely unimaginable today.

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