Fox News leads TV ratings on a weekly, quarterly and yearly basis, but MSNBC president Phil Griffin says MSNBC has begun to carve a little place for itself in cable news. The Hollywood Reporter gives the details:
MSNBC president Phil Griffin has his sights set on Fox News. Griffin opened the network’s presentation at the Television Critics Association press tour here by noting that this year, MSNBC has surpassed perennial cable news leader Fox News in the ratings in multiple hours. The previous year, MSNBC did it once.
“It just gives you an indication of where we’re going,” said Griffin. “For the first time we’re beginning to chip away at Fox News Channel.”
First of all, I have to admire the guy’s optimism. A few hours amount to peanuts in the 24/7 cycle — but, still, good for Griffin for finding something to celebrate. But the really interesting part of his presentation came later, when he disputed the popular notion that MSNBC is just the liberal version of conservative Fox.
“I don’t see an equivalency between us and Fox News,” Griffin said. “There are no talking points. We don’t sit around and discuss how we’re going to cover any particular issue. That is something that you have to take account of when you compare the two of us. I just don’t see the same equivalency. I do say that we have a progressive attitude.”
The clear implication, of course, is that the folks at Fox do sit around and discuss how they’re going to cover a particular issue. Has Griffin watched Fox News? He ought to know how regularly the top two talk show hosts on FNC — Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity — disagree with each other. Are they both conservative? Yes. Do they think alike on every issue? No. Rather like Rachel Maddow and Chris Matthews on the left, I’d wager.
What’s so refreshing about O’Reilly and Hannity is how openly they own their biases. You won’t hear any pretense to objectivity from Hannity of the sort Maddow delivered in the same Hollywood Reporter piece.
“I think it’s easy to characterize us versus Fox, but I really don’t think we live up to the caricature,” said Maddow, adding that she’s done positive coverage of former Massachusetts governor and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s stance on climate change, for instance.
“They don’t know what to do with that [story at Fox News]. Neither Phil nor any other executive is telling us what to think of climate change. [Fox News] really are pushing a party line. Not every host. But I think we’re more unpredictable.”
Funnily enough, it bothers me that Maddow is trying to brand MSNBC as “unpredictable” far more than it bothers me that MSNBC actually is progressive. At least Griffin said the channel operates from a “progressive attitude.” That owning of bias is to be applauded.
Because here’s the deal: So what if every host on TV openly pushes an agenda — if everybody watching is keenly aware of it? Are viewers at any disadvantage as they sort out the information biased hosts provide? What host is not biased?
What protected objectivity in the past, supposedly, were systems — neutral, open-ended interview techniques, scrupulous fact-checking, rigorous copy-editing, etc. Yet, bias still crept in. Of course it did. As human beings with thoughts and opinions, reporters couldn’t help but subtly influence their coverage. The new model that’s emerging is even more honest than the old — one in which reporters strip away their own self-delusions and acknowledge the principles that guide their thinking. True, this new model requires more from the reader or from the viewer. It demands that information consumers seek out a diversity of sources, ask questions, engage the material — and it offers no guarantees that consumers will do that, leaving open the possibility that some citizens would prefer to live their lives in an echo chamber of reassurance.
That last bit is troubling to anyone who values truth — but recognized as inevitable to anyone who values freedom. Not everyone will use freedom of information wisely, but that doesn’t mean reporters should again wall up the facts behind the “gate” of “objective” journalism, not even for the sake of the ignorance-is-bliss security that seems to have accompanied watching Walter Cronkite on the news every night and never knowing what information wasn’t presented.
Update: Incidentally, I’m not the only person who has come to this conclusion. Check out the great work of Timothy Groseclose, a political science professor at UCLA and the author of Left Turn: How Liberal Media Bias Distorts the American Mind. Groseclose thinks we’d be better served if every reporter — and not just talk show hosts! — identified what Groseclose refers to as his or her “political quotient.”