MSNBC’s Alternative Universe

by Charles C. W. Cooke
What passes for journalism on the network is downright silly.

More than any other subject, apolitical sorts will ask me about Fox News. “Is it really crazy?” my British friends inquire, flashing the sort of smile that a botanist might exhibit while examining a newly discovered species of moss. “Is it, like, really right wing?”

The question has always slightly irritated me, showing as it does that the considerable success that the Left has had in demonizing its opposition extends even across the Atlantic. Certainly, both Fox’s commentary and its ostensibly straight reporting are marked by the right-leaning proclivities of its owners. But the notion that the network is unique in exhibiting bias is one of the more egregious planks of Western conventional wisdom — and especially so because it seems patently obvious to me that if one were to single out for palpable eccentricity a cable-news station in the United States, it would not be Fox. It would be MSNBC.

Take a quick look at the numbers. A recent Pew study revealed that the supposedly neutral CNN spent 54 percent of its time broadcasting “news” and 46 percent of its time hosting “opinion.” Fox, by contrast, transmits 55 percent opinion and 45 percent news. But MSNBC — well, MSNBC consists of a remarkable 85 percent opinion and only 15 percent news. This has consequences. During the election, Pew added, the ratio of unfavorable to favorable treatment in stories about Mitt Romney on MSNBC was roughly 23-to-1, and the negative-to-positive ratio for Barack Obama on Fox News was 8-to-1.

“Biased” doesn’t cut it. To watch MSNBC for an afternoon is not so much to be given a slanted account of what is happening here in America, but instead to witness a series of discussions about current events in parallel America II — a rather silly place in which the political center of gravity and all things Good are defined by the preferences of the faculty at Berkeley and the comments section of the Daily Kos and in which anyone who dissents from this position is believed to possess two heads, a black heart, and a pocket copy of Mein Kampf.

America II, as anyone who watches the channel will discover rather swiftly, hosts a supermajority of well-meaning multi-culti, progressive types whose foolproof plans for explosive economic growth, uniform social justice, and general human utopia are constantly being undone by a blossoming white-supremacist movement, split apart by neo-secessionists, and existentially threatened by traitors whose defining characteristic is a never-quite-explained hatred for progress. America II features no gray areas whatsoever: All local variation is apartheid, each and every identification requirement is the second coming of Jim Crow, all criticism of the government is sedition. It’s exhausting.

Hour by tedious hour, America II is saved from its own worst instincts. What destroyed Detroit, a city that has been run into the ground by Democrats for half a century? “Republicans” and “capitalism,” naturally. A pressing question? “Are conservatives the new Confederates?” A topic worthy of Chris Matthews’s investigation? Whether Sarah Palin can actually read. It’s like watching Mystery Science Theater 3000 — just less realistic.

Perhaps the most startling thing about the network is that one doesn’t need to even infer or twist anything in order to wallow in the gratifying stupefaction that its hosts just said what they just said. There is an entire cottage industry on the Internet that is dedicated to putting words in the mouths of cable news personalities — indeed, in recent weeks I have been featured in a couple of modest contributions myself. But with MSNBC, no such mendacity is necessary. No clever editing. No false contexts. One can just read the transcripts. They meant to say that.

After all, what would one possibly add to Martin Bashir’s suggestions that someone should defecate in Sarah Palin’s mouth, that conservatives are using the acronym “IRS” as a stand-in for “n***er,” or that Ted Cruz is the “David Koresh” of the Republican party? What could be achieved by sexing up Chris Matthews’s conviction that tea partiers “still count blacks as three-fifths” of a person, or that the perpetrators of 9/11 “just have a different perspective”? What might a worker bee charged with feeding the outrage machine do to make more impressive Joy Reid’s asseveration that Republicans are “resentful” of “post-1964 America,” or to improve upon Ed Schultz’s faith that “God supports Obamacare,” or to render more absurd Michael Eric Dyson’s contention that Eric Holder is “the chief lawgiver” and the “Moses of our time”?

The channel is a lazy intern’s dream. Recently, a guest called Tim Wise nonchalantly announced that Republicans have “essentially gone in as a white-nationalist, Afrikaner, Boer party.” It’s all there, clear as day. Just rip from the Internet and upload. Bingo! One gets the uncomfortable feeling that the minds behind the programming are so strongly wedded to the cartoon impression of what they believe Fox News to be — sorry, what they believe the “FAUX NEWS ECHO CHAMBER!” to be — that they cannot imagine running a television station without emulating it. MSNBC, it seems, is a reaction against a Fox that never really existed — a progressive version of the How Utterly Ridiculous Can One Become Before the Commercial Break? game that has long been played more devotedly in the fever swamps of the Left than by the conservatives they like to denounce.

During the political-convention season of 2012, Lawrence O’Donnell inadvertently lent some credibility to this theory. Having been read the part of Mitch McConnell’s impending RNC speech in which McConnell dinged the president for playing too much golf, O’Donnell charged with a straight face that the senator knew “exactly what he’s trying to do there.” And what he was “trying to do,” apparently, was “to align to Tiger Woods and, surely, the lifestyle of Tiger Woods, with Barack Obama.”

In a rare turn as the voice of reason, Martin Bashir quickly interrupted his colleague to inquire of him, “Don’t you think that what he’s really trying to do is to suggest that the president is not paying attention to the central issues that come with the responsibility he has?” But it was too late. O’Donnell looked at Bashir as if Bashir had asked whether Santa Claus really existed. “Martin,” he said, paternally,

there are many, many, many rhetorical choices you can make at any point in any speech to make whatever point you want to make. If he wanted to make the point that you just suggested — and I think he does want to make that point — they had a menu of a minimum of ten different kinds of images that they could have raised. And I promise you, the speechwriters went through, rejecting three or four before they landed on that one. That’s the one they want for a very deliberate reason. That — there’s — these people reach for every single possible racial double entendre they can find in every one of these speeches.

An MSNBC employee charging that others are “reaching for every single possible racial double entendre they can find” is about as preposterously un-self-aware as it gets, being akin in principle to Lady Godiva’s accusing others of exhibitionism or to Hugh Hefner’s suggesting that chastity might be the better course after all. So, naturally, O’Donnell turned the dial up even further. “I know these people are insensitive, I know the speechwriters are insensitive, I know the way they work,” he continued. McConnell’s people, “said wait a minute, do we really want to go there? Do we really want to go to Tiger Woods — and the vote in the room was yes, we do.”

Call me a skeptic, but I would venture that the chances of this connection having crossed Mitch McConnell’s speechwriters’ minds is around zero. Instead, what I suspect actually happened here is that O’Donnell was remembering aloud how his own show is run. He does indeed “know the way they work.” But “they” isn’t political speechwriters or the Republican party — it’s MSNBC staffers. “Lawrence, can we really suggest that there is an ironclad link between John Boehner’s crying and the Battle of Vicksburg?” a writer might ask. “Sure, why not!”

This matters — at least a little. For all his comic value, MSNBC’s star attraction, Chris Matthews, is not in fact regarded as some wild-eyed entertainer, forever given a pass for hyperbole on the grounds that he has ratings to keep up, but as a journalist. He is the guy whom the White House last week handpicked for a set-piece recovery “interview” with Barack Obama. In a segue that had to be seen to be believed, Matthews quite literally went from a live one-on-one with the president of the United States to a spot in which he contended that South Africa’s white supremacists loved their country more than do the president’s opponents. Where else would this happen?

As for the interview itself? It was more of an infomercial. Matthews is on record arguing that Obama’s “whole life has been crystal clear, and clean as a whistle, and transparent” and that “he’s never done anything wrong in his life — legally, ethically, whatever,” and he previewed the feature by arguing that the president is “a brilliant writer, perhaps, with a great theme.” Thus, over the course of an hour, the host of a show called Hardball asked the president a series of fawning, set-up questions, such as what had brought him here and “what can we do to stop the GOP,” let him know what he had “always thought was great about what you did,” and provided opportunities for him to sell his agenda. At the end, he thanked the president “on behalf of the people who watch me every night and are loyalists, many of them to you,” and afterwards shivered to his co-hosts as he remembered how Obama had “come among us.”

The occasional flourishes of Rush Limbaugh are one thing. But Rush Limbaugh does not get to interview the most powerful man in the world, nor to conduct presidential debates. Matthews does. And that’s important, because MSNBC does not regard itself as either a comedy station or as a partisan tool, but as the home of the smart set. There is something vaguely embarrassing about the way in which the channel’s younger contributors openly self-identify as “wonks” and encourage their audience members to join them in marking their own brilliance with the Twitter hashtag “#nerdland.” But self-identify they do. “Lean Forward” and all that.

To those who watch every day, the descent must have been almost imperceptible. But for casual viewers such as myself, it has been dramatic. Even between the election last year and the shutdown in September, the station has changed considerably — moving, in the amusing vernacular of its critics, from being “MSDNC” — or a thinly disguised cheerleader for the Democratic party — to “MSLSD,” a fully psychedelic exposition of the grad-school-progressive id.

And that’s the thing. The station is not so much “#nerdland” as “#gradland” — the only place on cable television in which the asinine patois of the American graduate school can be aired without provoking hysterical laughter and the rolling of eyes. This is all well and good: After all, extremely silly people need jobs, friends, and entertainment, too. But if, as Rachel Maddow claims, the channel has a “devotion to facts that borders on obsessive,” perhaps the suits upstairs might drop the tired conceit that their project has anything to do with current affairs and accept that it has become precisely what it was ostensibly established to counter: an interminable piece of political performance art that is masquerading crudely as a newsmonger.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.

Editor’s Note: This article has been amended since its initial posting.