Slyer Than Who Now?

by Jonah Goldberg

Going through the mail pile, I see the latest New Republic is out. The cover story is titled “Slyer than Fox: The Wild Inside Story of How MSNBC Became the Voice of the Left.” (This is the same issue that has a pointlessly smug piece on Yuval Levin — a man the old New Republic would have wisely courted to write for it).

I’ve given it a very quick read, which seems to be the most favorable approach since it’s very breezy, occasionally entertaining, but light on argument or persuasion. The upshot is MSNBC honcho Phil Griffin is “slyer” than Fox — i.e., Roger Ailes —  by putting together a leftwing network that does slightly less badly against Fox, and almost entirely by accident.

The author, Rebecca Dana, concedes that Fox is wildly more profitable than MSNBC.  Fox’s average post-election ratings are more than 25 percent higher than MSNBC’s best ever — which came at the tail end of the presidential campaign and have since slumped. More interesting is the piece’s acknowledgement that MSNBC has become a leftwing version of the Left’s caricature of Fox (even Bill Clinton calls it “our version of Fox News.”). Given all of the whining about Fox’s alleged ideological corruption, you’d think there’d be a bit more handwringing over the Left’s hypocritical celebration of MSNBC, which does exactly what liberals claim Fox does. It’s hard not to conclude that the Left’s problem isn’t with an ideological network, just with networks that don’t hold a leftwing ideology.  I particularly liked this bit:

Still, MSNBC isn’t an instrument of the Democratic Party in the way that Fox is of the GOP. Ailes has a direct line to conservative politicians and considerable influence over them. Griffin may go to the odd White House Christmas party, but he’s not talking strategy with Valerie Jarrett. “We have much closer relationships with the administration than he does,” says Scarborough, who told me Obama surrogates contacted him after plenty of shows during the last campaign, often to complain.
Many of MSNBC’s hosts are also more liberal than the White House is, particularly on issues like drone warfare, indefinite detention, and relief for the financial sector. And Maddow argues that Obama avoids the network (he hasn’t agreed to an interview since 2008) in part because his people know he’s going to get asked difficult questions. “What MSNBC has done is help create something of a North Star for a lot of progressive opinion to follow,” says Erik Smith, a senior media adviser to both Obama campaigns. “But as quickly as they’re with you, they can be on the left of you. It’s not like it’s a booster club on the air.” Axelrod noted the network’s lack of support after Obama’s poor first debate performance. “I wasn’t terribly happy about it,” he says of the MSNBC backlash, “but there’s no doubt they were opinion leaders.”

First of all, I’m not sure Joe Scarborough wants to keep bragging about how he has better relationships with the White House than the president of MSNBC does. It’s a bad look for someone who wants to cast himself as a bulwark of conservatism and it’s not so much a defense of MSNBC or Griffin, than a liberal humble brag. Second, what does Dana know about how Roger Ailes spends his time? As for the rest of it, Fox reporters ask Republican politicians tough questions all of the time. Ask Mitt Romney about his interview with Bret Baier. And as for the opinion guys, lots of them were to Bush’s right and gave the White House plenty of grief on everything from immigration to Harriet Miers.

I think MSNBC is free to program however it wants, I just find MSNBC’s haughty insistence “we’re better than Fox” to be a sign of insecurity. Perhaps it’s a necessary crutch to compensate for the fact that by the metrics of the TV industry — profits, ratings, impact etc —  MSNBC isn’t better than Fox.  

I for one think Fox could use some shaking up, but that’s a tough thing to tell the business guys when you’re No. 1 in nearly every category and time slot. It’s like going to a restaurant and saying, “Look, I know you’re booked solid for the next 6 months with lines out the door, and you’re really profitable, but you’ve got to change the menu.”

Meanwhile, Fox’s success is largely attributable to Ailes’ efforts. But, according to Dana, Griffin fell over backwards into the leftwing schtick and MSNBC’s modest improvements. For instance, he disliked Olbermann’s rants but relented as they seemed to be working. Now, he wants to turn MSNBC into a “lifestyle” network, taking tips from channels like Bravo. 

That’s interesting. It may be even smart. But I’m at a loss as to how this makes Phil Griffin “slyer” than Roger Ailes. 

The Corner

The one and only.