The real lessons of Fox/MSNBC comparisons


Any reporter who tells you MSNBC is the liberal Fox is really telling you everything you need to know about the quality of his or her own journalism.

At first blush, it may seem odd to see so many journalists rush to defend Fox News, a cable channel that attacks the rest of the media almost as often as it smears and lies about progressives. Fox employees are busily destroying what's left of the public's faith in journalism -- and lobbing insults at actual reporters as they do so. Why would any self-respecting journalist want to embrace what happens on Fox?

The obvious part of the answer is that there are personal relationships involved. The simple fact is that many reporters at, say, ABC or CNN or the New York Times are friends with people who work at Fox. And nobody likes to see their friends get criticized.

But I think when many journalists defend Fox, they're really defending themselves -- they're acting out of fear that they, too, will one day be branded illegitimate. (Given the right-wing's much more aggressive criticism of the media over the past several decades, this is, of course, a perfectly reasonable fear -- and it isn't surprising that reporters feel safer lashing out at media criticism from progressives than from conservatives.)

Ironically, in defending Fox in order to defend themselves, many journalists are actually undermining their own credibility. Not (only) because they side with partisans who have clearly stated their intent to destroy a presidency, but because of the way they do so: They don't rely on evidence and fact and reason; they base their arguments on assumptions and spin and name-calling. They don't behave like journalists.

Last week, I explained the absurdity of the efforts by many reporters to compare the Obama administration's criticisms of Fox to the anti-press efforts of Richard Nixon. Fortunately, that ahistorical bit of nonsense seems to have died down. But in its place, laughable attempts to equate Fox News and MSNBC have spread like wildfire. Again and again, we hear that MSNBC is the liberal Fox, as though their ideological intensity and commitment to the principles of journalism are in any way comparable.

As always, part of the problem is journalists' fundamentally warped sense of where the "center" is. If, for example, an MSNBC figure suggests a need for health care reform, many journalists would take that as evidence that the channel leans to the left. But that isn't evidence of MSNBC leaning to the left; that's evidence of them leaning to the center. That's where the center of the country is, and has been for quite some time. It simply isn't comparable to Fox reporters comparing President Obama to Chairman Mao.

But the lazy conventional wisdom of Beltway journalists requires that they pretend -- maybe they even convince themselves -- that Fox must have a left-wing equivalent. And so they insist that Fox and MSNBC are mirror images of each other -- which suggests that the endpoints of the political spectrum are, on the Left, an understanding of the need for health care reform and, on the Right, a belief that President Obama is pursuing a Maoist strategy of indoctrination. When they do that, they demonstrate just how far to the right the overall media environment has shifted, and they reveal more about their own worldview than about MSNBC's.

Now, let's get something out of the way: Yes, Rachel Maddow, Ed Schultz, and Keith Olbermann all host shows that, to varying degrees, lean to the left. (Personally, I think Olbermann demonstrates more disgust at the leadership of the modern conservative movement than he does a liberal worldview, but your mileage may vary.)

But hey, guess what? Maddow, Schultz and Olbermann account for three hours of original programming a day -- exactly the same as Joe Scarborough, who hosts the agenda-setting Morning Joe. That's conservative Joe Scarborough. Former Republican Congressman Joe Scarborough. And if you watch MSNBC during the day, you'll see a parade of anchors and reporters who frequently adopt conservative frames, pass along GOP spin, and routinely fail to challenge obvious falsehoods from conservative guests. I'm not saying these daytime reporters are conservatives, but I am saying they frequently (unknowingly, I'm willing to assume) traffic in conservative misinformation. Taken as a whole, it's awfully hard to say with a straight face that MSNBC leans to the left.

And yet reporters keep insisting that not only does MSNBC lean to the left, it leans as far to the left as Fox. (And, in the process, they ignore or downplay the central truth that the real problem with Fox isn't merely that it leans to the right, but that it is fundamentally dishonest; that its goals are not to inform the public, but to destroy people it sees as its enemies.)

Let's start with CNN host Campbell Brown. Wednesday evening, Brown offered an extended commentary on the White House-Fox News flap, during which she suggested the only controversial aspect of Fox is "their opinionated hosts in prime- time," and portrayed Fox and MSNBC as mirror images of each other:

I am stating what I think is the obvious here. Jarrett seems loath to admit that MSNBC has a bias, and that is where I think the White House loses all credibility on this issue. Just as Fox News leans to the right with their opinionated hosts in prime- time, MSNBC leans left. I don't think anyone at Fox or MSNBC would disagree with that. In fact, both Fox News and MSNBC are doing quite well in the prime-time ratings by doing partisan opinion.

Brown's implication that outside of Fox's "opinionated hosts in prime-time" the cable channel is fair and balanced is either deeply dishonest or stunningly ignorant. Either way, it constitutes lousy journalism. Media Matters has repeatedly shown that Fox's daytime, ostensibly "straight news" programs are filled with right-wing misinformation. And remember: It wasn't Sean Hannity or any other prime-time host who suggested during last year's presidential campaign that Barack and Michelle Obama had performed a "terrorist fist-jab." It was a daytime news anchor.

Even worse is Brown's characterization of Fox's "opinionated hosts" as simply "lean[ing] to the right." Nonsense. Olympia Snowe "leans to the right." David Brooks "leans to the right." Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity don't "lean" anywhere; they populate a far-right cesspool that respectable conservatives wouldn't be caught dead in.

Just look at how many conservatives have denounced Beck: Brooks calls him a "race-bating" "loon," Scarborough denounces Beck's "hatred," former Bush speechwriter Peter Wehner says Beck's comments "are quite unfair and not good for the country." Mark Levin says Beck is "mindless," "incoherent," "pandering," and "pathetic." David Frum denounces Beck's "mob rule" approach; Kathleen Parker says Beck "empower[s] racists."

And yet Campbell Brown can only bring herself to say "Fox leans to the right" with the likes of Beck -- a remarkable understatement that smears reasonable conservatives and displays a shocking lack of understanding of what Beck is up to.

And in Brown's telling, MSNBC "leans left" just as much as Fox "leans to the right." Of course, Brown doesn't actually provide any examples; doesn't even name any names. In a segment that ran nearly 1,000 words, Brown didn't provide a single example of slanted commentary, flawed journalism, false claims, or anything else at all. No facts, no details, nothing.

It sure is easy to insist that Fox and MSNBC are equivalent when you don't have to actually assess what they do, isn't it? But that isn't really journalism; it's just pontification and spin.

But Brown can't offer examples; can't get into details, because if she did, the fantasy she constructs that Fox and MSNBC are polar opposites would fall apart.

She'd have to try to find MSNBC equivalents of Fox -- not just Hannity, but Bill Hemmer and Brett Baier, too -- falsely accusing an Obama administration official of covering up statutory rape. And of Hemmer falsely claiming Democrats "voted to give special protection to pedophiles."

She'd have to find the MSNBC equivalent of Fox reporter Jon Scott repeatedly being caught passing off GOP talking points (typos and all) as his original reporting. She'd have to find the MSNBC equivalent of Fox anchor Martha MacCallum having to apologize for passing off a six-month-old Joe Biden quote about the economy as a current comment -- a clip Fox deceptively cropped to make it appear Biden was saying something that he was actually criticizing John McCain for saying. And of White House correspondent Wendell Goler cropping an Obama comment and taking it out of context, completely reversing the statement's meaning in the process. Not Sean Hannity, not Glenn Beck -- Wendell Goler.

She'd have to find the MSNBC equivalent of Chris Wallace calling the Obama administration the "biggest bunch of crybabies I have dealt with in my 30 years in Washington." Anyone think David Gregory ever said anything like that about the Bush administration?

Campbell Brown knows she can't find any of these things, so she doesn't even try. And I haven't even scratched the surface of Fox's malicious and deeply dishonest attacks on those they disagree with; their assault on fact and reason, or their cheerleading for pet causes.

But even if Brown could find the MSNBC equivalent of all that and more -- which, again, she simply cannot do -- she'd still have to find the Fox equivalent of MSNBC handing over three hours a day to former Republican Congressman Joe Scarborough. And of MSNBC employing Pat Buchanan, the nation's most famous bigot. And of raging Clinton-hater, liberal-basher and on-air misogynist Chris Matthews hosting one of MSNBC's signature shows. And of MSNBC's "straight news" reporters regularly adopting conservative frames and failing to challenge right-wing lies during interviews. She'd have to find the Fox version of MSNBC's use of Michelle Bernard, a right-wing activist who has been sending out false and despicable anti-health care reform attack emails, as host of a special forum dealing with health care.

Campbell Brown can't do that, either.

And so she ignores it all -- ignores what actually happens on Fox News and on MSNBC, and simply asserts that they're the same. Is that what Campbell Brown thinks journalism is about? Completely ignoring facts and evidence, and just making baseless assertions? No wonder she defends Fox.

But Brown wasn't content to simply equate Fox and MSNBC. No, she also had to contrast them with CNN:

Some of us, like my colleagues here at CNN, are still trying to do journalism. I believe that journalists do have a crucial role to play in challenging our leaders no matter what their political persuasion, and in holding them accountable.

Opinionated cable news hosts have a valid but very different role. They either cheerlead or criticize.


I'm not critical of what my friends at Fox News and MSNBC do, but it is apples and oranges when compared to what we at CNN do. And we should all just acknowledge that.

You know what else "we should all just acknowledge"? You know, if we're "trying to do journalism" that contrasts MSNBC and CNN? We should all acknowledge that Lou Dobbs exists, that he's a lying right-wing nut, that he hosts a television show every evening on CNN, and that CNN's president defends Dobbs' hyping of crazy birther conspiracy theories.

See, Campbell Brown didn't mention Dobbs during her pious lecture about how CNN is committed to "trying to do journalism," unlike those nasty opinion-mongers over at MSNBC.

So let's sum up Brown's segment: She offered no facts, no details, no examples, made obviously spurious comparisons of Fox and MSNBC, and ignored Lou Dobbs in bragging about how different CNN is from the other two cable channels, which feature opinion hosts.

Now consider that Brown's contrast of MSNBC and CNN sounds an awful lot like CNN president Jon Klein's attempt to differentiate CNN from MSNBC and Fox just a day earlier:

Excellent journalism is what we are focused on. We refuse to do the things that might get us a quick number or cater to the extremes that would alienate our core viewers.

Klein didn't mention Dobbs either.

So Brown's segment on MSNBC and Fox offered no facts and no evidence, and omitted any mention of Lou Dobbs while holding up CNN as a contrast to the opinion hosts at the other two cable channels -- just like her boss did.

You tell me: Does Brown's segment seem like journalism, or like spin on behalf of her employer? Was her fact-free assault on her competitors, in which she bashed them for things CNN does, too, the kind of behavior you'd expect to see from a reporter or from a press secretary?

Brown concluded:

[I]f the White House wants to leap into this debate, as they have, and talk about bias in the media, then great. But White House officials should elevate the conversation and talk about bias on the right and on the left. Because when you just target one side, you reveal your own bias, that you are only critical of those who are critical of you.

Seems to me that it's Campbell Brown who has revealed something.

Next: Baltimore Sun television critic David Zurawik, who also insists that MSNBC is the liberal version of Fox News. Earlier this year, Zurawik went further, saying of Rachel Maddow: "It's exactly what happened in propaganda in the '30s in Europe. I'm not kidding you."

Now, if someone insists that they aren't kidding when they compare Rachel Maddow to Nazi propagandists, it probably says more about their politics and honesty than about Rachel Maddow's. Given that Zurawik shares Glenn Beck's propensity for comparing run-of-the-mill liberals to Nazis, it probably shouldn't be surprising that he would leap to Fox's defense.

Zurawik also describes MSNBC as a "highly-partisan, pro-administration channel" and says "I will take the press critics in the West Wing like Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod seriously when they condemn MSNBC for the same sins and worse than Fox."

Worse? I'll let Zurawik off the hook on that one; it's so obviously stupid I can only assume he hit his head on something before writing it. So, if he can come up with examples of MSNBC behavior that is merely as bad as what happens routinely on Fox, I'll be impressed.

I say "if" because -- like Brown -- Zurawik didn't bother to include a single example of anything in his eight-paragraph rant about MSNBC being worse than Fox News. Zurawick does not offer a single example of poor or biased journalism on the part of either cable channel. And this guy is a "TV critic"! Isn't that the kind of job where you're supposed to, you know, write about what happens on TV?

Then there's Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus. She, too, recently made a 100 percent fact-free suggestion that MSNBC is the liberal version of Fox. To her credit, after Marcus was criticized, she acknowledged, "I don't think that Fox and MSNBC are equivalent. Fox is more over the line, more often" -- but she ignored criticism of her unsupported characterization of MSNBC as a liberal channel.

Have you noticed a pattern yet?

The odds are pretty good that whenever you see journalists refer to MSNBC as liberal (or, especially, as the liberal version of Fox), they won't provide any examples. The last thing they want to do is have to back up their claims with actual facts. Because they know that as soon as the discussion becomes about what actually happens on the two cable channels, they'll look awfully silly. So they just assert it, as though everybody knows it's true.

That, of course, is what political operatives do when spinning on behalf of their clients. It isn't how journalists are supposed to behave.

If you wanted to be generous to the "MSNBC is the liberal Fox crowd," you might be tempted to say MSNBC's evening liberals lean about as far to the left as Fox's daytime "straight news" reporters lean to the right. I think even that's quite a stretch, but fine. Let's go with it: If you compare the least explicitly conservative parts of Fox to the most liberal parts of MSNBC, you get a comparison that might border on reasonable. That still doesn't account for Scarborough, Buchanan, and ample conservative misinformation each day from MSNBC's daytime broadcasts -- or for the likes of Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly on Fox.

Any reporter who tells you MSNBC is the liberal Fox is really telling you everything you need to know about the quality of his or her own journalism.

Jamison Foser is a Senior Fellow at Media Matters for America, a progressive media watchdog and research and information center based in Washington, D.C. Foser also contributes to County Fair, a media blog featuring links to progressive media criticism from around the Web, as well as original commentary. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook or sign up to receive his columns by email.

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