The MSNBC Bent vs the FOX News Bias

by A. Jay Adler on December 1, 2012
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You hear it a lot. MSNBC is the liberal Fox News.

No. It’s not.

This is just one more variation of false equivalency, the inability to make acute judgments amid the buffeting winds of so many competing claims, the warp of reason by the gravitational pull of all those massive subjectivities.

MSNBC has a bent. Fox has a bias.

Which is to say that – are you ready for this? - objectively speaking, one leans toward something, the other leans against.

FOX News vs. MSNBC in Terms of Bias” one blog post titles its consideration.

MSNBC really is more partisan than Fox, according to Pew study” headlines a Baltimore Sun article that speaks of “wretched bias.”

How MSNBC Became Fox’s Liberal Evil Twin” stunningly opined The New York Times’ Alexandra Stanley, who bizarrely amplified that

You can agree with everything that Rachel Maddow or Ed Schultz say on MSNBC and still oppose their right to say it.

That is to say, you can think they are right – that what they say is true – and not even simply disagree with their decision to say it (a curious enough contention), but their right to say it.

One contemplates the double irony of considering whether Stanley might ever have written for Pravda during her Times tenure in Moscow.

Jim Naureckas at FAIR offered this review of Stanley’s critique, which he titled, after Stanley’s illustration of objective journalism, in comparing MSNBC to CNN, “When Candidates Lie, REAL Journalists Say They ‘Finessed the Facts’.

One might argue that aside from FOX itself, the like of Alessandra Stanley is another reason there is an MSNBC.

Offers Stanley,

Both Fox News and MSNBC have experienced reporters in the field who stay neutral even when their anchors let loose. The NBC network’s anchors keep their opinions to themselves.

Bias, partisanship, opinion, neutrality – do any of these people know what they are talking about?

Not to put too fine a point on it – oh, all right, I will – the truth is a point of view.

Plantation owners say that slavery is essential to Southern agriculture and that its abolition would devastate the South’s economy. Abolitionists claim it is a crime against human dignity and a moral abomination. The Times takes no position on the matter. We are neutral, not partisan. (And, by the way, adopting the term “enhanced interrogation” to describe what was previously, uncontroversially designated as torture – because the government asserts that propagandistic manipulation of language, history, and law – is not taking sides. Didn’t we just say we’re neutral? Unbiased. Nonpartisan. We have no opinion. Or judgment. Or minds?)

The word “bias,” originating from the French biais, meaning ”slant, slope, oblique,” took on the English sense of “predisposition and prejudice” – a leaning. Prejudice and bias are harsher words, loaded down as they are with their senses of racial or ethnic or other stereotypical dislike and discrimination. A predisposition, however, like a bias in garment work – a cut against the grain or weave of the fabric – is by no means necessarily prejudicial in that ugly sense. It is a leaning.

As a New York Yankee fan, I have a predisposition, a bent – another word for leaning – toward left-handed power hitters who can reach the short porch in right field for home runs. It is a cast of mind I bring to my consideration of players. It is not an ill-considered disfavor, but a judgment about general conditions based on fact and experience. However, if you present me with a right-handed hitter who can hit with power to the opposite field, bat for average, field, and steal forty bases a year, I will overcome my predisposition. I yield to specific conditions, wider considerations, and, most of all, to facts.

To have a vision of life, a political philosophy, and the sum of knowledge we call experience is not a prejudice, though it is a leaning. I lean left. I do it not because I hatefully discount political notions that are conservative and discount them out of hand because I wish to dismiss them for no reason other than that I disfavor them. I do it because more often than not, I think the right is wrong. I lean toward the truth, and I believe the truth leans left. “Left” and “right,” keep in mind, are conceptual and lexical constructs. I lean toward gravity, too, name it what you will.

The Baltimore Sun informed us in support of its case against MSNBC, from a PEW poll, that

On MSNBC, the ratio of negative to positive stories on GOP candidate Mitt Romney was 71 to 3.

Sounds awful, huh? Unless, of course, like me, you are inclined to believe that 3 is too many. If one believes that Mitt Romney and his campaign were completely dishonest and fraudulent and a threat to the integrity of the democratic process, if one has chronicled in detail the mendacity of Mitt Romney as a presidential candidate, as, indeed, Steve Benen at, of all places, MSNBC did, then what rationale other than a mindless commitment to mindlessness – journalism as stenographic record, the reporter as digital recorder – can there be for seeking the illusion that “balance” is reporting the facts or the truth?

Mr. Stalin could not be reached for comment.

It is not always as simple as the examples I have given – and even so, plenty of people mucked up mightily the judgments on slavery and Stalin. One certainly can, as in another context I would, make the case for the unclear notion to which so many uncertainly cling, of journalism with less pronounced a bent toward an institutional philosophy. Let a hundred media flowers blossom. But the contention that MSNBC is a liberal equivalent – absurdly beneath contempt, an “evil twin” – of FOX News is not a corrective to a journalistic ill, but an ill itself that MSNBC well serves to correct.

The New York Times tried again more recently, just before the election, less wildly, more blandly than in Stanley’s case, via the “news analysis” of Jeremy W. Peters. Peters pursues the same equivalency argument in a piece that, frankly, with nothing more than two handfuls of examples and no thought behind it, simply peters out. He catches MSNBC anchors in some excesses – it does have a point of view, it was an election season – but the case is actually so weak that Peters closes it against MSNBC with this:

Some MSNBC hosts even use the channel’s own ads promoting its slogan “Lean Forward,” to criticize the Republicans. Mr. O’Donnell accuses them of basing their campaigns on the false notion that Mr. Obama is inciting class warfare. “You have to come up with a lie,” he says, when your campaign is based on empty rhetoric.

In her ad, Rachel Maddow breathlessly decodes the logic behind the push to overhaul state voting laws. “The idea is to shrink the electorate,” she says, “so a smaller number of people get to decide what happens to all of us.”

This is actually embarrassing. What the “breathless” Rachel Maddow was – excuse me – reporting is the truth, apparent and acknowledgeable by all but GOP party hacks and flacks and news analysts who do not analyze: the GOP was seeking to shrink the electorate, so that a smaller number of people, with fewer minority voters, would get to cast votes. The evidence and the contours of the reality are overwhelming. One could argue that Maddow should have been breathless. Peters counts this as an example of mockable bias.

MSNBC is left leaning. It is predisposed, philosophically inclined, to the left. It has a liberal bent. It has, however, no record like FOX of intentional distortion and deceit, of manipulation of the facts, of coordinated campaigns against political opponents, of mixing their contractual on-air staff and host ranks with those of active political campaigners, of employing current Super PAC fundraisers and coordinators as on-air analysts who actually influence live decision making in calling elections.

That is not a bent. That is a bias – prejudicial, misleading, and false. MSNBC sees the world left and reports, believing it true, what it sees. FOX News knows what it wants its viewers to see and manipulates the elements of a story and shapes its narrative so that viewers well have that vision.

These are not the same activity, and a reporter who cannot see the difference is an unreliable reporter.

AJA

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13 comments

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Irish April 8, 2013 at 9:41 am

A. J. and Snoop this was one of the best arguments, I think both FOX and MSNBC could learn a thing or two about how to argue their points, instead of stacking the deck in their favor.

Reply

SnoopyTheGoon December 17, 2012 at 5:55 am

Thanks for the courteous and detailed response, AJA, I feel that I have to answer in kind. First of all, it was better from the word one to state my own view of the media. I am coming from the old Jewish tradition, probably stemming from the Torah students: question everything. As far as media goes, I mistrust and try to question every source (and in case when I forget to do sо I sometimes pay dearly).

I am far from defending Fox, please believe me, but when you are saying in the last paragraph “truth about the world as it sees it, which is left” about one and “distorts and deceives in reporting about the world” about the other, the nuance almost (but not quite, I will grant that) escapes me.

When Rush Limbaugh calls Iraq war veterans opposed to the war “the phony soldiers” or when Bill Maher, demonstrating his ignorance, questions the whole issue of vaccination (the act that by itself could contribute to killing hundreds of people in the future – the children of the people who would be persuaded by this ignorance) – why should I take any statement from any representative of mass media as a given?

Unfortunately, media takes sides not only in conveying opinions – there is nothing to prevent this and no need to – but also in reporting, which is quite a problem. Selective reporting of facts, each source selecting according to its political stance, is where I really do have a problem. Unsolvable, to be sure, especially when so many people will disregard one source totally in favor of the other, just because “the other” is on the other side of political map.

And re Al Sharpton – I have my own kind of bias, which is against people caught once either lying or hate-speechifying. Sharpton did it more than once. To mention Crown Heights riots, the latest Zimmerman story – isn’t his demagoguery and incendiary behavior enough to close the books on him?

Maddow – yes, she was wrong about this something, but isn’t she a current guru for so many? Shouldn’t she display some care about her publicly expressed (and very strong) opinions?

Re Mr Maher: I did appreciate him as a comedian once, but jumping into politics he really became a hateful troll, whose behavior (again, public behavior as opposite, for instance, my personal “home theater” biases and stupid sayings) is hardly much different from Rush L. While confronting some ultra-religious truckers near a church (or was it a diner, I don’t remember) was good entertainment, his current role is that of a hateful foul-mouthed troll.

As for general biases impacting the truth in reporting: I will wait for the outcome of the trial, but it will be interesting to see the result of that Zimmerman vs MSNBC suit…

Oh well. Consider something that could be regarded as silver lining: existence of two polarized media outfits is somewhat essential in that that each one highlights the failures of the other. Not so bad a deal, I would say.

Reply

A. Jay Adler December 23, 2012 at 11:17 am

Snoop, a busy schedule had me behind in responding to comments. Of course, Sharpton’s wrongs go back to Tawana Brawley, for which, to the best of my knowledge, he has never held himself accountable. That is also probably 35 years ago. I believe from your other comments that you will not agree with me on this, but I see a very changed man in Sharpton, as well as a very smart one. That does not mean that as an MSNBC exec I would have hired him – not without at least some private accounting – but your objection to Sharpton’s overall social role in matters of race is not a position I share. We appear, actually, to have a major divide on, not the Zimmerman, but the Trayvon Martin story – let’s not forget the boy whom the recklessly zealous, unstable, and dishonest Zimmerman killed. There is no demagoguery in Sharpton’s outrage, shared by many, including me, at the endemic racism that is as apparent in the reaction to the case as in the killing itself.

On our main topic, my post makes clear that I don’t accept the equivalency you offer at the end of this comment. There is nothing new about point-of-view or even advocacy journalism. It is merely that television, and FOX in its ascendancy, garner so much attention. There are so many other examples in print, Mother Jones, for instance, on the left, against which one simply cannot make the case for manipulation, deceit, and violation of ethical norms that can be made against FOX.

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SnoopyTheGoon December 15, 2012 at 4:53 am

Now, AJA, this was a passionate defense (or attack, whatever), but bit over the top. An example of that “bit”:

http://tv.msnbc.com/bios/Rev-Al-Sharpton/

When you are saying “It has, however, no record like FOX of intentional distortion and deceit…”, here is a man whose life is one uninterrupted record of all that… and this is one example only.

I think that your defense was too sweeping in MSNBC case. And, since Ms Maddow was mentioned so positively, here is an example of her making a laughingstock of herself:

http://simplyjews.blogspot.co.il/2011/01/rachel-maddow-explains-why-sdi-will.html

With that utter moron Maher being so supportive. Here is Maher:

http://simplyjews.blogspot.co.il/2009/10/bill-maher-on-vaccination-we-have-to.html

In general, sweeping approval of a media outfit is a dangerous business better left to the members of that outfit.

Reply

A. Jay Adler December 16, 2012 at 5:13 pm

Snoop, you immediately get to an important point. This post is less less a matter of support for MSNBC and more an attack on FOX than it is an attack (if you wish to use that word) on the practice of drawing equivalencies between them. One need not be a partisan champion of MSNBC – in fact, it is to the point that one should not need to be – to distinguish between it and FOX. Otherwise, I don’t think you offer much of a challenge to my case.

I don’t want to get sidetracked by Sharpton. I don’t agree with your sweeping assessment of him; regardless, what is the record of his “distortion and deceit” on MSNBC, which would thus reflect on the channel as a news organization, which is my subject, rather than on him alone, independent of it?

In the case of Maddow, if I grant your point about a judgments she shared with millions of people, all that would mean is that she personally was wrong about something. Happens to all of us. Traditional neutral news organizations are wrong about reportage, claims, and in editorial opinion all the time. Being mistaken about things is not the the nature of the argument I am making.

Maher is yet another subject I don’t wish to distract: he is not part of the MSNBC news organization, and even if he were the moron I don’t believe him to be (and not a comedian), this post is not about who’s a moron and who’s not.

My point is that MSNBC, as an organization, generally speaking, reports the truth about the world as it sees it, which is left. FOX, to choose an excellent set of terms, distorts and deceives in reporting about the world in order to direct its viewers to see the world as FOX wants them to see it.

Not the same thing.

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jack reliant December 30, 2012 at 10:51 am

It is, indeed, the same thing, at least absent a more thorough analysis supported by documentary evidence. I’m a little boggled by your conclusory distinction. As far as I’m concerned, both networks are total garbage.

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A. Jay Adler December 30, 2012 at 3:15 pm

You don’t effectively rebut my argument by simply saying, “It is too the same thing.” You have to offer a counter argument. This is a blog post, not a book or even a magazine article for which I have done extensive research; however, I offered reasoning in support of my claim, which you have offered no reason to reject. Since I’m arguing against an affirmative proposition that the two networks are similar, the first responsibility is on those making the affirmative claim, such as you, to offer “documentary evidence,” beyond partisan leanings, that the two news organizations are “indeed, the same thing.” You have offered none. You also don’t say how, exactly, you are “boggled” by my conclusion. Does that mean you don’t understand it or that you cannot believe I draw it? In either case, it always makes your case stronger if you actually identify what you find problematic.

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