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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