The decay of serious journalism and Rachel Maddow's new show

The New Republic -- of all places -- laments the loss of "nuance or intellectual rigor" on television as epitomized by MSNBC's troubling decision to give an actual liberal her own show.

Published August 21, 2008 12:47PM (EDT)

(updated below)

As our political culture, economic security, standing in the world and our media institutions have all degraded beyond recognition after eight years of right-wing rule (much of it cheered on by The New Republic), what is The New Republic's Sacha Zimmerman deeply worried about? MSNBC's decision to give liberal Rachel Maddow her own show:

I really like Maddow and have found her thoroughly compelling throughout this latest campaign season, but I am not so thrilled about this trend toward partisan networks and news. By all means we should have progressive and conservative commentators and analysts, but is there no room for argument between the two? Where have all the iconoclasts gone? With this split in the networks and a near perfect red-blue divide nationwide, it seems that we are more and more retreating to our comfortable trenches and refusing to acknowledge anything but spite, paranoia, and conspiracy theory when it comes to the other side. And, since cable news is not exactly renowned for its nuance or intellectual rigor, knee-jerk reactions can pass for smart commentary. I think Maddow will be a wonderful host (and God knows MSNBC could use a smart woman), but how exciting is it really if she is just preaching to the choir?

Over the past seven years, the following people have hosted prime-time cable news shows: Joe Scarborough (MSNBC), Michael Savage (MSNBC), Glenn Beck (CNN), Tucker Carlson (MSNBC), Nancy Grace (CNN), Bill O'Reilly (Fox) and Sean Hannity (Fox). None of that seemed to bother the likes of Zimmerman. None of that was depicted as the downfall of objective journalism or the destruction of civil, elevated, high-minded discourse. Quite the contrary, Zimmerman practically went into mourning when Tucker Carlson's MSNBC show was canceled. Here's the very same Sacha Zimmerman -- Crusader for Post-Partisan Substantive Discourse -- in a March, 2008 TNR article:

March brought the end of MSNBC's "Tucker," the low-rated but spirited and quirky roundtable news show hosted by the once-bow-tied Tucker Carlson. I was awfully sad to see it leave the airwaves (full disclosure: I appeared on the program several times); it was a fun show that addressed the topics of the day without devolving into Lou Dobbesian agendas, Chris Matthews-like scream fests, Bill O'Reilly smears, or Wolf Blitzer droning snoozers. . . .

Whatever bad memories you may have of Tucker Carlson's "Crossfire" days, the most recent iteration of his show on MSNBC allowed him to return to expressing the kind of nuanced insight that first got him noticed as a young conservative writer. Carlson has certainly inflamed his share of liberals (among other things, he called the NAACP "a sad joke that should be shut down" and called Bill Clinton a "sanctimonious jerk"), but then he's not exactly reliably conservative, either.

What made Zimmerman even more distraught about the cancellation of Carlson's high-minded show was that he was replaced by David Gregory, someone who -- at least in Zimmerman's mind -- had been profoundly disrespectful to Bush officials, who was therefore disliked by the Right, and therefore brought discredit to our Nation and the Journalism Profession:

I didn't get mad about the end of Carlson's show -- cable television is, after all, a fickle mistress -- until I saw its replacement: "Race for the White House," hosted by President Bush's favorite sparring partner himself, David "Stretch" Gregory. . . . But Gregory has also initiated shouting matches in almost every exchange he had with White House Press Secretary Tony Snow and generally allowed histrionics to set the tone for his coverage. Despite his often piercing and on-point questions, this behavior has cemented David Gregory as a liberal-media-conspiracy incarnate in the eyes of conservatives and a kind of tough-questioning hero to many on the anti-Bush left. The conservative Accuracy In Media even started a letter-writing campaign aimed at shunning Gregory. But no matter your view -- and no matter Gregory's personal political beliefs -- the decision to use the journalistic lightning rod further distances MSNBC from the cause of good political analysis.

For years, cable news -- well beyond just Fox -- has been suffuse with the hardest-right ideologues. Virtually every Karl Rove disciple not formally with the McCain campaign is now employed in some capacity in the media. Dan Bartlett just joined CBS News as a "political analyst", and just today, Time announced that it has hired Mike Murphy, GOP strategist and former chief McCain adviser, as a new columnist and new poster at Swampland, and he promptly wrote a column filled with trite Rovian platitudes about how Obama is "irresistible to the wine-and-cheese lovers" but can't connect with the salt-of-the-earth working-class People because Obama "reminds them of the Ivy League whiz kids they've dealt with at work during the latest downsizing."

Ever since MSNBC's extremely suspect and viewpoint-based cancellation of Phil Donohue's Show in the run-up to the Iraq War, it's been almost harder to find an actual liberal on cable news than it is to find a Marty Peretz post free of ugly anti-Arab smears. Yet the ascension of Keith Olbermann -- who is far more a Bush critic than he is a doctrinaire liberal -- by itself spawned a cascade of panic. Olbermann's success at MSNBC means that Modern Journalism is now threatened because -- as AP put it -- "Olbermann's popularity and evolving image as an idealogue (sic) has led NBC News to stretch traditional notions of journalistic objectivity." AP even asserted that Olbermann's status as a news anchor means that MSNBC is even more biased than Fox, which at least has the decency to keep a non-partisan, serious news man like Brit Hume -- who only explicitly spouts extremist right-wing rhetoric on Sunday -- as its anchor: "Fox has never done that, perhaps mindful of the immediate controversy that would result."

And now Rachel Maddow's show is triggering even further upset at The New Republic and places like here ("This underscores the question of whether MSNBC is taking a foolish risk in over-committing itself to a single point of view"). And of course Howard Kurtz -- who adoringly hailed Brit Hume's supreme objectivity and credibility as a news anchor -- promptly noted:

[Maddow's] appointment is certain to draw criticism that MSNBC is moving further left in an attempt to compete with Fox News from the opposite end of the spectrum. John McCain's Republican campaign has repeatedly assailed the network's campaign coverage as biased.

Maddow is unquestionably one of the smartest and most incisive commentators anywhere on television -- perhaps the smartest. One would think that the presence of smart commentary in the wasteland known as "cable news" would be cause for celebration among those super-Serious intellects at TNR. Zimmerman even brings herself to recognize that Maddow's "no mere histrionic provocateur" and "has proved herself to be a savvy commentator with quick, smart takes on the news of the day." But no matter. She's a liberal -- and, therefore, to the Tucker-Carlson-loving Sacha Zimmermans of the world, her mere presence is likely to infect and degrade our political discourse with shrill, overheated, fringe, sickly partisan rhetoric -- "refusing to acknowledge anything but spite, paranoia, and conspiracy theory when it comes to the other side."

The reaction to Maddow's show highlights just how suffocatingly narrow, and right-wing, the spectrum of mainstream political discourse in America is. Hiring Michael Savage, Joe Scarborough and Tucker Carlson to host their own shows didn't jeopardize NBC's news brand, just as giving Glenn Beck -- Glenn Beck -- his own show didn't jeopardize CNN's. Most mainstream political and media figures even continue to insist that Fox is a legitimate news organization because Brit Hume confines his overt right-wing talking points to the Sunday show. But the presence of a liberal on MSNBC instantaneously destroys traditional principles of Journalism.

But beyond that, the reaction also highlights the pitiful pretense of high-minded objectivity that people like Zimmerman have adopted in order to glorify themselves. Laced throughout Zimmerman's oh-so-saddened lament about the loss of sober journalism, "iconoclasts" and "nuance or intellectual rigor" is the premise that it is people like Zimmerman and the trans-partisan, oh-so-unpredictable and intellectually vibrant TNR that we need more of -- people who rise above "this trend toward partisan networks and news." Liberals like Maddow are plagued by a partisan agenda that precludes deep and free thought, in contrast to the high-minded "iconoclasts" at TNR who prove their independence with their friendships with Jonah Goldberg, endless praise for National Review commentators, and publication of articles glorifying and praising Ann Coulter. So unpredictable and intellectually vibrant and iconoclastic.

Does this -- TNR's own description of its editorial mission in life -- sound like it comes from post-partisan, deep-thinking, high-minded "iconoclasts"?

Dean has helped create this mood of self-righteous delusion, and his competitors have, to varying degrees, accommodated themselves to it. Only [Joseph I.] Lieberman -- the supposed candidate of appeasement -- is challenging his party, enduring boos at event after event, to articulate a different, better vision of what it means to be a Democrat.

Three years ago, that vision seemed ascendant. Today, it is once again at the margins. It may take years, or even decades, for Democrats to relearn the lessons we thought, naively, they had learned for good under Clinton. But one day, Joe Lieberman's warnings in this campaign will look prophetic. And the principles he has espoused will once again guide the Democratic Party. It will be the work of this magazine, to whatever small degree possible, to hasten that day.

Or here is the description of TNR's Senior Editor, Jonathan Chait, of those who campaigned against Lieberman in 2006. Marvel at how appreciative Chait's commentary is of the other side, how liberated Chait is (unlike the embittered Maddow) from "refusing to acknowledge anything but spite, paranoia, and conspiracy theory when it comes to the other side":

Lieberman's allies say the lefties are a pack of crazed, ignorant ideological cannibals. They're both basically right. . . . [T]he anti-Lieberman campaign has come to stand for much more than Lieberman's sins. It's a test of strength for the new breed of left-wing activists who are flexing their muscles within the party. These are exactly the sorts of fanatics who tore the party apart in the late 1960s and early 1970s. They think in simple slogans and refuse to tolerate any ideological dissent.

In our political discourse, the only real way to lose one's objectivity -- one's Seriousness credentials -- is to fail to appreciate and praise all the Good Virtues of the Right (the crime of which Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow are guilty), or to be too disrespectful to the Bush administration (the sin committed by David Gregory, at least in Sacha Zimmerman's eyes). Liberalism is inherently shrill and unserious -- even when advocated by a smart and sober commentator like Maddow -- which is why the presence of an actual liberal or two on television sends shock and panic waves through The New Republic and Howie Kurtz's column, while the bulging stable of hard-core right-wing ideologues permeating news shows merits no concern; the virtual banishment of anti-war views from the establishment media barely provoked a single word of objection; and the loss of Tucker Carlson is deemed a matter of grave national mourning.

UPDATE: The normally mild-mannered Andrew Golis at TPM voices some additional, aggressive criticisms of what really does comes close to being the indescribable inanity of Sacha Zimmerman's complaints (Golis: "This is exactly the crap that drives liberals crazy about the 'Very Serious People' over at TNR"). Relatedly, the TV critic for The Kansas City Star recently wrote (h/t Casual_Observer):

Rachel Maddow went to Stanford and won a Rhodes Scholarship. She earned a doctorate in political science at Oxford. . . . She sits next to Pat Buchanan, the old Nixon hand and Republican presidential candidate who often tacks to the right of the party. Their rapport is not warm, but at least they don’t yell across the room at each other, as Eleanor Clift and Buchanan do every week on "The McLaughlin Group."

Watching them on MSNBC, I'm reminded how many Buchanans are represented in the chattering class, yet how few Maddows there are, tacking to the Democrats’ left. And if you think the party’s nominee is left-wing, you haven't heard a progressive pundit lately.

That is the severe ideological imbalance to the Right which has plagued not just cable television, but our political discourse generally. As Matt Stoller recently observed, Cass Sunstein in his new book actually cited the Ultimate Democratic Centrist, Rahm Emanuel, as a typical "liberal Democrat." People to the left of Emaunel -- or TNR -- virtually don't exist in our political discourse, and certainly not on television, while there is virtually no such thing as being "too far to the Right" to fall off of the mainstream radar screen (hence, Ann Coulter's frequent television appearances, the President's frequent visits to Rush Limbaugh's show, and the stable of Far Right television hosts and commentators). That imbalance hasn't bothered the Sacha Zimmermans and other Crusaders for Serious Discourse in the slightest. It is only the inclusion -- finally -- of an actual liberal like Maddow that they find so upsetting, so threatening.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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