Interview: A Historical Examination of 'Liberal' Network MSNBC

MSNBC president Phil Griffin, Rachel Maddow, Lawrence O'Donnell, and Chris Matthews speak during an MSNBC panel on August 2, 2011 in Beverly Hills, CaliforniaFrederick M. Brown / Getty Images

The network was born with a distinct conservative sensibility, there was even an early show featuring Ann Coulter...

Jacobin - October 6, 2019

"When it {MSNBC} started in the late ’90s, it actually featured a number of people who went on to fame in conservative media — there was even an early show called The Contributors, which actually featured Ann Coulter and Laura Ingraham. After 9/11 MSNBC then has this moment where they declare themselves America’s News Station, and they hire people like Pat Buchanan and Tucker Carlson. Alan Keyes had a show called Alan Keyes Is Making Sense. Meanwhile, there are two interesting people who are let go around this time: Phil Donahue is the liberal that they hired who becomes the only person on the network who regularly criticizes the Iraq War — he gets let go ..."

During the Obama era, MSNBC emerged as a liberal challenger to Fox News, in some ways succeeding where earlier efforts to duplicate the reach of right-wing media had failed. But the history and politics of the network are more complicated than those who first became aware of it during the mid-2000s probably realize.

These themes and others were explored by writer and media critic Michael Arria in his 2014 book Medium Blue: The Politics of MSNBC, a study that has arguably become more prescient since its publication thanks to the network’s prominent role in shaping liberal discourse in the Trump era. Jacobin’s Luke Savage spoke to Arria — who is currently the US correspondent for Mondoweiss — about his research, the book’s themes, and what the history of MSNBC has to teach us about American liberalism

Luke Savage: Medium Blue opens by recalling the first scene from Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, in which the show’s main character — portrayed by Jeff Daniels — delivers a long-winded soliloquy about the state of America. I’m sure most people will be familiar with it. Why did you choose this particular anecdote to begin a book about MSNBC?

Michael Arria: I just thought it in some ways encapsulated the essence of liberal establishment media. What struck me at the time I wrote the book — it was the height of MSNBC, and a lot of people were calling it the “liberal Fox News” — is that it seemed to me there was actually a real difference between the two. With something like Fox, if you look at the biographies of the people who are involved in that operation, they’re somewhat different. Someone like Glenn Beck, for example, was sort of a shock jock in the vein of Howard Stern before he became what we know today. It seemed like a lot of the people involved in conservative media were kind of in on the joke. I remember this Twitter thread Chris Hayes once had where he talked about meeting Ann Coulter at Bill Maher’s show, and he was struck by the fact she seemed surprised he took the things she said seriously.

Whereas, when I was looking into MSNBC, I never got the sense that the people involved were in on the joke. It seemed like they were all very earnest, in fact. It reminded me of Sorkin and that scene in particular because it was getting shared a lot around the same time MSNBC had taken off under Obama. I’m not a Sorkin fan, but I do think he’s extremely interesting insofar as The West Wing and The Newsroom do a great job of encapsulating a certain mindset held by liberals, the liberal establishment, and, in some cases, the liberal media.

Luke Savage: The introduction of your book notes that many liberal books have fact-checked Fox News and the wider conservative media, often in granular detail. Their conclusion is generally that, when taken as a whole, the US media has a conservative bias. But you write: “such analysis misses the point; the issue isn’t politics, it’s power.” Can you elaborate on that?

Michael Arria: I think a lot of people on the liberal side sort of miss why people find the conservative media enticing. I always go back to that argument from Corey Robin’s book about how conservatism’s essence has always been oppositional and counterrevolutionary. When you see the rise of talk radio, with the emergence of figures like Rush Limbaugh, it’s interesting that that took off during the Clinton administration and that Fox really hit its stride under the Obama administration — when they were able to rail against this nonwhite president they thought was a socialist. And I don’t think it’s controversial to say that Donald Trump’s rise couldn’t have happened without an outlet like Fox News. You turn Fox on at night, and it’s people like Tucker Carlson railing against AOC and Ilhan Omar. And despite the fact that conservatives are in power, the whole dynamic is still based on being opposed to something and acting like they’re under siege.

I don’t think liberals have ever really understood this dynamic. After Rush Limbaugh’s rise, there were these consistent calls in progressive media for the Left to develop its own Rush Limbaugh. And I’m old enough to remember Air America, which was an attempt to duplicate what the Right had done but make it liberal. ...
Read full interview at Jacobin

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