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ON THE MEDIA : Seizing that middle ground

November 13, 2009|JAMES RAINEY

You knew the likes of MSNBC's Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow would respond with fury when Rep. Joe Wilson shouted "You lie!" during President Obama's health address to Congress.

But it seemed a bit more unusual when the cable station's news anchors eagerly joined the attacks on the Republican from South Carolina.

"You look at the image of the Republican Party, all white males with short haircuts," newsman David Shuster huffed. "They look sort of angry. No women, no minorities, and it looks like they've sort of become unhinged." Fellow anchor Tamron Hall agreed: The GOP's Wilson had expressed himself "in such a loser way."

That's how they're making the sausage these days at MSNBC, where the bosses encourage bending old-fashioned news rules to make a distinct impression. In search of the media's current Holy Grail, the market niche, the station's creep toward the left will not end.

With MSNBC chasing top dog Fox News up the ratings-and-ideological-purity ladder, we are offered seeming proof that the down-the-middle philosophy of old cannot win. Poor, stodgy CNN is bound to wither away, or so the argument goes.

Yet I'd like to suggest that CNN, in parting ways this week with its most opinionated host, Lou Dobbs, may be planting the seeds of its resurrection and holding out the possibility that around-the-clock broadcasting doesn't have to mean around-the-clock spin.

To be sure, the trend in recent times has been in the opposite direction. I've written before about how Fox News serves up heaping portions of conservative opinion even on what it claims are straight news programs.

I promised I would look at the same issue at MSNBC, and -- surprise, surprise -- I had no problem finding a raft of instances in which commentary polluted the regular news stream.

The MSNBC team hasn't yet matched the message-masters at Fox -- with day-long screeds on a single theme, overt cheerleading for conservative causes and routine opposition to all things Obama -- but cable's No. 2-rated station increasingly creates a unified front for liberals.

So "Morning Meeting" host Dylan Ratigan didn't just report about Chicago's Olympic bid and the glee of Obama opponents last month when the Games instead went to Rio de Janeiro.

"I mean, there are people that are actually trying to derail healthcare in order to take down Obama, even if it means half the country dies," Ratigan fumed. "So, of course, they don't care about Chicago's Olympics. Are you kidding me?"

MSNBC newswoman Contessa Brewer took a similar tack when reporting how a Republican political group had barbed DemocratNancy Pelosi, saying they hoped Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander in Afghanistan, would put the House Speaker "in her place."

"You don't say about the first [female] Speaker of the House, 'She should be put in her place,' " Brewer insisted, seemingly incredulous. "And I think if you're trying to win over independent voters ahead of the next election, that was a very poor move."

The anchor even made it clear, with a wooden quip, how far she was stepping outside the old boundaries. "I'm not a political strategist," Brewer said, "but once in a while I play one on TV."

The already blurry news-opinion divide becomes further obliterated when journalists start appearing on commentary programs. When Shuster went on "The Ed Show" with Ed Schultz last week, he seemed to think the change of venue absolved him of the modicum of objectivity he might maintain during the news.

Shuster could have merely recounted the record of Cheney's serial amnesia during interviews with authorities over the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson, a case the newsman had covered. Instead, out popped a full-throated attack on Dick Cheney.

He mocked the former vice president's explanations, calling them, among other things, "nuts."

Exuding incredulity, Shuster concluded by asserting it was "shocking that prosecutors didn't pursue a criminal indictment against Cheney."

MSNBC President Phil Griffin told me this week the cable station needed to change to survive. He said that with news junkies getting their straight news from the Internet, cable TV had to bring something more -- "heavy analysis, point of view, but with strongly researched facts and information" -- to maintain any relevance.

Griffin said he wants program hosts offering opinions only in prime time, though he encourages even daytime anchors to provide "informed analysis." He acknowledged that the station is in transition, "still trying to figure out" how far personalities should venture.

When I asked about Shuster's sharp comments on Cheney, Griffin agreed they had gone too far.

"I don't want cheerleading that hurts our brand," he said. "People tune in to us because they want smart, thoughtful reaction. . . . Stick to the facts, they are strong enough. I think when you get into more ideology, it's not as smart."

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