Progressive Silence On Television
Last week, MSNBC debuted a new prime-time political show hosted by Rachel Maddow, a progressive radio host on Air America. The debut attracted more viewers than both Larry King and Glenn Beck's programs, on CNN and CNN Headline News, respectively. After one week on air, Maddow's was MSNBC's highest-rated show on Tuesday, with Keith Olbermann's Countdown in second place. When Olbermann announced Maddow's new show last month on the progressive blog Daily Kos, he wrote to its readers, "Yes, you had something to do with it." Maddow's show is one of the few success stories of the efforts by progressives to see more progressive voices on TV. In fact, the day before Maddow's debut, MSNBC announced it was pulling Olbermann and Chris Matthews from its election coverage -- a move the New York Times said was a "direct result of tensions associated with the channel's perceived shift to the political left." Despite Olbermann and Maddow's rating successes, MSNBC and the other networks still don't seem to be getting the message: Americans want to hear progressive voices on television.
ANTI-WAR VOICES SHUT OUT: After 9/11, and particularly in the lead-up to the Iraq war, news programs purged their ranks of several voices seen as remotely hesitant about President Bush's foreign policy. After political commenter Bill Maher criticized the war in Afghanistan, "he was quickly alerted that he had gone beyond the bounds of acceptable discourse -- even though that's his job. (Remember, his show is called 'Politically Incorrect.')," David Talbot at Salon.com noted. In fact, then-White House press secretary Ari Fleischer declared ominously, "Americans need to watch what they say, watch what they do, and this is not a time for remarks like that; there never is." At MSNBC, progressive host Phil Donahue was fired in February 2003 for his anti-war views, despite the fact that his show was the network's highest-rated program. An internal NBC memo said Donahue presented a "difficult public face for NBC in a time of war. ... He seems to delight in presenting guests who are anti-war, anti-Bush and skeptical of the administration's motives." The memo outlined a possible nightmare scenario in which the show would become "a home for the liberal antiwar agenda at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity." The same week Donahue was fired, the network brought on Jesse Ventura and right-wing shock jock Michael Savage.
'IF IT'S SUNDAY, ITS CONSERVATIVE': In early 2006, Media Matters for America published a study showing the overwhelming dominance of conservative voices on the most influential Sunday political talk shows. Analyzing guests on the shows between 1997 and 2005, Media Matters found that -- though the balance between progressives and conservatives was relatively equal during President Clinton's second term -- "conservatives held a dramatic advantage" during Bush's first term, "outnumbering Democrats/progressives by 58 percent to 42 percent." Counting only elected officials, the conservative advantage during Bush's first term was 61 percent to 39 percent; in the late 1990s, by contrast, the progressive advantage was only 53 percent to 45 percent. What's more, during both the Clinton and Bush years, journalists who appeared as guests were far more likely to be conservative: "In Clinton's second term, 61 percent of the ideologically identifiable journalists were conservative; in Bush's first term, that figure rose to 69 percent." Finally, the study found that "congressional opponents of the Iraq war were largely absent from the Sunday shows, particularly during the period just before the war began." These shows often "define the people and arguments that represent 'reasonable debate' in the nation's capital," and so the conservative bent affects a far wider audience than those who are watching the programs.
DOUBLE STANDARD FOR FOX NEWS: MSNBC's decision to pull its outspoken progressive host Keith Olbermann from its election coverage received wide play throughout the media and the blogosphere; Fox News and right-wing blogs celebrated the silencing of Olbermann's "disgraceful," "hard-left views." But for the last 12 years, since its inception in 1996, Fox News has presented a strong and unabashed right-wing perspective -- with hardly a peep of protest from the rest of the mainstream media. It's no secret that Fox News both caters to and generates a hard-right, conservative audience. An August poll showed that 67 percent of Fox News viewers planned to vote for the Republican candidate for president, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). The poll "lines up neatly with a poll that showed that in the 2004 election, 88 percent of those who watched FNC supported George W. Bush over John Kerry" -- making Fox News viewers Bush's most loyal demographic. A 2003 New Yorker piece described the network as "opinionated and conservative, and its news is delivered by people who themselves are often unabashedly opinionated and conservative." With dominion over Fox News, conservatives own an entire third of the cable news programs, and yet CNN and MSNBC are perpetually concerned about being perceivedeven slightly to the left -- or they ignore their success when they do present progressive views. Conservative views are consistently accepted as being mainstream. Progressive opinions are therefore outside of the norm and more risky. As the New Yorker's Ken Auletta noted, "Fox found its niche; MSNBC hasn't, and CNN seems to have lost the one it had."