It came as no surprise to me that social commentator Keith Olbermann parted ways with MSNBC, the cable news channel owned by NBC Universal, and soon to be a part of the Comcast Empire. Contrary to the scuttlebutt making the rounds of blogs and other media, I am not inclined to believe that the opinionated Olbermann was the victim of the Comcast-NBC merger and that the corporate suits in Philadelphia, headquarters of Comcast, wanted the progressive host off the air. To me, Olbermann’s departure is in keeping with a cable channel that has been “passing” for progressive since its launch.
This is not mere conjecture on my end. I was part of the stable of 30-somethings MSNBC originally hired to be political contributors and was on air the second day of the news channel’s existence. In addition, some of us, including me, were contributors to MSNBC.com, the online news companion to the cable channel. To understand the true nature of the channel, you must understand its origins. MSNBC came on air after a previous attempt at a “talk news” cable channel, America’s Talking, was a bit ahead of its time and it failed. The NBC-Microsoft collaboration was created to take advantage of the connectivity of new media, as its early tag line “It’s time to get connected” promised. The president of NBC News at the time, Andrew Lack, was a fan of the network comedy hit “Friends” and thought a cable news channel featuring a group of young thought leaders would make for interesting television. The first MSNBC set even had a “Friends” like feel to it and when we were called on set for our segments, the floor manager would shout “Friends” to let us know we were up next.
The group of contributors was a mix of self-identified and tagged “liberals” and “conservatives.” Among other Blacks hired as contributors were legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw, my NorthStar partner and attorney Rob Tarver, who had previously done a lot of on-air work, finance expert Judith Aidoo, and conservatives Niger Innis, and journalists Joseph Perkins and Deroy Murdock. Ed Gordon, who had gained notice at BET, was also hired by MSNBC as one of its rotating news anchors. I doubt if any of the left-leaning contributors had expectations that the cable news channel was going to be a progressive pulpit, even with conservative Rupert Murdoch lurking in the background preparing to launch the Fox News Channel. We could not have been that naïve because MSNBC also brought on the likes of Anne Coulter and Laura Ingraham, part of the right-wing blonde brigade, and it became apparent quickly that they would be given a platform; over the objections of many of us.
MSNBC is a case-study in liberal paranoia and the succumbing of the media to conservative rhetoric decrying a “liberal media.” Having sat on the MSNBC set during the O.J. Simpson saga and the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky escapade, there was very little evidence of a progressive or liberal slant on the cable news channel. In fact, many of us had a tough time getting a word in over the vitriol of Coulter, who seemingly had carte blanche to launch her unsubstantiated tirades. In one memorable episode, Rev. Jesse Jackson came under such a withering attack by a group of white conservative contributors on –air, producers had the give the civil rights leader an opportunity to respond though he was not scheduled to come back for the second part of the segment. Understand, even the Black conservative contributors were riding the back of the bus at MSNBC. The network reveled in the rhetoric of Coulter and even gave Ingraham a shot at her own show, while showing little interest in promoting true diversity in political perspectives. MSNBC went as far as to give perennial Black conservative candidate Alan Keyes his own show while far more reputable and accomplished Black progressives were never on the channel’s radar for such an opportunity.
The departure of Keith Olbermann fits a pattern at MSNBC and a trend in the cable news genre. Like the fictitious Friends of the NBC hit comedy, the on-air culture of MSNBC does not reflect reality. It is programmed to appease and not confront the distribution of misinformation that dominated the 24-hour news cycle. More concerned with not offending what management perceives to be a conservative majority in America, than truthfulness in discourse, MSNBC plays progressive but leans right to try to straddle the fence. While the Fox News Channel makes no apologies for its conservative bent, MSNBC puts on the façade of objectivity in a genre that few level-headed people confuse for news. This is opinion TV, plain and simple, and we see clearly that some opinions matter more than others. The Olbermann episode is another cautionary tale in the importance of mass communication in agenda setting.
Walter Fields is Executive Editor of NorthStar News.