MSNBC Battles 'Pro-Obama' Label Heading Into President's Second Term

Will MSNBC Hold Obama Accountable In Second Term?
Chris Matthews, right, host of "Hardball" on MSNBC, answers a question as fellow MSNBC hosts Lawrence O'Donnell, center, and Rachel Maddow look on at the NBC Universal summer press tour, Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2011, in Beverly Hills, Calif. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)
Chris Matthews, right, host of "Hardball" on MSNBC, answers a question as fellow MSNBC hosts Lawrence O'Donnell, center, and Rachel Maddow look on at the NBC Universal summer press tour, Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2011, in Beverly Hills, Calif. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)

NEW YORK –- MSNBC President Phil Griffin labels his network's sensibility as progressive, but the cable news channel could also be described these days as simply pro-Obama.

In the final week of the 2012 election, MSNBC ran no negative stories about President Barack Obama and no positive stories about Republican nominee Mitt Romney, according to a study released Monday by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism.

MSNBC's afternoon and primetime hosts kept their sights on Romney and the Republicans during the election cycle, while spending considerably less time holding Obama accountable on issues like civilian casualties from drone strikes, use of executive power and the Afghanistan conflict, the nation's longest-ever war, which escalated under the current White House. Instead, the network's top partisan hosts –- with the exception of former Republican Rep. Joe Scarborough –- seemed to circle the wagons around the Democratic president during his reelection bid.

Former President Bill Clinton remarked earlier this year that MSNBC "really has become our version of Fox," the conservative cable network owned by Rupert Murdoch and run by veteran Republican operative Roger Ailes. While such comparisons invite charges of creating a false equivalency between the two networks, it's generally accepted in political circles that MSNBC hosts are likely to favor Democrats as Fox News hosts pull for Republicans.

That perception of MSNBC has gravitated into pop culture, too, with even NBC comedians recently piling on. Last month, "Saturday Night Live" mocked MSNBC hosts' reaction to Obama's poor first debate, which the show dubbed the "worst thing that ever happened anywhere." Jay Leno joined in last week on "The Tonight Show," joking that "the economy is so bad MSNBC had to lay off 300 Obama spokesmen."

But it's one thing for a self-identified progressive network to back a Democratic president against a Republican challenger. Campaigns in a two-party system are zero-sum games: Criticizing one side benefits the other. Now, post-election, the question is whether MSNBC continues cheering Obama on -- or takes him on.

Some MSNBC hosts surely know how to hit the president and the party from the left. In June, Rachel Maddow explained how Obama "triple-downed" on the Bush administration's use of drones, and three years earlier, she threw Obama's own words on indefinite detention back at him. Over the past year, weekend host Chris Hayes has spoken out on deportations of undocumented immigrants, the foreclosure crisis and indefinite detention, while recently taking Obama adviser Robert Gibbs to task over his dismissive response to the killing of a 16-year-old American, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, who was the son of American-born cleric and al Qaeda representative Anwar al-Awlaki.

Griffin acknowledges that his hosts are more likely to agree with Obama on policy matters than with Republicans, but rejects comparisons to Fox News.

"This channel has never been the voice of Obama. Ever," Griffin told The Huffington Post. "People want to talk about Fox. Fox is the voice of the Republican Party."

Clearly, there are differences, such as Fox News giving significant airtime to contributors like political consultant Dick Morris, who acknowledged after the election that he had tailored his analysis to cheer up Republicans, and Karl Rove, perhaps the most powerful Republican operative. And although MSNBC hosts were upset by Obama's initial debate debacle, they didn't sugarcoat the performance.

"We hire smart people with a progressive sensibility," Griffin said. "I tell them to go think for themselves. We don't have talking points."

While Romney returned repeatedly to Fox News during the campaign, with the network's programming at times reinforcing his campaign's message of the day, Obama gave only one interview to MSNBC, taking a few questions from hosts Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski at one of his final campaign stops.

Griffin suggested that Obama's unwillingness to appear regularly on MSNBC proves the network is "not the home team." And going forward into the second term, Griffin said his hosts will hold Obama accountable.

"We're going to hold Obama to his campaign promises," Griffin said. "And the fact is, there are many things that some of our hosts support him on. But basically, we have a standard, whether it's the war on terror or getting out of Afghanistan: Is he going to live up to his campaign promises?"

One MSNBC personality has already suggested a greater willingness to challenge the Obama administration now that the election is over.

Touré, co-host of "The Cycle," tweeted Monday that on the issue of drones, "now is a better time to be critical of Obama than during the campaign."


Some critics on the left would be happy to see MSNBC hosts criticizing the president over the drone war. They argue that the network has become reflexively supportive of the Democratic establishment instead of taking principled progressive stands on issues.

"If the Democratic National Committee were to own a network and produce news programming designed to promote the party, it would look exactly like what MSNBC has become," said Glenn Greenwald, who writes on civil liberties and national security for The Guardian.

In an interview, Greenwald acknowledged that Hayes and Maddow have challenged the Democratic establishment position on occasion, but said the latter seemed more willing to do so in the past as a host on Air America, the defunct liberal radio network, and early on in her MSNBC career. "She used to criticize Democrats from the left constantly," Greenwald said. "Now she does extremely rarely."

Speaking broadly about MSNBC's programming, Greenwald said the network has "staffed their shows with not only hosts but regular guests who are the most loyal, reverent admirers of President Obama and who are single-handedly devoted to no real political principle or cause other than glorifying him and defending what he does." At times, he said, the network can feel "like watching televised Pravda at the height of the Brezhnev era," a reference to the old Soviet propaganda arm.

Matt Stoller, a fellow at the progressive Roosevelt Institute who had consulted for Dylan Ratigan's former MSNBC show, similarly said that the network's evening line-up is now "just part of the Democratic Party" and serves primarily as a "partisan organizing vehicle."

If there are issues the Democratic establishment doesn't want to discuss, Stoller said, it's unlikely MSNBC's hosts will either -- from the financial system to foreign policy. "It's a pro-Wall Street, pro-war narrative," he said. "It just happens to be the blue version of it."

Recently, professor Cornel West took aim at the network during an appearance on "Democracy Now." A tough critic on Obama's left flank, West charged MSNBC hosts Al Sharpton and Melissa Harris-Perry, along with MSNBC guest host Michael Eric Dyson, with becoming "apologists for the Obama administration" in exchange for insider White House access.

Indeed, Sharpton hasn't been as tough on Obama as the 6 p.m. host he replaced, Cenk Uygur. A former Democratic presidential candidate, Sharpton regularly refers to Democrats on air as "we." Similarly, Martin Bashir, host of MSNBC's 4 p.m. hour, hasn't been anywhere near as critical of the Democrats as his predecessor, Ratigan, was.

Sharpton's support of the president shouldn't come as a surprise. In a "60 Minutes" profile airing shortly before he took over the 6 p.m. slot, CBS's Lesley Stahl described the civil rights activist as a "trusted White House adviser" who has "decided not to criticize the president about anything -- even about black unemployment, which is twice the national rate."

Such public support departs from the precedent set by Uygur, who, while harsher on Republicans, could also run through a list of progressive grievances on air, including Obama's not closing the Guantanamo Bay prison, pushing "weak" financial reform, helping to "deep-six the public option" in health care reform and going along with Republicans on spending cuts.

During a phone interview, Uygur described Hayes as a "real progressive" and said Maddow also sometimes challenges Obama from the left. "But the overall sense you get at MSNBC is they are pro-Democrat rather than simply progressive," said Uygur, who slammed MSNBC's management on the way out and now hosts a 7 p.m show on Current TV.

"Should MSNBC take a more aggressive stance with President Obama after the elections to make sure he follows through on his progressive promises? Of course," Uygur said in a follow-up email. "Will they? Probably not. They've been leaning back on their criticism of Democrats for so long, that I'm not sure they know how to, or care to, hold them accountable."

So far, MSNBC hasn't challenged Obama's ardent backing of Israel's aerial bombardment of Gaza, which The New York Times described as being as "vigorous" as George W. Bush's support during his presidency. While Hayes' guests this past Sunday morning offered a variety of perspectives, including that of the Palestinians, there hasn't been a similar counterweight in primetime to the unwavering pro-Israel position shared among leaders in the Republican and Democratic establishment.

The Nation's Greg Mitchell wrote Tuesday that MSNBC's hosts devoted just 15 minutes to the crisis over five hours the previous night, a sharp contrast to CNN, which has sent high-profile hosts like Wolf Blitzer and Anderson Cooper to Jerusalem and Gaza City, along with several senior correspondents, who appear on air throughout the day. Mitchell wrote that "none of MSNBC's five prime-time, liberal, hosts last night or their guests would utter a single word critical of Israel in the current conflict with Gaza."


Not all progressives agree that MSNBC needs to take a stronger line with the Democratic Party.

Robert Creamer, a political organizer, strategist and partner in Democracy Partners, told The Huffington Post that MSNBC took "exactly the right tone" during the 2012 race and described a need to illustrate the sharp contrasts with a Republican Party trying to "return us to the Gilded Age."

"If we didn't have MSNBC as a vehicle, I think it would have fundamentally transformed the political environment," Creamer said. "If it was just Fox out there and kind of the middle-of-the-road journalistic CNN on television, I think we would have had much different circumstances."

Creamer praised 8 p.m. host Ed Schultz for being "completely committed" in a battle to "save the middle class" and, broadly speaking, said MSNBC's "positive winning tone" was very helpful to progressives during this election year.

Progressive Strategies CEO Mike Lux said in an email that he hopes "MSNBC will use their platform to push the President in a more progressive direction, and hold him accountable when he doesn't live up to the hopes progressives have for him."

But Lux said he also hopes MSNBC hosts don't "mindlessly criticize" Obama when Republicans, in his view, are the ones blocking legislation.


Shortly after learning MSNBC beat Fox News on the first night of the Democratic National Convention -- a first in the network's 16-year history -- an exuberant Griffin told The Huffington Post that "nobody thought we could do this" and chalked up the ratings victory to having "created something strong and different than the other guys."

After taking over as president in 2008, Griffin began repositioning MSNBC as a liberal talk network, led by former star Keith Olbermann. While Griffin may balk at comparisons to Fox News when it comes to pushing a political agenda, he's marveled at his rival's programming strategy. "Fox figured it out that you have to stand for something in cable," Griffin told New York Magazine in a 2010 cover story titled "Chasing Fox."

Still chasing Fox, Griffin last week told The New York Times –- in a piece headlined "The Anti-Fox Gains Ground" –- that "we're closer to Fox than we've ever been."

MSNBC announced Monday that Maddow's 9 p.m. show and Lawrence O'Donnell's 10 p.m. show both ranked number one in the post-election week in cable news' key age demographic, 25- to 54-year-olds -- a major achievement for the network.

Speaking to The Huffington Post, Griffin attributed MSNBC's recent ratings success to having built a strong brand and community around hosts whom viewers trusted during the 2012 election cycle and will hopefully stick with into Obama's second term.

"What I really believe is we analyzed this election in a really smart way and we didn't go over the top," Griffin said. "We weren't just shilling for Obama. We were really smart. And people are responding to that now."

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