Lawrence O'Donnell, a stern political host on MSNBC, hit it right on the head when he recently remarked that some people are so fearful of being called liberals that they refer to themselves as progressives. In making his remark, O'Donnell was implicitly taking on the conventional lingo at his network, where hosts over generalize and commonly refer to the left as "progressives." Not satisfied to rest there, O'Donnell then surprised mainstream viewers by declaring "I am not a progressive. I am a socialist. I live to the extreme left of you mere liberals."
I cannot recall the last time I heard anyone openly call themselves a socialist on the mainstream media, let alone a major network host. Even more unlikely perhaps, O'Donnell chose to make his remarks on Morning Joe, a more conservative program than his own night show The Last Word. Judging from his coverage of the mid-term elections, I would not have guessed that O'Donnell was a socialist. Indeed, at various points throughout the evening, the MSNBC host seemed to imply that the Democrats lost the election because they ran too far to the left. From watching election coverage on MSNBC, I got the impression that O'Donnell was more conservative than colleagues Rachel Maddow, Keith Olbermann and Ed Schultz. Inside the Beltway commentators routinely make the claim that Democrats must run to the center in order to win elections, and O'Donnell seemed to be merely subscribing to the conventional logic.
Glenn Greenwald, a Salon writer, must have gotten the same impression I had on election eve. In a column he criticized O'Donnell's perspective, arguing that many Americans hold liberal views and would have turned out to vote this time round had the Democrats demonstrated real economic results through their policies. Perhaps the column touched a nerve with O'Donnell; the MSNBC host chose to clarify his leftist credentials while debating Greenwald himself on Morning Joe.
Whatever the particulars of the controversy between O'Donnell and Greenwald, the point is that the MSNBC host stressed his socialist politics on air, and proudly at that. While such an announcement would hardly cause a stir in Western Europe or Scandinavia, it's highly unusual in the United States, and particularly in the U.S. mainstream media. Why? Jeff Cohen, a former TV host at MSNBC and the author of Cable News Confidential, argues that the left has been excluded from the media for historical reasons. "It became clear to me that the exclusion was partly a legacy of McCarthyism -- a fear of the left, and of associating with the left," Cohen writes. "Television was born in the era of Joe McCarthy, red-baiting and the blacklists."
Over the past two years Fox and the right have sought to tarnish Obama by claiming the White House is pursuing socialistic policies. At times, it almost seems as if the GOP is trapped in a bizarre time warp as it seeks to taint the Obama administration with the same kind of red-baiting it employed against FDR in the 1930s. I suspect that most Americans don't buy into this dated rhetoric, and, for now, O'Donnell probably doesn't run much of a risk by proclaiming his socialist credentials. Yet, with the Republicans now on the ascendant the political winds could start to have a ripple effect upon the newsroom.
In recent years, MSNBC has served as a strong counterweight to Fox on cable TV. Lest we forget, it wasn't so long ago that the network was a bastion of the right. MSNBC only adopted the progressive moniker when it became chic and fashionable to do so, at the height of the Iraq War and Bush's handling of the Katrina mess. From 2002 to 2003, prior to MSNBC's tilt to the liberal left, Cohen was a senior producer at the network and an on air contributor. Earlier, he had helped to found the liberal media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, or FAIR. Leaving for MSNBC was, in a sense, heading into the belly of the beast. Initially, Cohen writes, he looked forward to his new gig at MSNBC, a network which "was supposed to be infested with liberals pushing their agendas and spinning the news."
"But," he writes, "I couldn't find them. So I kept looking... and looking. Eventually I found about seven of them -- including makeup artists, camera operators, archivists and interns." Over at Fox, Cohen remarks, they used to complain about the Sandinista-lovers in the mainstream media. But, he adds amusingly, "I had trouble finding folks who knew who the Sandinistas were." In one hilarious passage, Cohen talks about looking for liberal bumper stickers in the MSNBC parking lot. The only one in the entire lot belonged to him, a FAIR sticker that "illuminated the irony of my presence there: 'Don't Trust the Corporate Media.'"
What Cohen found during his days at MSNBC was a corporate culture terrified of offending the bosses at GE/NBC and pursuing independent journalism. "These were imitators, not initiators," he writes. "And Fox News was the industry leader." When Cohen started to criticize the Bush team in advance of the Iraq war, presciently warning of a quagmire, he found that he was increasingly sidelined. As the war approached, he found himself supplanted by military analysts and "weapons experts." "I couldn't discuss the weather at MSNBC unless balanced by a hardcore rightist," he writes. In late 2002, MSNBC terminated Cohen's debate segments and the lefty's short-lived pundit career came to an abrupt end.
Since that deplorable moment in its history, MSNBC has redeemed itself somewhat by hiring pundits like O'Donnell. Yet, I found the TV host's comment that he lives "to the extreme left of mere liberals" a bit jarring. I have not seen any self-identified socialists on his show, let alone other MSNBC programs. Indeed, MSNBC is full of progressives, the very people O'Donnell frowns upon. O'Donnell could easily remedy this by seeking out socialists and Marxists at the Brecht Forum in Greenwich Village, which is conveniently located near MSNBC studios in lower Manhattan.
But why stop there? There are plenty of anarchists out there who might want to explain their philosophy to a wider audience. If O'Donnell is serious and not just kidding around, then he should have other types of leftists on his show. If he did so, then he would surely distinguish himself from other MSNBC pundits who rely far too often on liberal inside the Beltway types and snarky progressive bloggers. Hopefully, before MSNBC shifts back to the mainstream or the right, the American public will hear some new voices on Lawrence O'Donnell's The Last Word.
Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan). Visit his website, http://www.nikolaskozloff.com/