One misleading meme that’s become popular in discussing TV news is the idea that MSNBC is the equivalent of Fox News, its liberal partisan counterpart. It’s not so, and not just because they give several hours of time to Joe Scarborough (imagine Fox giving the morning over to a liberal, even a squishy one). It’s that Chris Matthews, one of their star personalities, is loathed by liberals. And understandably so, as the liberal Matthews-hating blogger Digby explains. Matthews is not a conservative media figure, either; he just takes whatever position feels good to him at any moment. He demonstrates that when a TV pundit tries to get beyond ideology and present himself as a common-sense kind of guy, he winds up making no sense whatsoever.
(Matthews presumably thinks that since liberals and conservatives hate him equally, he must be doing something right. As I’ve said before, being hated equally by liberals and conservatives probably proves you’re not doing anything right.)
It’s true that MSNBC has a few openly liberal hosts, and the other networks don’t have any, and that puts them to the left of most cable news. But they’re simply not the equivalent of Fox News. The reason Fox News is very conservative is really not all that insidious: all their hosts, personalities and news anchors are conservative, with the exception of their loose cannon Shepard Smith. They don’t have to plot out a secret strategy to slant their coverage to the right: it happens naturally because conservatives tend to work from conservative assumptions in the way they assign and report the news. (Which is to say, when Megyn Kelly reports on last night’s pundit discussions as if they’re “news,” she’s serving the network’s agenda, but she’s also talking about the stuff she’s genuinely interested in. To her and most Fox anchors, the question “Is Obama a Socialist Communist Tyrant?” is self-evidently important news, and would be even if they weren’t hosting a news show.)
For there to be a liberal equivalent of Fox, a network would have to be staffed almost top to bottom not just by people who vote Democratic, but who are openly and ideologically liberal in their assumptions as only a few MSNBC personalities actually are. Olbermann is a liberal counterpart to Fox pundits because his way of looking at the news is based on certain assumptions about who the good guys are and who the bad guys are; Rachel Maddow is a liberal personality because she makes liberal assumptions about political and social policy. A network full of people who make those assumptions (and aren’t ashamed of them or trying to bend over backwards to accommodate the other point of view) would be a liberal news network. There isn’t one yet, but Fox News has demonstrated the rewards that can be reaped when a whole network has a consistent point of view. In a way, it’s the news equivalent of “branding.” MSNBC hasn’t even come close to branding itself that way, and probably doesn’t want to.