Why MSNBC Isn't The Liberal Fox News

The network just gave an “indefinite” suspension to its star pundit, Keith Olbermann, for giving money to three Democratic candidates. The president of MSNBC, Phil Griffin, explained that this doesn’t meet “NBC News policy and standards.” People will instantly be checking to see if Fox News has a similar policy; a quick search at Opensecrets.org reveals that Sean Hannity has personally donated money to a Republican running in his district, as well as to Michelle Bachmann’s PAC. It might be different because Olbermann donated to specific people who lived nowhere near him. But whatever the official policies are, it’s a reminder that while MSNBC has shifted left in recent years (though they still have Chris Matthews, who had as big a crush on Bush as he currently has on Obama, plus Joe Scarborough), it has no desire to be what Fox is — an outlet that works round the clock to boost the fortunes of a particular political party.

Some would argue that that’s what they should try to be, that if Fox News is going to exist then there should be a true liberal counterpart. But Griffin is no Roger Ailes. Ailes is a rare combination of businessman and ideologue: he wants to help his party and he wants his network to be profitable and entertaining. (This makes Fox News different from other ideological media projects — left and right alike — which are often not expected to make money. Murdoch’s magazine The Weekly Standard isn’t a money-making operation, but it helps create material and media personalities that Fox News can draw on.) Griffin will dump his most profitable host rather than let his network be seen as ideological — in other words, he’ll sacrifice the bottom line for the sake of not being tarred as liberal.

Of course, since Olbermann is despised at his network (in part because he’s obnoxious and in part because NBC people are uncomfortable, like most network types, about being seen as liberal), this may simply be a way of keeping him in line or even easing him out. MSNBC has never been sure about whether to go in a more liberal direction, and the latest election results may well have convinced them that there’s no future in it. We might well see a replay of 2003, when after a Republican victory in the 2002 midterms, the cable networks moved closer to the Fox News format in a belief that conservatism was where the money was. That didn’t work for them either.

Update: MSNBC’s most liberal host, Rachel Maddow, explains why Olbermann had to be suspended but mostly dwells on the differences (as she sees it) between her network and Fox.

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