On May 6, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow interviewed U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. One of Sanders’ main contentions during the interview was to call for a Democratic Party alternative to Fox News. According to Evelyn Rupert of The Hill political blog, The Senator pointedly called out the mainstream news media for what he termed “political gossip” and “soap opera”, and strongly urged that it focus instead on real news and substantive issues. Sanders has cause to complain; examinations of media coverage of his campaign have supported his claim of bias. For example, a well-constructed study by Ryan Whitacker and his colleagues at DecisionData.org revealed a relative blackout of his campaign when compared to the coverage enjoyed by either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.
Indeed, at times it has seemed to those who are not Trump supporters that the coverage following him is all Trump, all the time. In February of this year Les Moonves, Chairman of CBS, showed no regrets in explaining this phenomenon. Speaking at Morgan Stanley’s Technology, Media & Telecom Conference in San Francisco, he said “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” He continued, “Man, who would have expected the ride we’re all having right now? … The money’s rolling in and this is fun. I’ve never seen anything like this, and this going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”
Sadly, this demonstrates that mainstream television news coverage in the United States has devolved from actual journalism – the noble calling of what we used to know as The Fourth Estate- into a form of entertainment to siphon ad revenue. The FCC’s “Fairness Doctrine”, which broadcast stations had to follow for years in order to maintain their licenses, was abandoned during the Reagan Administration. Slowly but surely since then, TV stations have offered less and less actual news and opportunity for public engagement on issues. Instead, they have substituted 20 minutes of fluff for each 30-minute show, with the rest devoted to commercials.
Rachel Maddow is a fixture on MSNBC, the mainstream behemoth previously owned by NBC Universal, which was sold to Comcast in 2013. During the interview with Sanders, Maddow cheekily referred to Comcast as “our overlords”. When she interviewed Sanders, she appeared fascinated by his proposal for a new media outlet with a public-spirited purpose and better balance, funded at least partly by interested Democrats. However, her fascination appeared to be the kind experienced by visitors to a wildlife habitat who are told not to get too close to the animals’ mouths, for fear they might attack. She appeared to want to poke around the edges of further questioning without putting herself in jeopardy. Others before her- notably Keith Olbermann, Ed Schultz, and Melissa Harris-Perry, have crossed the corporate line, and apparently have been devoured.
Fortunately, the demographics show that among the majority of Sanders’ supporters, news and information about current events is obtained in an entirely different way than in the past. Television is not relied upon nearly as heavily as it once was. Instead, social media is king. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and the like are the new media for shaping political opinion, and they can do it lightning fast. When it comes to watching something longer, there are also some good options on newer, less well-known television networks such as Free Speech TV and RTTV. These latter networks are becoming havens for many fine journalists like Greg Palast and Ed Schultz, who have been banished by corporate powers that be for being too outspoken and who no longer have a platform in mainstream media outlets. As just one example, these were the only places in the U.S. media that one could receive any news coverage of Democracy Spring, when thousands of protesters descended on Washington D.C. in April of this year. Although several hundred were arrested for protesting the influence of corporate money on the American political process, there was absolutely no coverage of it on the network news, because some of the very media corporations in bed with the politicians would themselves have been implicated. Why should they tell the truth about that, when they could focus instead on Donald Trump’s hair?
MSNBC has little to fear from Maddow. She has honed a style as a commentator that is just short of snarkiness, branding herself as one of the smartest women in cable news and carving out a spot for herself in their evening lineup without running afoul of the unwritten corporate code. She is unlikely to take on the “overlords” when she can interview fascinating people like Bernie Sanders without having to do that. However, she is too intelligent not to realize that she does it from a place of severe limitation on her own journalistic freedom. She and others like her who work for networks like CNN, NBC, CBS, and ABC pay a heavy price for stories never written and questions never asked. Sanders is right; the American people deserve better than that. The new left coalition that is forming around his presidential campaign calls for better coverage by reliably independent media. Social media alone has done well by him while mainstream channels have treated him like an unwanted stepchild. Whether he is elected or returns to the Senate, time will tell how and where those media channels will emerge to help as that effort continues.