Monday, February 29, 2016
Tabloid Reporting of Politics Is Killing Us
29 February 2016
Andrew Lack, Chairman
MSNBC and NBC News
30 Rockefeller Plaza
New York, NY 10112
RE: Political news coverage
Dear Mr. Lack,
One doesn't need surveillance cameras or spies to guess that the circumstances involving Melissa Harris-Perry's severance from MSNBC includes some personal factors. There is also a valid complaint about the quantity and quality of MSNBC's political reporting, with MHP complaining that her creative autonomy was being pre-empted in favor of breaking political coverage.
It is an election year, of course, and even by the standards of our electoral politics, this is an unusual year. As a viewer, I affirm that variety is good and even during the presidential campaign, I appreciate stories and programming on other topics - including MHP's perspective on culture. With her departure, MSNBC is losing valuable expertise. Since this raises a question about political coverage on MSNBC, I would like to express an ongoing concern about quality, and an indifference towards expertise.
There is an emphasis across the media on dramatizing politics as a "race." Constant opinion polling is part of this, along with sensationalizing coverage of the personalities, with comparatively little about policy. The emphasis on personality in political reporting has been a major factor in the ascent of Donald Trump as a front-running candidate for a major party nomination for president, despite being utterly vapid when it comes to policy. I will grant that MSNBC does include some programs hosted by people with real credentials for reporting on policy: Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O'Donnell are examples. However, even they seem to be doing more of the "race" kind of reporting with less on policy. (An exception is the invaluable reporting Maddow has done about the Flint water crisis.) I have to wonder how much of this can be attributed to management rather than Ms. Maddow and Mr. O'Donnell themselves.
Covering politics as if it is some sort of race is dumb, and harmful to the process. I recognize that MSNBC like most news organizations is a business enterprise that is compelled to seek revenue; but the impact of what you do is historic. The constant reporting of opinion polls from early on, the constant framing of politicians' worth as being measured in popularity and presentational skill, shapes public perception. In the Republican primary, a United States Senator has notably dropped his efforts to speak about policy and become instead an insult comic, because that is what television networks will broadcast. This denies the country an important opportunity to listen to candidates' views about policy.
The chatter is all about "electability," which is not really a question. A candidate who can campaign nationwide, get on every state ballot, and win the required electoral votes is "electable." Any of these candidates are "electable." With that settled, we need information to examine which of them ought to be elected. As we see in this race, there are candidates of both parties who openly make different representations of themselves to different audiences, and they get away with it because these are reported indifferently, if at all, as tactics in a race - not as failures of integrity.
Instead of a race, why not the metaphor of a trial? In a trial, candidates must present a solid case with voters as a jury. Under that metaphor, the contest is not a race to see who can raise more money faster, lie more convincingly, draw more people to their rallies, or generate more headlines by saying outrageous things. The story of the contest can be framed around who makes a better case for their policy proposals based on facts, and who has been more consistent about fighting for what they promised to do.
It can be that way, but only if institutions like MSNBC make a firm decision to report that way. Thank you for your attention and with that, I'll let you get back to work. Sincerely,