Shortly after news surfaced that NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden provided Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras with secret documents detailing the massive crimes of the American surveillance state, beltway journalists wasted little time in denouncing Snowden as a “traitor” and “narcissist” who jeopardized US “national security.” Now, nearly a year later, journalism which would have been impossible without Snowden’s courageous act of conscience has earned praise from populations around the world, foreign parliamentarians, and even the creator of the world wide web, who called Snowden a “hero” for his actions. Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras have also received accolades for their fearless journalism, winning the prestigious George Polk award. The Washington Post and the Guardian has also been recognized by the Pulitzer board for their reports on NSA criminality. All of these changes highlight how Edward Snowden’s revelations not only provided the global public with vital information about the “likely unconstitutional” deeds of the US government but have reinvigorated a long overdue conversation about journalism and the role of journalists vis-a-vis power centers. Part of this conversation should include a sober examination of the most prominent media outlets, the interests they represent and the ideas they espouse. Michael Arria’s Medium Blue: The Politics of MSNBC offers a revealing glimpse into the prevailing values at a purportedly “liberal” network that former President Bill Clinton described as “our version of Fox.” In this incredibly sharp, and often humorous, critique of MSNBC Arria raises the question that probably seemed obvious in the immediate aftermath of the Snowden revelations, namely that an honest evaluation of American media is not compatible with the conservative-liberal dichotomy of elite discourse. Instead larger questions should be asked about the relation of the public to private power or as Arria states “the issue has never been whether the media is too liberal or conservative, the problem is who controls the media.” In this book this question is answered and the implications are ominous. Analyzing interviews, articles and the institutional structure of this GE-owned network, Arria exposes MSNBC for what it really represents: a team of deeply subservient mouthpieces for wealth and power, specifically the Obama administration.
He begins his analysis with the climate of nationalism that dominated the country in the aftermath of the attacks on September 11th. While the overwhelming majority of network personalities were agitating to bomb Iraqis there was a rare exception. MSNBC host Phil Donahue invited anti-war voices on his program. This deviation was considered unacceptable at MSNBC headquarters and for this decision Donahue lost his job. Explaining his dismissal Donahue stated “we were the only antiwar voice that had a show, and that, I think, made them very nervous.” Donahue’s colleague and current host of Hardball Chris Matthews reserved a particular distaste for Donahue’s “advocacy journalism”, as sympathy for victims of US power is disparagingly described. “Matthews declared he would bring down the network if Donahue stuck around,” Arria notes citing a US News and World Report article. This institutional pressure to conform stood out as a dominant value in MSNBC’s corporate culture and Arria provides startling examples of its effectiveness. Take for example his critique of Rachel Maddow, a reporter who, despite her “liberal” leanings, parroted misinformation about Iran’s “nuclear weapons program”, defended NATO’s bombing of Libya–characterizing the aerial assault as an American effort to “stabilize Libya”–and asserted that “drones don’t change the politics of war that much.” When CODE Pink activist and fearless anti-drone campaigner Medea Benjamin disrupted President Obama’s speech at the National Defense University to highlight the humanity of drone war victims, Maddow responded with a condescending report, mocking Benjamin. “After anti-war activist Medea Benjamin interrupted an Obama speech on drones … Maddow ran a graphic reading, ‘Stop Agreeing With Me!’ the implication being that, if Benjamin just shut up and listened, she would quickly learn that Obama had many of the same reservations.” Obama’s “agreement” with Benjamin was recently reiterated in his administration’s decision to boycott a UN conference on drones, an inconvenient contradiction that likely can be resolved by asking, like a good “liberal” commissar, “would you prefer Mitt Romney to blow up Pakistani children?” Incidentally, this hypothetical may be too generous. MSNBC employee and co-host of The Cycle Toure distanced himself so far from the victims of drone warfare that when the murder of 16 year old Abdulrahman Awlaki was brought up on his show he didn’t even know who Awlaki was.
“… During an MSNBC panel discussing drone strikes Toure seemed completely unaware that Abdulrahman, had ever even existed: ‘What do you mean a 16 year old who is killed? I’m not talking about civilians’, he declared, when the subject came up. After fellow panelists, liberal Steve Kornacki and conservative S.E. Cupp, explained to Toure who Abdulrahman Awlaki was, he shrugged, ‘If people are working against America, then they need to die.'”
Other reporters covered in Arria’s critique are Chris Hayes, Melissa Harris-Perry, Ezra Klein, Ed Schultz and Joy Reid. Of particular interest is the story of Chris Hayes, who Arria acknowledges as someone who is often seen as the “progressive” exception to the otherwise Democratic Party tribalists that have come to dominate MSNBC. After Hayes made an extremely mild and unoffensive statement questioning the heroism US soldiers the cultural managers in the elite press dropped the hammer on him. Richard DeNoyer, the National Commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars, condemned Hayes statement as “reprehensible and disgusting”, a grave insult to “our fallen service members.” Immediately Hayes backtracked on his statement and issued an apology, asking “who was I to say who is and who isn’t a hero?” and admitting that “he fell short in a crucial moment.” This incident causes Arria to make the compelling observation that “If every soldier storming into Afghanistan and Iraq is hero, merely by extension of being American, then logic dictates, soldiers on the opposing side should be viewed as heroes, by their fellow citizens,” and “these are the questions we must ask, and the kinds of discussions we must have, if we ever hope to live in a country that doesn’t possess an aggressive, and murderous, foreign policy.”
Logical exercises of this kind are alien to MSNBC journalists who operate under an intellectual and moral code of silence where any examination of imperial ideology, no matter how superficial, makes everyone “very nervous.” The nervousness that paralyzes MSNBC journalists when dealing with issues of imperial power was put on full display in Melissa Harris Perry’s appraisal of the Obama administration. In what Arria accurately describes as a “tremendously disrespectful version of history” Perry asserted that President Obama is “stunningly similar” to Dr. Martin Luther King. Meanwhile, serious critics like Dr. Cornel West attacked these illusions, pointing out that King “would talk about drones. He’d talk about Wall Street criminality. He would talk about the working class being pushed to the margins as profits went up for corporate executives in their compensation.” Arria summed up the distinction more straightforwardly: “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream; President Obama has a Kill List.”
A review of this excellent book would be incomplete without mention of the many humorous scenes Arria paints from Chris Matthews announcing that he got so excited listening to one of Obama’s speeches that he “felt a thrill going up [his] leg” to Joy Reid’s interrogation of Wikileaks spokesperson Kristinn Hrafnsson, a tense exchange that forced Arria to conclude “the spirit of Joe McCarthy lives deep in the heart of Joy Reid.” He also satirizes a decision by Ed Schultz to do a report about televangelist Pat Robertson’s advice to a mother on “demon-sweaters” from Goodwill instead of covering the incomparably more consequential story of Chelsea Manning’s trial. In another comedic aside, Arria opens the chapter on Ezra Klein with the following observation: “It’s very possible that everything you need to know about the young Washington Post columnist and MSNBC contributor Ezra Klein, can be deduced from the opening line of a New Republic profile on him: ‘The first time I interviewed Ezra Klein, the 28-year old prince of DC media, he brought me a sandwich: prosciutto on a poppy-seed baguette.'”
This injection of humor, in an otherwise serious book, makes Medium Blue a highly engaging read for anyone unimpressed by the easy, self-flattering denunciations of Fox News, which is certainly a highly jingoistic, racist and xenophobic network, but “undeserving of rigorous analysis.” As Arria states in the introduction “Liberals frequently bite on the trolling, bothering to waste time and words on superfluous tasks like fact-checking Ann Coulter books.” Perhaps this is the most significant contribution of his book, that he penetrates the simplistic tribalist paradigm of elite discourse, where the limits of thought are narrowly constrained by party affiliation, and lays down a devastating critique of American mass media. No one who reads this book can afterwards watch MSNBC and not be overcome with feelings of contempt, if not amusement. In a recent appearance on the network, award-winning investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill compared MSNBC’s editorial line to an “Obama for America meetup.” One can only imagine how many employees he made “very nervous.”