Rachel Maddow is smirking today. That, of course, doesn’t distinguish this from any other day. Maddow’s smirk has become part of her now-predictable style, along with the chirpy delivery, the dressing-up of partisanship as wonky pragmatism, and the endless repetitious snark after playing clips. (“What was the name of the act there? Hoot-Smawley? Known to everyone else as Smoot-Hawley?”) But Maddow has particular reason to be self-satisfied today. Chris Christie is trailing Hillary Clinton in a new poll by eight points, thanks to the Bridgegate scandal that Maddow’s network, MSNBC, has been covering relentlessly.
In fact, “covering” is probably understating things—maybe “sledgehammering.” If you’ve turned on MSNBC over the past week, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the left-forward-leaning cable news channel—best known for firing Keith Olbermann and being selected by the state of Florida as the lead prosecutor in the George Zimmerman case—is moving its headquarters from Manhattan to the New Jersey state house in Trenton. (Come to think of it, that might actually justify closing the George Washington Bridge.)
MSNBC reported on Bridgegate, and then, when that got stale, paraded Democrats through their studios to baselessly accuse Christie of further wrongdoing. Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer claimed without evidence that Christie’s administration attached strings to her city’s hurricane aid on MSNBC. New Jersey State Senator Ray Lesniak called Chris Christie the “liar-in-chief” on MSNBC. Maddow herself advanced a purely speculative theory whereby Christie’s administration closed the Fort Lee lanes to retaliate against the state’s senate majority leader for not confirming judicial nominees on MSNBC. The latter episode was so ungrounded that it was sharply dismissed by Stephen Sweeney, the Democratic president of the New Jersey state senate.
Christie’s office rebutted with a barbed statement attacking MSNBC as a “partisan network”—not an insignificant shot, given the governor’s frequent presence on the network’s chat show Morning Joe, and not an inaccurate one either.
Earlier this month, National Review media reporter Eliana Johnson published an exposé that claimed Maddow, MSNBC’s most visible host, was making its most important programming decisions. “She is actually not that interested in reality,” one of Maddow’s former colleagues told Johnson. “[S]he is the most ideological person I’ve ever met. That is not somebody you want in charge of your programming, because she might put on a great show, but she cannot make rational decisions—her agenda is changing America.” Maddow blasted the report, but Johnson’s account was supported by insider sources, better evidence than Maddow had for her leering postulations about Bridgegate.
Maddow’s ideology is dictating MSNBC’s news coverage, which is why that coverage constantly targets conservatives. And now the network is trying to bag its biggest prize yet: Chris Christie, who polls say is the greatest threat to Democrats in 2016. It’s all for the greater good of “changing America.” Oh, and don’t forget to lean forward, or whatever yogic exercise they’re using to fight climate change these days.
All of this is deeply ironic for progressivism. During the Bush administration, one of the left’s admission requirements was an apocalyptic viewpoint regarding Fox News. Fox wasn’t just a right-leaning news source; it was a thoroughly partisan operation, an arm of the Republican Party. Roger Ailes, the network’s pugnacious president, was said to wield Sauron-like power over the GOP. A good slice of progressive commentary during this time was reactive, responding to and ridiculing claims made on Fox News.
Attacking Fox became a formative experience for the modern left. Nearly everyone, from old standbys like the Nation to new upstarts like Media Matters, threw rocks at Ailes’s juggernaut. And they still are; on nights when Jon Stewart is feeling more tedious than usual, he’ll spend a good 10 minutes mocking Fox clips. The latest volley comes from author Gabriel Sherman, who just published an apparently unfulfilling book attacking Ailes. The anti-Fox tome is becoming the Kennedy biography of the new left: Everybody is required to write one, and the more regurgitation the better.
And yet, despite the years of anti-Fox activism, despite the tankers of ink that have gushed against the “right-wing noise machine,” not only does the left now have its own line-parroting channel in MSNBC, it has one that’s quantifiably worse than Fox News. According to a Pew Research Center report from last year, CNN’s programming consists of 46 percent opinion and 55 percent straight news; Fox News is 55 percent opinion and 45 percent news. MSNBC? Eighty-five percent opinion and 15 percent news. And nearly all of that opinion is progressive. MSNBC has become everything liberals once claimed to deplore.
The cable news wars are generally uninteresting; pundits should spend more time arguing over ideas, not the networks that carry those ideas. But in the case of MSNBC and Chris Christie, the medium is the message, as Marshall McLuhan said. Of course New Jersey Democrats want to slug Christie. That an ideology-driven cable channel is giving them a platform to poison the well—that’s serious news.
Not that MSNBC viewers know what news is. Their network needs to stop behaving like, as Rachel Maddow once called Fox News, an “operation that is essentially a political operation.”
Operation? Essentially a political operation? Operation, much? Play Operation as a kid, Rachel?
Sorry. I lapsed into Maddow-speak for a moment.