Honesty vs ratings at MSNBC

A recent New Yorker profile of MSNBC star Keith Olbermann has revealed some startling information about the inner-workings of major American news outlets.

Shaping the news and commentary for ratings or for some other form of personal greed is just about the worst thing a journalist can do. But apparently that’s not out of the ordinary at MSNBC.

In March, after Geraldine Ferraro said that Obama would not be where he is if he were not a black man, Olbermann issued a Special Comment that was aimed expressly at Clinton’s advisers (and their countenancing of Ferraro’s “cheap, ignorant, vile racism”) but that struck Clinton nonetheless. “Voluntarily or inadvertently,” Olbermann said, addressing Clinton directly, “you are still awash in this filth.”

At MSNBC, Phil Griffin [the senior vice-president in charge of MSNBC] was worried, and with good reason. The average “Countdown” viewer is fifty-nine years old, and forty-five percent of the viewers are women, presumably Democratic—a fair description of a Hillary Clinton supporter. Griffin believed that Olbermann was beginning to alienate his core audience, and asked him to ease up a bit on Clinton, and possibly even make some conciliatory gesture to the Clinton camp. Olbermann was offended by the suggestion. “I can’t do that!” he says, recalling that conversation. “Me doing a commentary against my own opinion is pandering. Black and white. And I’m not going to do it. Would I pull back a little bit, or think long and hard about whether or not I want to knowingly alienate part of the audience? Yeah. And I did. I mean, I held fire on Senator Clinton for quite a while after she began to really scare me, with some of these tactics.”

I’ve always held the opinion that it’s impossible for the media to be unbiased. Rather than have journalists pretend that they are unbiased guardians of truth, I prefer openness about their ideological leanings and personal ties. Knowing the bias allows consumers of news to judge the accuracy of reporting for themselves and seek out alternate viewpoints if necessary.

Part of what I like about Keith Olbermann and Lou Dobbs is that it seems they are telling you what they think. It may be biased, but it’s honestly biased. People like Sean Hannity, Bill Kristol and Rush Limbaugh are just the opposite. They are such shameless shills that it’s nearly impossible to think they believe what they’re shoveling.

It’s dangerous to have someone like Olbermann’s boss, Phil Griffin, trying to force him to offer a disingenuous opinion just to try to prevent a ratings decline. Griffin is supposed to be the leader of a news organization. A news organization banks on it’s reputation for honesty and credibility. How can we honestly trust anything we hear from a place like MSNBC where the bigwigs don’t seem to give a damn about integrity of opinion?

None of this should be all that surprising in the wake of our media’s behavior since 9/11 (what’s surprising is to see it actually documented and admitted). Dissenting liberal opinion was practically banished from the airwaves and newspaper pages in the run-up to the Iraq War. No one wanted to seem unpatriotic lest they hurt their ratings.

Flickr photo by 2757


  1. Ted

    I liked this post. It got me thinking about how similar the media and Hollywood are. We’d like to think that their motivations are news reporting and artistic ambition (respectively) but in the end they’re just BUSINESSES THAT WANT TO MAKE MONEY.

    I think we have to acknowledge that we that criticize/question the media and film giants are a minority. While people like you and I enjoy “judging the accuracy of reporting for themselves,” most people don’t and will accept/buy whatever they’re fed.

    A *large* percentage of Hollywood movies are TERRIBLY AWFUL. But it’s not like the production heads think they’re making classics. They know it’s shit, but it sells. Just like Phil Griffin. And I know you mention that “a news organization banks on it’s reputation for honesty and credibility”… again, this might affect you and me, but the majority of the buying audience doesn’t even care.

  2. Chris

    I think you’re right that most people end up believing what they read/see/hear on the news. However – and I know this sounds contradictory – it’s also true that a majority of people have little or no respect for the press. See the graph on this post.

  3. Ian

    Wow, where to start? I agree with the sentiment that it is deplorable for the media to care about ratings, but I think after that I disagree with your post. I honestly don’t see a difference in Olbermann and Limbaugh, which is why I don’t listen to either. Look, if I want to see someone crack jokes about the news with an overly liberal slant, I will watch The Daily Show. If I turn on a news station, I should see news, not opinions. The whole idea of a pundit is stupid. Fox News goes on with their, “We report, you decide” nonsense while they parade pundit after pundit across the screen. Every news station does it. When did we let the media start doing the thinking for us? Your opinions about the conservative talking heads just seem like bias because you don’t agree with them.

    I’m comfortable watching a guy like Stewart on COMEDY CENTRAL do this stuff cause I feel like he shouldn’t be held to the standards of a journalist. Remember what John Stewart said when he was on Crossfire? To paraphrase: “What comes on after me is puppets making crank phone calls. If you want to debate my journalistic integrity we have a problem.” If I’m supposed to turn off my expectation of minimum bias when watching a show like Olbermann, then why is he on a news channel anyways? This is like MTV not showing music. Perhaps it is impossible to remain unbiased, but it doesn’t mean a journalist shouldn’t try.

  4. Ted

    Yeah I remember that graph. It’s a little unclear what that’s actually graphing though, especially with regard to the press… how much confidence do I have in the *leadership* of the press? That’s a little weird. It doesn’t say “accuracy.”

  5. Chris

    Like I said, I think it’s impossible for the media to be unbiased. In that context I think it’s dangerous to have journalists pretending they are. You’re more likely to take what they say as gospel without any critical thinking. The sort of all-knowing unbiased journalistic voice is powerful.

    So rather than seeking to be unbiased, I think the news media should seek to be honest.

    I also want to point out that Lou Dobbs is a conservative talking head. I don’t agree with him on a whole host of issues, but I still find his commentary to be honest.

    Fair enough. If I come across any more info on that score I’ll let you know.

  6. Ted

    Where’s the article on baby Kobe?

  7. Ian

    Yeah but how can you honestly say that Limbaugh and Hannity are lying and the other guys aren’t? I think that they probably do stir the pot a little to get people interested in what they are saying, but I honestly think that Olbermann does the same (and Lou Dobbs). Look at Olbermann with his whole “Worst person in the world” thing. Thats the equivalent of TV trolling. I know that many liberals listen to Limbaugh just because what he says makes them so mad. This is certainly a big part of why Coulter’s books sell so well.

    I can’t believe you are actually arguing for bias in the media being good. Opinion is so stupid and worthless in television news. What is it that people say, “Opinions are like assholes, everyone has one”? Why should I respect Olbermann’s opinion any more than any other person? Why is he getting a TV show on a news network? What is worth far more are facts. Tell me what happened, tell me what was said, tell me what is important. I don’t care what you think about what happened. Obviously there is some room in there for bias in the “what is important” area because that is in the eye of the beholder. Regardless, if you are too stupid to notice slight bias, you are stupid enough to listen to talking heads and take their opinions as your own. Television news has become overly political. Its like they are extensions of political parties now. Why should I have to choose my news based on my political affiliation? That is absurd. Let’s just have state run TV if its going to be like that. The two parties run the government, now they run the news. The press has the responsibility to be independent and it is a guaranteed right, need I remind you. The press SHOULD have the power to tear down guys like Bush and Clinton. They shouldn’t pander to them.

    You say that a journalist who attempts to be unbiased has a lot of power, but so do these biased guys. Say you agree 90% with what Limbaugh (or Olbermann) says. You are likely to respect his opinion on something you would otherwise disagree with him on, and maybe even share that opinion. I think Limbaugh is better than these news guys because he is on radio which isn’t really the current source for news.

  8. Chris

    To quickly respond to your first point. I have a feeling about Hannity just given how brazenly he’ll throw out former ideological positions to line up behind the current GOP line. Olbermann and Dobbs on the other hand have issues that they advocate for, like leaving Iraq and immigration reform. They don’t shift their beliefs in order to play nice with party politics.

    Limbaugh is a different case. We have his own words to prove that he’s nothing more than a shill. He had this to say after the Dems trounced the Republicans in 2006:

    The way I feel is this: I feel liberated, and I’m going to tell you as plainly as I can why. I no longer am going to have to carry the water for people who I don’t think deserve having their water carried. Now, you might say, “Well, why have you been doing it?” Because the stakes are high! Even though the Republican Party let us down, to me they represent a far better future for my beliefs and therefore the country’s than the Democrat [sic] Party does and liberalism.


  9. Ian

    “Now, you might say, “Well, why have you been doing it?” Because the stakes are high! Even though the Republican Party let us down, to me they represent a far better future for my beliefs and therefore the country’s than the Democrat [sic] Party does and liberalism.”

    How is this any different that what any other political pundit does? Seriously. He uses his opinion and influence on people to try and influence the world around him. I see no distinction between him and any other pundit.

  10. Chris

    Olbermann blasting Hillary Clinton.
    Lou Dobbs blasting all of Congress and the President.

  11. Ian

    So what? If there is some bias there, they are using their influence as a journalist to attempt to manipulate popular opinion so that a change that THEY want can become reality. Thats politics, not journalism.

  12. Chris

    All journalism is about “manipulating” the public in some way. The goal is to move people away from a state of ignorance about the world around them. By the simple virtue of covering a story, you’re engaging in a form of advocacy by choosing to shine a light on that story in favor of another. Then within that story you’re doing it again by writing about the aspects you find more important than others.

    Don’t you want to know why the writer made those choices before you evaluate the information?

  13. Ian

    Journalism is supposed to be about the pursuit of truth and the spread of information. I don’t see how “truthiness” belongs anywhere in there. I think certain things should be reported and certain things are silly extraneous information. I think it is important for a national news station to report on things affecting the nation. It should report on what our government is doing, what the president says in speeches he gives everyday, what high profile congressman say and what bills congress passes, what decisions the supreme court makes, etc. It should report on natural disasters in our country, on the status of the war and our interests overseas, on the stock market and the economy in general. It should report on trends like global warming, rises in fuel costs, rises in food costs, rises in illegal immigrants. You know, the news. I could keep going, but you can see that most of these issues I list affect almost everyone in this country, if some only in a minor way. If the government is doing something corrupt, we shouldn’t have one station defending it and another complaining about it. The entire press should be going after corrupt politicians because it isn’t a partisan issue. Corruption is corruption. Extraneous information is that Angelina Jolie has twins, that Hulk is the #1 movie in America, that some white girl disappeared somewhere, etc. Its stuff that doesn’t affect us and should be moved to more specialized news sources like entertainment shows or magazines and local news. I used to watch the evening news with Peter Jennings growing up, and I never felt like he was expressing his opinion. I felt like I came away knowing more about what is going on in the world, and not always having to think about things in terms of liberal or conservative. I shouldn’t have to try to filter out fact from a clearly biased report. I don’t really care why certain stories are selected for time on the news, as long as they are presented with minimum bias and they are relevant, I am happy. I think, in general, that the relevance of a story is obvious. If its a 24 hour news station, I think they can fit in all the relevant national news in one day.

    Think about it, you are arguing for an additional level of bias. Guys like Olbermann are biased in how they select their stories, and then they present them with bias. So what if you know where he stands? Its still a load of crap. You say we can’t have the ideal situation in journalism of zero bias, so we should go completely the other way and embrace complete bias?

  14. Chris

    Scroll down to where he starts talking about Peter Jennings:

    This is exactly what I’m talking about. Jennings pretended to be unbiased, but he was just as biased as the rest of them. Maybe he didn’t mean to be, but he was. And millions of people took what he said as gospel without knowledge of his ideological lens.

  15. Ian

    I certainly never took anything any reporter said ever as “gospel”. I don’t think the same can be said for a lot of people who buy into pundits. Look, there can be bias in what stories are selected, but if they are presented with minimum bias, I don’t see what difference it makes. I can form my own opinions. I don’t need Olbermann or Rush telling me what to think. This is why I haven’t watched TV news voluntarily in years. Its just become an enormous farce.

  16. Ian

    You certainly take what Greenwald says as “gospel”.

  17. Chris

    I’ve found errors in his work. But in general, I trust him. But you can judge for yourself what those direct quotes from Jennings indicate.

    And stay tuned for more Greenwald tomorrow 😉

  18. Ian

    I think judging for myself would not be sucking on the teat of opinion of someone else 😉