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The Straw-Man Equivalency Justification

October 30th, 2009

The common meme that is being pushed by much of the media today is that MSNBC is as liberal as Fox is conservative. This is being pushed especially by Fox News in its fight to counter the obvious fact that they are a Republican Party offshoot, as contended by the White House. The idea is that if another network can be shown to have a liberal tilt, then that somehow justifies everything that Fox does.

If you have been paying attention, this is not the first time that the argument has come up–but in the last few years, MSNBC has served nicely as the false counterweight. If you’ll recall, before Olbermann came to prominence, it was not MSNBC, but CBS that was supposed to be the equivalent.

There are striking similarities in Fox using the two networks as a false equivalent, the main one being that the equivalencies are entirely false. CBS was more striking, however. Why was CBS supposed to be liberal? Well, it was because of Dan Rather, of course! That flaming liberal!

I can’t tell you how many times I have heard people say, “Yes, Fox is right-wing, but look at Dan Rather and CBS.” I have heard individuals say it a lot, and before Olbermann’s ratings took off, you could hear right-wingers say it all the time. Hell, even on one episode of Boston Legal, an otherwise very liberal show, the character of Alan Shore used the equivalency. It became so common and unchallenged an idea that liberals even accepted and repeated the idea.

But was it true? Of course not. Not only was Rather not the entirety of CBS programming, there were only a small handful of incidences over the span of his 24 years as news anchor which could call his objectivity into question–and a few even suggested he leaned to the right. What was called liberal bias was usually little more than a willingness to challenge political leaders when the opportunity arose, mixed with a few cases of poor judgment. Rather became the CBS News anchor in 1981 and left in 2005, meaning that for the majority of his time as anchor, there were Republicans in office. But when Clinton was president, Rather did not hold back from reporting on Clinton’s scandals any more than he did with either Bush or Reagan; even though Rather admitted to hating the Lewinsky story, he nonetheless reported on it just as much as anyone else. When the Iraq War began, Rather was particularly uncritical and in fact was an ardent supporter–something he admitted regretting later on.

The primary example of his ‘bias’ was the Bush National Guard story. The irony is, there is a list as long as your arm of strong, verifiable evidence proving that the Guard story was 100% true–Dan Rather, in what was a gift to Bush, simply went after the one piece of faked evidence because it was so alluring. While there is no evidence that Rather wouldn’t have done the same were the target a Democrat, let’s assume for the moment that this one story showed liberal bias. Does this make Dan Rather the equivalent of Fox News? When Fox has spent pretty much every hour of every day for the past 13 years on a non-stop tirade of unprecedented proportions?

Holding MSNBC up as an equivalent to Fox is just as faulty, although it is a lot easier to do. With a talk-show lineup mostly ranging from former Democrats to outright liberal firebrands, MSNBC would certainly seem to fit the bill. However, there are substantive differences. The first comes in foundations and primary motivators: while Fox News was wholly contrived as a means of advancing a conservative political agenda, MSNBC was not created to supply a left-wing agenda.

While Fox News has always been stridently right-wing, MSNBC has not always been left-leaning–in fact, a decade ago, MSNBC was noticeably right-wing in its lineup. When launched in 1996, Ann Coulter and Laura Ingraham hosted an MSNBC show called “The Contributors”; from 1999, Oliver North co-hosted one of their shows; Pat Buchanan had a show on the network in 2002-2003; and Joe Scarborough has been an MSNBC regular since 2003. While the network hired Matthews and Olbermann in 2003, it did not really begin to go more left-wing than right-wing until Olbermann proved a ratings success, after which they acquired Maddow and Schultz. In short, the reason why MSNBC tilts left is not because that’s its mission, it’s because that’s where its ratings have led it.

And finally, the bias at Fox is all-encompassing, and bleeds into everything it does, from the text in the “ticker” bar at the bottom of the screen to the reporting of the main news anchors. The former “straight news” anchor Brit Hume constantly exhibited bias. One good case in point was his cheerleading for Bush’s failed initiative to privatize Social Security. In one broadcast, Hume went so far as to make the claim that FDR never meant for Social Security to be permanent, but instead intended it to be privatized. As evidence, he “quoted” FDR–completely out of context. Not only that, but he did so in a way that was impossible as an error; Hume could not have chosen the out-of-context quotes unless he specifically intended to twist the meaning. Even if you believe that this was handed to him and excuse his ‘overlooking’ the error, it is hard to excuse bias when one considers that he left his news post to become Bush’s press secretary. On MSNBC, on the other hand, the bias of some of its talk-show hosts does not bleed in to its straight reporting, as to be expected from a news network which is not driven by an ideology.

The fact is, if MSNBC didn’t exist, the right-wingers would simply invent it. If not MSNBC, then CNN would be called “liberal.” And if not CNN, then CBS. And if not CBS, then anyone else who was handy. Not because there is a liberal tilt, but simply because they want to point to someone or something as a counterweight, a false equivalency so they can say, “See? There’s a liberal network out there, so our right-wing bias is excusable or even justified.” Or, more commonly, to make the outrageous claim that Fox is actually “fair and balanced,” and the liberal-scapegoat-of-the-day is evidence that the rest of the media is left-wing.

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