This piece of news from the US caught my eye today. It seems that Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews, two of cable news network MSNBC's most popular personalities, have been demoted after the McCain campaign complained of a "liberal bias" in their coverage of the Democratic and Republican national conventions. For those in Europe who often find themselves perplexed by US broadcast media, this is probably an excellent lesson for understanding it.
There's been speculation over the past two years that MSNBC, which consistently ranks third among the cable news networks (behind Fox News and CNN) and has had trouble finding its voice since its inception, is going to veer to the left to try to become the "Fox News of the left." Fox News, which was launched in the late 90's promising to deliver news free of "liberal bias," is reviled by the left for its strongly conservative slant. All of Fox News' main personalities are right-wing, and its news coverage is often blatantly (and hillariously - as often featured on the Daily Show) enamoured with the Bush Administration and the Republican party. Tapping into the widely held American belief that there is a "liberal bias" in the US media, the network has been remarkably sucessful and consistently ranks above CNN.
So the thought was, MSNBC might try to emulate that success by becoming a network that favors the democrats. They began featuring Olbermann, who is a frequent critic of the Bush Administration and the GOP, more and more prominently. And Chris Matthews, who has been with the network since the begining, has been increasingly critical of the Bush Administration.
So when Olberman and Matthews served as anchors (presenters) for both of the political party's conventions, they gave a fair bit of commentary along with it. After a video invoking 9/11 was shown at the Republican convention, Olbermann called it a manipulative political ploy. After the McCain campaign complained, NBC said Olberman and Matthews would no longer be used as anchors for election coverage.
Former Republican representative and current MSNBC host Joe Scarbourough, who is the network's most well-known conservative commentator, was also heavy on expressing opinions during the conventions, most notably in this rant he went on yelling at a Democratic guest during a live interview during the Democratic convention. Yet Scarborough will continue to anchor election coverage.
Those outside the US might be perplexed by this seeming double standard. Why would MSNBC be so sensitive to accusations of liberal bias among its election anchors while Fox News uses anchors for its election coverage that are far more incendiary and opinionated on air? Why would the network dump two newsmen with perceived liberal viewpoints who had engaged in questionable behavior on air and not dump the conservative host who engaged in the same behavior?
The answer has everything to do with the huge success conservatives have had in spreading the idea of the "liberal media" in the US. The Republican party has complained about media bias against them since the 1970's, but it was only in the late 1980's, with the rise of NeoConservatives, that the idea became repeated so much in political discourse that the majority of the US population came to view it as an accepted fact. Since then, the US media (particularly broadcast media) has become hypersensitive to accusations of liberal bias, and has tried to compensate with a push to the right, particularly as it was forced to chase the ratings success of Fox News. In turn, Fox News owes its entire success to the fact that by the late 90's, the idea of the liberal media had become so entrenched that that network could plausibly pass off a news station with an obvious conservative agenda as 'fair and balanced.' Their argument is: if you perceive the network as biased, it's only because you're used to the rest of the US media, which is 'rabidly leftist.'
In this climate it remains difficult for US cable news networks to put left-leaning commentators on the air. And that is why US broadcast media is so skewed to the right; they are constantly on the defensive against this pervasive idea of the 'liberal media.' Thus, Olbermann and Matthews are resrained, and Scarborough, O'Reilly and Hannity are allowed free reign.
In an ideal world the US broadcast media would be more like that of the UK, where broadcast journalists are equally tough on everyone who comes across their desk (and I mean tought! I've never seen anything like it on US TV). But American broadcast media has a long way to go to that point. For now, like the country it serves, it remains fundamentally skewed to the right; friendly to the GOP, tough on Democrats.