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MSNBC public editor: Glib certainties give way to queasiness

November 4, 2020

MSNBC’s Election Day spectacle was exactly what one expected at first, with giggling extra-coiffed stars fawning over one another. But the familiar scene soon began to darken, giving rise to an indescribably creepy sensation of déjà vu as the day wore on.

What had begun as cheerily confident talking-head banter, fueled by Biden’s commanding polling leads, gave way to queasiness and dread. Rosy dreams of an early landslide, of expanding the Democratic advantage in the House and of retaking the Senate—of sleeping—evaporated in favor of a long, painful tally that, though it could end in a Biden presidency, flew in the face of weeks of MSNBC’s glib votesplaining.

Then, at 2:30am, the former television personality who somehow became the president of the United States got in front of the cameras and ranted and raved to a soul-racked nation that he’d already won the election, and demanded that the counting of votes must stop (except in Arizona, where Biden was ahead).

Brian Williams cut in to the speech to point out that no, this was a lie, the election was still ongoing, that nobody had won it yet; but the damage was already done, and on so many levels. MSNBC’s hosts have been careful to point out that Trump’s many threats to claim election fraud and mount court challenges were dangerous, unlawful, and/or untrue. But still the overall tone of their coverage retained a tang of the same breezy, Lincoln Project–style contempt that doomed Hillary “Deplorables” Clinton in 2016.

Nicolle Wallace, Joy Reid, and Rachel Maddow love tittering at Trump’s vulgarity. But by trivializing and mocking him they have enlightened no one; instead of taking his demagoguery with the requisite seriousness, they’ve given a rich supply of oxygen to his supporters’ sense of victimization.

Possibly the most painful irony is that Wallace was actively involved in the 2000 recount that ended in George W. Bush’s theft of the presidency from Al Gore, through a bogus Supreme Court decision that involved suspending the counting of votes. I can’t help wondering what she thought on hearing Trump openly announce an intention to try the same himself. Even more, I wonder what she thought of the news that 93 percent of registered Republicans voted for Trump in this election, rather than the mere 90 percent who voted for him last time. Such is the influence of Never Trumpers like her on the conscience of their peers.

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Perhaps most significantly, Facebook seems to have broken its own rules on limiting political coverage: a secret tsunami of alternative facts whose potential effects on voters were consistently ignored or underplayed by corporate media outlets like MSNBC.

Watching the shipwreck of MSNBC’s election coverage, it’s become increasingly clear that traditional news media and cable news in particular are utterly unequal to the challenge presented by a digital information landscape whose complexity and power have completely swamped their ability to produce meaningful, accurate analysis. It’s time for viewers, for citizens, to demand a complete revamping of this broken system.

Maria Bustillos is the founding editor of Popula, an alternative news and culture magazine. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The New Yorker, Harper’s, and The Guardian.