Cable news organizations, if they wished, could take steps to cool the boiling antipathy between Republicans and Democrats in the US that has come to be known as “political polarization.” Just leave the rage aside, and focus instead on broadcasting information that would be beneficial for their viewers to know. But MSNBC doesn’t appear to be as interested in fulfilling its responsibility to the public as it is in stoking outrage.
With Joy Ann Reid’s recent harangue against Fox superstar Tucker Carlson, the network sank all the way down to the level of Fox News. The segment was prompted by Carlson’s nickname for Reid, “Harvard-educated Race Lady,” which he’d repeated on air several times in the days previous; it’s as appalling as the rest of his racist show, and I share Reid’s disgust. But MSNBC shouldn’t be compounding Fox’s attacks, gross as they are, by subjecting viewers to a full four and a half minutes of Reid sneering about SAT scores and who went to what school, “fish sticks for everybody!” (a reference to Carlson’s family connection to the Swanson frozen-food fortune), and coining her own nickname for Carlson: “Tuckums.” The segment was an embarrassment, starting with the obvious: repeating a racist’s remarks on TV is not the way to answer a racist.
This fracas was not a meaningful conversation about race in America. It was the spectacle of two self-regarding “TV personalities” and two cable news networks, all hoping for an opportunity to get people riled up at a concocted cage match. That kind of thing works, somewhat, as a means of getting attention, and attention is the real currency in which Fox and MSNBC, both ad-based media organizations, really trade. For days, Twitter searches on the words “MSNBC Reid” returned dozens of comments on the “Tuckums” episode, to the exclusion of pretty much anything else.
A call for accountability from Carlson and from Fox could have been taken care of in twenty seconds; Reid could simply have asked for an apology from Carlson, and from Fox, on air, and that would have been altogether appropriate. Instead, as it does consistently, MSNBC chose to fan the tabloid flames with cringe-making “owns” in the place of news. Deprived of Donald Trump, its chief source of ratings-juicing indignation over the past five years, the network reels from Republican bad guy to Republican bad guy: Rachel Maddow against Bill Barr, Lawrence O’Donnell against Bernard Kerik and Rudy Giuliani, Joy Reid against Tucker Carlson. The personalities wheeze past, they are ridiculed and denounced, and every day, new ones appear.
Reid played right into Fox’s hands, allowing Carlson, in effect, to hijack her show. It is not a stretch to say that MSNBC’s advertisers paid for Carlson’s message to be broadcast even farther than it had been on Fox.
Meanwhile, those four and a half minutes could have been spent telling us about the vaccine patent waivers, the effect of the Gates divorce on global philanthropy, new medical advances, geopolitics; the fate of DC statehood, school reopenings, whether it’s safe to visit grandparents yet. Tell me about the situation in India, tell me where I can send money to help. Tell me about the coming chances of student loan forgiveness. For god’s sake, tell me about Boris Johnson’s remodeling bill, or whether Biden’s dog has bitten anybody lately.
In September it will be ten years since I attended Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Fear and/or Sanity. Here’s what Stewart said at the end of that unsettlingly weird event:
[T]he image of Americans that is reflected back to us by our political and media process is false. It is us through a funhouse mirror, and not the good kind that makes you slim and taller — but the kind where you have a giant forehead and an ass like a pumpkin and one eyeball.… Why would you work with Marxists actively subverting our Constitution, or racists and homophobes who see no one’s humanity but their own?
We are no closer to answering these questions. No broadcast outlet has succeeded in turning the ship of partisan outrage around, because large media corporations like MSNBC do not base their programming decisions on anything but ratings, not even after January 6, because outrage means more audience, which means more ad sales.
So it’s safe to assume that people hoping to learn what is going on via MSNBC will continue to be disappointed—unless they’re looking to hear some epic owns.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.