MSNBC public editor: covering a post-policy world

Virginia Sherwood/NBCUniversal via Getty Images

Over time, habitual viewers of MSNBC grow familiar with the network’s personalities and worldview. That makes it all the more shocking when something entirely unexpected happens—as it did last week, when Rachel Maddow confronted the paradox at the network’s heart by suggesting that the Republican Party is “not about governing anymore.”

The occasion was Maddow’s comment on a new book, The Impostors, written by Steve Benen, her producer and friend. In response to the book, she posed a series of questions:

What if the Republican Party—in the years before Donald Trump became president—what if the Republican Party is a post-policy party? What if they’re not about governing anymore? What if their only skill, and their only aim now, is getting, holding, expanding, and strengthening their grip on power?

The whole political edifice of the United States rests on the premise that both sides are operating in good faith, and MSNBC—whose anchors represent a broad spectrum of political leanings—reflects this conventional understanding.

MSNBC’s programming is based on “diversity of opinion,” presenting many conflicting viewpoints, and the foundational idea that bipartisanship is both desirable and possible, as reflected in the jolly atmosphere in which the various presenters vie with one another. But journalistic ethics also require that the network’s anchors, reporters, and analysts tell the plain truth as they understand it. If, as Maddow observed last week, one party’s sole aim really is to arrogate all power to itself, and to annihilate the other, by fair means or foul, surely that is the end of comfortable collegiality.

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According to the MSNBC worldview, it’s Trump, not the Republicans, who are to blame for the degradation of American culture and politics over the past four years. Republican, or formerly Republican, anchors on the network, such as Joe Scarborough and Nicolle Wallace, make a great show of getting all horrified about Trump every day, in panel discussions full of laughter and gibing over the president’s illiteracy and gaffes. These panels indulge in a lot of theater, light on policy and heavy on quipping, as exemplified by Wallace retweeting a Sarah Cooper impression of Trump with the comment: “Epic.” These same anchors rooted consistently for Joe Biden—celebrating his love of “bipartisanship” and his self-described, if questionable, ability to work with Republicans—throughout the Democratic primary.

There has been censure of the GOP on the network, sure, during every scandal from the inauguration crowd size to the impeachment hearings to the firing of Geoffrey Berman, but there’s also been this absurd notion we’ve heard for years, that you know, hey, Senator Murkowski is upset! Susan Collins: concerned!

The ideological basis of this programming strategy was set by recently departed NBC chairman Andy Lack, who pushed the network well to the right during his tenure, demanding “voices…that aren’t predictably toeing the Democratic line, so that there’s more interplay and back-and-forth and diversity of perspective.”

All this presumes there ever was a rational, levelheaded Republican past that Trump betrayed—a past that “never Trump” Republicans might one day restore. But Benen’s book is correct in pointing out that Republicans started the ball of corruption rolling decades ago. You could go back to Nixon, but Benen begins his argument by citing John DiIulio, a University of Pennsylvania political scientist who was horrified at the working atmosphere he found in the George W. Bush White House.

“There is no precedent in any modern White House,” DiIulio said, “for what is going on in this one: a complete lack of policy apparatus.… What you’ve got is everything, and I mean everything, being run by the political arm. It’s the reign of the Mayberry Machiavellis”—staff, he explained, who sought to reduce every issue to “black-and-white terms for public consumption,” then steer policy and legislation as far to the right as they could.

It should escape no MSNBC viewer that the communications director for the George W. Bush White House was Nicolle Wallace, who is still shaping public opinion, and in much the same way, but from New York these days instead of Washington.

I’d argue that the Republicans’ gloves came all the way off during Bush v. Gore, a case in which, in an alleged democracy, one party went to court to ensure that citizens’ votes would not be counted. But one rarely hears this mentioned a scant twenty years later, particularly not in the chummy wrestling rings of MSNBC.

Until we take full account of all that led up to the Trump Administration, we’ll just be watching a never-ending charade, where facts don’t matter and government and media alike are reduced to a theater of the absurd.

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