CHARLOTTE, N.C.—They came, they were adored, they conquered.
No, not the president, his family or the numerous actors and political heirs who spoke glowingly of Barack Obama during the Democratic National Convention. I’m talking about the media—and especially MSNBC, whose presence and influence in Charlotte were nearly as grand as the president’s.
No one pretends anymore that MSNBC is an objective observer to the news. Obviously, the decision was made to be aggressively progressive. With the exception of “Morning Joe,” where Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski co-host a roundtable of commentators, politicos and actors who dispense praise and criticism equally to Democrats and Republicans, the cable network’s other political shows are unapologetically pro-Democratic, pro-Obama.
Thus, the powers that be correctly imagined themselves as co-players at the Democratic convention. A section of downtown Charlotte was reinvented as MSNBC Plaza, which included an open-air studio, a cafe, a lounge and the “MSNBC Experience,” for which fans stood in long lines to enter, cheering as their favorite stars appeared. A looming tower above the outdoor stage featured huge headshots of the well-known anchors. The president’s visage on T-shirts here and there was a mere comma to the anchor’s exclamation points.
But that’s show biz! MSNBC’s charming and self-aware Willie Geist compared the bling, tchotchkes and network-branded paraphernalia to North Korean propaganda. I happened to be in the MSNBC Plaza during a daytime concert when the lead singer announced, “Chris Matthews is in the hall, Chris Matthews!” All I could think was, good thing Obama didn’t show up at the same time. He might have been ignored. Matthews gamely pushed through the admiring throng, smiling and trying his best to reach the door and refuge of his workspace. Brzezinski told The New York Times she was accosted by a fan in the restroom who insisted on a photo and spoke to her even when she was no longer in the common area.
In fairness to the anchors, most are reluctant participants in this strange pas de deux. With fame comes a certain responsibility to engage fans, though this is an uncomfortable role for those who first consider themselves journalists. Exceptions to this rule would include people such as Al Sharpton, who were never journalists but now get to play one on TV while advancing their personal political agendas and, conveniently, that of the Democratic president and party.
That television personalities are also celebrities is, alas, unavoidable. We naturally feel a bond with people who are in our kitchens and living rooms every day. Producers count on this connection. What is not counted on by casual consumers is the merging of a television personality’s politics and the viewer’s understanding of the world.
The blending of news and opinion isn’t new, but activism posing as journalism is a cancer on the body politic. While some viewers may be savvy enough to understand the difference and choose their medicine accordingly, many are not.
Perhaps the answer is a more honest approach and greater transparency. Surrendering pretentions to objectivity, news organizations (including Fox) can declare their political objectives and make the best case. In a sense, this is what Rachel Maddow does with her nightly monologues. She builds a case for her point of view. As such, she is essentially a televised opinion columnist.
Just to be clear, opinion columnists are supposed to be opinionated. It’s what they’re paid to do. But this arrangement is understood between writer and reader. Thus, transparency is the critical ingredient, sometimes missing in our “Hollywood Squares” approach to discourse, in which all participants are presented as equal players. Rarely is this the case.
What was clear in Charlotte is that Democrats attending their convention consider MSNBC to be their ally and mouthpiece. The network’s presence wasn’t nearly so prominent or ubiquitous in Tampa during the Republican convention. As one Charlotte fan quoted in the Times put it, “I feel they are part of this convention. They are in tune with the people here.”
You could say that.
The opinion-as-news contagion is not yet complete. Some television news organizations still make an attempt to be balanced. But the larger observation remains: TV journalists risk becoming the event themselves rather than the events they cover. And news consumers are increasingly less likely to get the impartial information they need to make smart decisions.
No longer do we get what we pay for, as the adage goes. We get what the activists want—and we all pay for it.
Parker’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
(c) 2012, Washington Post Writers Group.