Crossing the Line
January 2009

by Ron Steinman

Does anyone who listens to or who watches television know the difference between news and the faux shows that dominate prime time for MSNBC? Does anyone care but me? The simple answer is, probably not. This is not a good sign for the health of the republic. I know that sounds portentous but the presentation of news is more important than ever and to have MSNBC do what it does five nights a week and pass off its programs as news makes a mockery of what news should be. Simply put, MSNBC has violated my trust in news programming, especially given that its parent is NBC News.

I confess that I watched "Hardball with Chris Matthews," "Countdown with Keith Olbermann" and "The Rachel Maddow Show" during the primaries and the election. But I dipped in and out and rarely stayed for the full hour of each broadcast. I watched other channels as well, but mostly stayed with MSNBC and CNN, rather than FOX, a network with other problems that are not now up for discussion. For the sake of this review, I made it my business to watch several blocks of those three anchors to get a better sense of the work they do. Yes, David Gregory was in the mix when I did my final research, but despite his elevation to "Meet the Press," what he does and did doesn't have nearly the impact of his fellow anchors.

Viewing three hours of TV, whatever the subject, without a break is a mighty chore under any circumstances. The often-over-the-top approach to news on MSNBC during prime time is akin to wandering into quicksand and drowning under the weight of burlesque-style, childish humor. It is as if MSNBC is a runaway blog with personal opinion postings every 10 seconds. Witnessing a manic and often very funny Keith Olbermann throwing his script around the studio, or Chris Matthews out-talking everyone he interviews is not easy. Rachel Maddow, however, is a breath of fresh air compared to those two testosterone-driven gentlemen who precede her. She uses a rapier rather than a broadsword and she makes her points with often-arch humor. Yet, neither she nor her show is immune to the question, where is the news and how does one separate it from opinion, and more opinion, the currency in which all three of those anchors deal in their allotted hours?

Because an anchor, or host, interviews journalists, some who are prominent and others not, does not mean that slot on the air is a news show. Newsmakers, always all too willing for face time on TV, do not make a broadcast a news hour. In the case of MSNBC, a journalist guest and a newsmaker add only opinion. If you want the facts, you have to go elsewhere. Preferably, that will be online to a credible Web site, such as BBC News, The New York Times, Google News, Yahoo, or any site one thinks is best for his or her needs.

Note that these MSNBC personalities are all liberal in outlook. I have no problem with that, and the growing audience at MSNBC, at least during the lengthy campaign, accepted what each person did on the air; otherwise, the managers would not have allowed these anchors the freedom they had and still have.

Chris Matthews is the kid in the front row of his class, his hand always raised before the teacher poses the question and his answers always have more information than anyone cares to know. Matthews is a monologist at heart who almost never gives those he questions a chance to answer. It is a wonder anyone is willing to appear on his show. But they do. Again, one's frequent appearance on TV seems to be more important than the quality of what they say.

Keith Olbermann at least allows his guests to answer how they want, usually because they are willing to say what Keith wants to hear. Olbermann's mindset is clear from the direction of his interviews because his long questions, far too long and boringly delivered, I might add, are loaded with the answer to his question. Talk about softballs. Then, again, most every guest he has is on-camera because he knows how he or she will respond to his over-the-top or weak witticisms. As with any comedian, not everything works all of the time.

More than anyone on TV, Keith Olbermann reminds me of Stephen Colbert and "The Colbert Report," but not in a good way. Both men are manic. One is very funny, the other, not so funny all the time. One is a true comic. The other is not. Your make the choice. If there is a copycat around it is Olbermann of Colbert, down to the attitude, the rapid-fire delivery, the sometime madness, feigned or real, and even the segment on Colbert that reminds me of Olbermann's "Countdown "and his "Worst Person" of the day or week or month, whatever. Does Olbermann realize this or am I being too analytical?

It is hard to say anything too critical about Rachel Maddow. Her show is almost a duplicate of Keith Olbermann's. However, the show does not have the manic standup comic restlessness of Olbermann. Maddow and her producers seem too together to copy Olbermann in everything, though we will never know how much comes from the executive suite and how much from Maddow. Listen closely, and you will see and hear how her clever remarks and good timing, along with her facial expressions, leave no doubt how she feels and where she is heading, whether in a set piece or during an interview. We might say about Rachel, that she is Keith without the histrionics. She is low-key, clever, intelligent and usually effective.

It comes down to this -- if you want news on cable in prime time, go to CNN or CNN's "Headline News," or, even, if you are so inclined, to Fox News. Do not expect to see much of a breaking story on MSNBC, except maybe on the bottom line. Despite the heavy and, generally, good coverage it presented during the recent campaign for president, I can no longer think of MSNBC at night as a broadcaster of news. MSNBC now spends its many minutes, and yours too if you are a viewer, having crossed the line from news to, if I can coin a word, "newstainment." That is a position on the air where entertainment and, thus, ratings are more important than the presentation of facts that allow the audience some freedom to make up its own mind.

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© Ron Steinman

Ron Steinman, Executive Editor of The Digital Journalist, is an
award-winning producer of television news and documentaries. He was NBC's
bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He is also an author and
freelance documentarian through his company, Douglas/Steinman Productions.
Read Ron Steinman's Notebooks at Ron Steinman's