How MSNBC Went From Monicagate to Russiagate – Matt Taibbi

An excerpt from Matt Taibbi’s new book, Hate, Inc.

People forget that MSNBC, before it found its current niche as an anti-Trump network, was just a conventionally crappy news organization.

In his new book Hate Inc., Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi critiques a corporate press which has achieved higher ratings and profits via nonstop promotion of illusory Russiagate conspiracies, at the expense of innumerable other issues of importance. Recently ousted CBS News chief Les Moonves unintentionally alerted us to the dangers of for-profit media in our hyper-polarized media environment during the campaign, with now infamous and candid comments on Trump’s candidacy at the Morgan Stanley Technology, Media & Telecom Conference in San Francisco, on February 29, 2016:

Graph courtesy FAIR

“Man, who would have expected the ride we’re all having right now? … The money’s rolling in and this is fun,” he said.

“I’ve never seen anything like this, and this going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going,” said Moonves.

“Donald’s place in this election is a good thing.”

Read on as Taibbi shines a light on the inherent danger of relying upon the for-profit corporate press for your news. – RR


How MSNBC Went From Monicagate to Russiagate

by Matt Taibbi.

People forget that MSNBC, before it found its current niche as an anti-Trump network, was just a conventionally crappy news organization.

Launched in July of 1996, it had just a few hundred thousand households tuning in heading into 1998. Then they made a decision to become, as former NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard put it, the “first all-Monica, all the time network.”

Keith Olbermann, then host of “The Big Show,” began running a nightly segment, “The White House in Crisis,” which spun Lewinsky stories virtually every night.

Another MSNBC show, Hardball with Chris Matthews, extended its breathless format and began rebroadcasting at 11:00 p.m. during the Lewinsky period. All its top-rated shows were about the Clinton scandal.

Olbermann’s audience grew 148 percent in 1998. Hardball went from 252,000 households in 1997 to 559,000. Most conventional media did the same. The AP ran a whopping 4,109 stories on Monicagate in its first year of coverage, and had 25 reporters on the story full time.

The top three networks devoted 1,931 minutes to the subject in 1998, more than the next seven subjects combined (and much more than a 1998 story that would have major implications for a later economic collapse, the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act).

As they are now, talk shows were full of speculation that the president would imminently leave office. “I think [Clinton’s] Presidency is numbered in days,” said Sam Donaldson on ABC in the fateful last week of January, 1998.

This was pure manipulation: creating expectations in emotionally vulnerable audiences, holding out the possibility of imminent huge news, which guaranteed people would keep checking not just daily, but by the hour, the minute.

Fox did all of this and then went a step further. It milked the Lewinsky story through unapologetic cheerleading for the demise of Clinton. Unlike other outlets, which merely sought to cash in on sensation, Fox openly villainized Bill and trashed all the characters in the story. They even ran a poll asking if Monica Lewinsky was just an “average girl” or a “young tramp looking for thrills.”

Openly taking sides gave Fox a consumer advantage. For certain viewers, it was more like a pep rally than journalism. No matter what happened, Fox was always going to have a predictable take, one it was unembarrassed by. Meanwhile, Keith Olbermann was leaving MSNBC and moving back to sports, later claiming his “White House in Crisis” work gave him “dry heaves”.

The new model was what author Deborah Tannen called “two side fighting.” In the Lewinsky affair, outlets began either being for or against the Clintons, and you knew what you were getting before you tuned in.

Not long after Monicagate, Fox assumed the top spot and stayed there for fifteen years, making $2.3 billion in profits in 2016 alone.

I’ve run into trouble with friends for suggesting Fox is not a pack of lies. Sure, the network has an iffy relationship with the truth, but most of its content is factually correct. It’s just highly, highly selective – and predictable – about which facts it chooses to present.

For instance, the same Fox that spent years going ape over would-be perjury, obstruction of justice, and extramarital sex in the Starr investigation is suddenly dead silent about a somewhat similar narrative involving Donald Trump paying off porn stars. People don’t tune in to Fox to hear bad news about their team.

Sadly, this is now the same business model of most every news outlet.

MSNBC for instance has run a number of interviews with Watergate hero Bob Woodward since he released a book this year on the Trump administration called Fear.

In the most recent appearance, Woodward repeated a common trope in anti-Trump media, one borrowed from the Lewinsky era, i.e. that the “investigative walls are closing in.” The walls involved the felony campaign finance charge admitted to by Trump lawyer Michael Cohen.

But MSNBC has never asked Woodward about his pronouncement – which to date has only come in an interview with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt – that in two years of research for Fear, he found no evidence of collusion with Russia, an almost constant coverage focus of the network.

“I did not [find espionage or collusion],” Woodward said to Hewitt. “Of course, I looked for it, looked for it hard.”

This quote has not even appeared in Woodward’s own Washington Post. It’s been left to The New York Post, Real Clear Politics, and The Daily Caller to report on the comments of someone else’s journalist. In the exact inverse of Fox, people do not tune in to MSNBC to hear anything that could be construed as good news for the other team.

Similarly, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Greg Miller went looking for evidence that Cohen had been in Prague for a secret meeting with Russians, as is popular Russiagate theory. “We sent reporters through every hotel in Prague,” Miller said, explaining that weeks and months of searching were conducted.

But when, in all that, he found no evidence of a Cohen visit, that news didn’t make it into either his own book on the subject, or into the pages of his employer, the Washington Post. He only mentioned his findings on CSPAN. Once again, it was left to the Daily Caller to do someone else’s story.

I point this out not to make a point about Russiagate – I’m content at this point to wait until the investigations are done to worry about this maddening affair – but to talk about the structure of media, especially in the Trump era.

Before the Russia story was even on the popular radar, I predicted the press would soon be divided in a way that left media audiences permanently sheltered from any narratives their “side” might find troublesome.

We’ve safe-spaced the news! If you’re a consumer of one media brand, the polls will tell you Trump is trending up: he’s five points ahead at the beginning of 2018. Pick another brand and you’ll learn only 38 percent of Americans plan to vote for him. You can tell yourself any story you want about the future.

Choose one brand and you’ll read that this is the “beginning of the end” of the Trump Presidency; pick another and you’ll read there are basically no legal avenues for removing Trump prematurely that don’t involve a Republican Senate’s unexpected cooperation.

I work in this business and don’t know whom to trust. The situation recalls the landscape of third world countries, where the truth has to be pieced together from disparate bits reported by outlets loyal to different factions.

Our situation isn’t about politics so much as money, however. Companies are nurturing emotional dependencies for cash. The key is always reporting negatively about the other audience, but never about your own. They’re bad = you’re good, and endlessly spinning in that cycle creates hardened, loyal, dependent followers.

A 2016 Pew survey found remarkably similar numbers of Democrats and Republicans – 58% of the former, 57% of the latter – said members of the opposing party made them “frustrated.” The survey showed 52% of Republicans believed Democrats were “closed-minded,” while 70% of Democrats felt that way about Republicans.

We’re not encouraging people to break these patterns. If anything, we’re addicting people to conflict, vitriol, and feelings of superiority. It works. Companies know: fear and mistrust are even harder habits to break than smoking.

This is an excerpt from the latest installment of Hate Inc.: How, and Why, The Press Makes Us Hate One Another. To receive every chapter as it’s published, as well as full access to the already-published The Business Secrets of Drug Dealing, subscribe now for $5 a month or $40 a year.

You can support Taibbi’s work by donating here.

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