As always, the opinions in this blog are strictly my own.
Any discussion of how MSNBC let Hillary Clinton down has to start with Joe Scarborough, of course. Before the station made its recent, concerted shift to the center, he was MSNBC’s token Republican, so perhaps it stands to reason that he would support Trump. His co-host Mika Brzezinski, however, was the real disappointment. There was a time when she was a reliably left-leaning, even feminist, foil to Scarborough’s smug, jokey, right wing bonhomie. But something happened in the last year, fueled by her inexplicable hatred toward Hillary Clinton and her starry-eyed adoration of her cohost—she joined Joe in normalizing the greatest threat our country has seen in my lifetime.
This was the most horrifying aspect of Morning Joe. Both Mika and Joe have socialized with Trump and consider him a friend. They believe that the charming (allegedly) man they’ve shmoozed with at cocktail parties is the real Trump, not the bloviating, rage-filled fascist we saw on the stump. In fact, with the smirking cynicism that is their hallmark, they made fun of the people who saw Trump as a global threat. In the primaries, they gloated, because they had pegged him as a serious contender from the start. (This is true.) So instead of being horrified by the fact that this Cheeto-faced con artist could win the presidency, they did a victory lap. Around that time, a rumor began circulating that Joe was a potential Trump VP candidate. His credibility as a “journalist” in jeopardy, Joe got sober for a few weeks, even penning an editorial in the Washington Post calling for Trump to step down. But once he saved face, he went back to laughing over all the “liberal elites” who were wetting their pants over a potential Trump presidency. Meanwhile, the sycophants around the table mostly got in line—taking for granted Mika and Joe’s characterization of Clinton as grim, uninspiring, and corrupt to the bone, and reveling in how wrong the media had been about their boy Trump.
But the lightweights on Morning Joe weren’t the only MSNBC personalities that let Hillary down. The general trajectory of the station went like this. In the primaries, the story was all about Bernie and his youthful revolution, with all Hillary conversation focused on her apparent deficiencies: Why don’t young people like her? Why isn’t she more inspiring? What is she so unlikable? Why can’t she reduce her message to soundbites the way Bernie can?
If you watched the primaries through the lens of MSNBC, you’d be pretty convinced that Bernie was winning. Rarely was it mentioned that she had a substantial lead and, what’s more, there was a bad faith assumption that what support she had was unenthusiastic. There was never an attempt to find her supporters, and ask why many had retreated to the sidelines. (I tackled that a bit here.)
In the general election, the myriad Trump outrages were covered, but Trump surrogates were always brought in to defend their candidate, which generally meant leaning heavily on hyperbolic, anti-Clinton talking points. With a few notable exceptions, their outrageous, mean-spirited claims were rarely challenged. What’s more, the email scandal was never put in context—namely that it grew out of the protracted and partisan Benghazi hearings which were a known GOP witchhunt (and of which she was, again, found to have done no wrong) and that Colin Powell, himself, also used a private email account. (The “private server” sounded nefarious—and was always treated as such—but if you looked closer, you’d see that it had been set up by Bill Clinton years earlier and just happened to be where the Clintons conducted their personal business.)
One of the worst MSNBC offenders was Andrea Mitchell, who relentlessly grilled Hillary about her emails and seriously engaged with absurd conspiracy theories about Clinton’s health. Other offenders included Chris Matthews, who was nominally pro-Hillary during the general election, but couldn’t quite conceal his glee over Trump’s larger than life personality and populist tendencies. Other Hillary foes on MSNBC included Mark Halperin, a known Trump lackey, and Meet the Press‘s Chuck Todd, who routinely salivated all over Trump campaign director Kellyanne Conway. (“Don’t forget to enjoy the moment,” he sweet-talked her the night before the election, after congratulating her on a what a great job she had done.)
The redoubtable Chris Hayes was certainly anti-Trump, but never fully pro-Hillary. (He was a Bernie guy.) Rachel Maddow was a little better on that front, but never as enthusiastic as I might have hoped. Only Joy Reid and Lawrence O’Donnell were committed, enthusiastic Hillary truth-tellers. (I won’t say supporters, they just saw her without the cynicism and entrenched negative bias of their colleagues.) Joy Reid, in particular, was the only MSNBC host who could take on the unfair and transparent tactics of Trump surrogates with facts and the appropriate amount of disgust.
The truth is, Hillary was at a disadvantage across all cable news, even without the help of biased hosts. Her surrogates tended to be reasonable people, who answered direct questions, stuck to the facts, and played by the rules. As I said, his surrogates tended to be blowhards and liars, who never answered direct questions and pivoted to anti-Hillary talking points. (Famously, although not on MSNBC, one of Trump’s supporters brandished a pair of handcuffs mid-interview to demonstrate how Hillary should be behind bars.)
There’s a lot of blame to go around for Hillary’s loss on Tuesday, but I look squarely at the so-called liberal station (it’s really not anymore), which parroted right-wing conspiracy theories about Clinton, gave much airtime to Trump’s merry band of bullies and liars, and started with a baseline characterization of the Democratic nominee as corrupt and uninspiring. How terribly, terribly sad.