Commentary Magazine


Can MSNBC Clean Up Its Act?

The low level of political discourse is a favorite topic for pundits who want to trash our political class. That is especially true on the left, which has often taken the position that conservatives and Tea Partiers are most to blame for coarsening political discussions and demonizing President Obama and liberals. But as anyone who regularly monitors the cable news channels knows, it’s easy to see that this assumption is largely a fiction. MSNBC, which has become the avowed home of leftism on television, has become notorious for having hosts like Chris Matthews and Al Sharpton who regularly plumb the depths with the sort of invective that would embarrass even most gutter politicians. But last Friday, Martin Bashir topped them with a scripted rant that was extreme even for him.

Reacting to a comment by Sarah Palin about the mounting national debt sentencing future American generations to the moral equivalent of “slavery,” Bashir went off the deep end. An argument can be made that slavery is, like the Holocaust, something that should not be treated as a political metaphor but rather a unique crime to which nothing—other than actual enslavement—should be compared. But Bashir wasn’t satisfied with merely reproving Palin or calling her a “dunce,” which he has done before. Instead, he dug up a historical text about the way slaves were treated in the 18th century and said Palin should be subjected to the same atrocity: to be defecated upon and to have someone urinate into her mouth.

Not surprisingly, Bashir’s crude threat did not set off much of a media firestorm. That is due, at least in part, to the low ratings of his show, but also to the notion that Palin is the sort of person about whom one can say virtually anything with impunity. But the protests that did come in forced Bashir to apologize yesterday on his program. As apologies go, it was quite satisfactory. Rather than the usual weasel words about being sorry that someone was offended, Bashir acknowledged not only that he was wrong but also that he was guilty of contributing to all that was wrong about our political system. Fair enough, but what we’re still waiting for is an apology from his network.

As both Mediate’s Joe Concha and Fox News’ Howard Kurtz have written, imagine what would ensue if either Neil Cavuto or Jake Tapper—Bashir’s time slot competition on Fox and CNN—had suggested that Hillary Clinton should be treated in this matter. It’s also hard to believe either would have kept their job or avoided a long suspension. Moreover, any other network would have thought they had no choice but to apologize abjectly regardless of the mea culpa offered by the person who said the words. This is not a minor point because Bashir’s attack on Palin was not an offhand remark but a prepared monologue read off a teleprompter that had to have been viewed by a producer.

So rather than merely a minor kerfuffle, Bashir’s offensive behavior illustrates that there is a double standard by which liberal pundits and networks believe they can be judged.

Oddly enough, as Kurtz pointed out, actor Alec Baldwin has been suspended by MSNBC for his latest public antics in which he uttered a gay slur at a reporter. But if you slime a conservative like Sarah Palin you don’t lose a day of work even if you use language that marks a historic low for political attacks. It should be remembered that not everyone who works at MSNBC is a guttersnipe like Sharpton, Matthews, or Bashir. No matter what their politics might be, those who still hold to some standard of integrity there must be wondering exactly what has happened to their profession? Although we would hope to never hear another MSNBC rant about conservatives’ lack of civility. But even after Bashir’s apology, you know we will.

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