Cable news note: outing MSNBC (plus, where's Quakertown and Israel)
Updated: Jun 19, 2021
Here are a few thoughts this week about MSNBC and CNN. If you want to read about the irony of MSNBC or the best time to watch CNN (it's either overnight or overseas), keep going. If you want to read about Fox News, you may stop now. (In other words, I'm focusing on the outlets most others aren't, the ones which at least appear to play by the rules.) Unfortunately, as usual, my criticism is rooted in the financial structure of the cable news industry which continues to fail its employees and audiences -- and will continue to fail everyone until those structural flaws are addressed.
First, the enduring irony of MSNBC
Thursday, I was excited to read how MSNBC is forming a union. Last month, I wrote for CJR why CNN and MSNBC should organize. Based on my experience in public radio which was almost all union and MSNBC which hasn't been until now, I believe it would improve work conditions as well as editorial content. And then, the cable network exposed itself for what it really is: a corporate dinosaur with short-sighted business priorities. MSNBC President Rashida Jones issued a statement saying that MSNBC won’t recognize the union unless employees vote for it in a National Labor Relations Board-supervised secret ballot election.
“I believe our employees should be able to make such an important decision through a standard election process,” Jones wrote.
In response to Jones’s call for an election, the union said MSNBC should "follow its own progressive principles." Invoking the network's own motto, the union also tweeted, "We are standing up for each other and our work – because this is who we are." (Emphasis mine.)
There are a couple of points to make here. It does not surprise me that the network, which otherwise purports to support progressive issues, is not willing to walk the walk. I've witnessed too many decisions over the years when they put their pocketbook first above their stated morals. It's disappointing until you fully understand how the industry works, then you know that's just how they work. It's their job and it's how they keep their jobs.
The second point is equally important. Matt Zemek reacted to the news, retweeting me with the comment, "A reminder that having minorities and women in positions of leadership is not what truly matters. Having minorities and women with good policies which promote human flourishing in positions of leadership is what truly matters." He's referring to Rashida Jones, the African American woman who recently took leadership of MSNBC from Phil Griffin.
I wholeheartedly agree. Additionally, the infractions committed by the industry -- and they are committed on a daily basis -- are wrought by the structural flaws of the industry. To fix them, the structural flaws must be addressed. I worked with numerous people of color at MSNBC and they would pitch topics that reflected the diversity of the nation. However, if they had to choose between a newsworthy segment or one that they thought would attract a bigger audience, then most of the time they would opt for the topic most likely to rate. And they would do so because that is their job. That's how they're evaluated. They can make choices that enhance diversity as long as they don't hurt the bottom line. And that's what Rashida Jones helped to prove again with her statement about the union.
I must say, it's rather "poetic" that they have touted themselves as earnest journalists and the network that will "lean forward." They will lean in if they can also cash in. That's the goal of for-profit cable news.
Next, Whitewashing Quakertown
So of course, there are daily examples of how cable news lags in its coverage of minorities. This week, congress made Juneteenth a national holiday. You probably heard about that. However, you might not have learned the history behind the celebrated day, because cable news doesn't usually make room for context and historical perspective. (Thankfully, the NY Times did in this piece, "So, You Want to Learn About Juneteenth?")
It would have been super easy to peg a discussion about the history of Juneteenth to the news and event itself this week. There is another story that would have been at least as useful and relevant this week -- and it would have been extremely easy for any cable show to plan. But it, too, didn't find its way to air.
Writing for Business Insider, Lisa Bubert presented "One man's 21-year protest to take down a Confederate monument – and force his Texas town to face its racist legacy." The memorial to Confederate veterans was removed last year, but her story published Friday, June 11 provided much more background about the town and its destruction of a thriving Black neighborhood following the Civil War. (Remind you of anything?) Here is a key part of her article:
Quakertown was a thriving Black merchant district near the center of town. Denton was Denton—but Quakertown was theirs. There were Black doctors and lawyers and Black-owned shops.
But then, white Denton decided that Quakertown was in the way. The College of Industrial Arts, a school for white women, had been built on the edge of Quakertown, just beyond the Square. The town claimed the students needed more space for the ladies to walk safely from school. Plans had also been drawn up for a new Denton Civic Park – exactly where Quakertown then stood. As a historical marker set down in the park in 2013 puts it, "the civic-minded interests of Denton's white residents threatened the future of Quakertown."
In 1921, three years after the Confederate monument went up in Denton, the town voted to relocate the whole of Quakertown to Solomon Hill, a swampy cow pasture on the other side of the railroad tracks in southeast Denton, thus giving the white ladies their walking path to school. More than 60 families lost their homes and many residents left Denton altogether. It was the same year as the Tulsa Race Massacre, 270 miles north, when the city's "Black Wall Street" was burned and 300 people were killed.
What happened to Quakertown sealed in a wound that has not healed to this day. Some of the old Quakertown homes still sit on cinder blocks from the hasty relocation. There was never an apology from Denton's white leadership, much less compensation offered to those who had lost their community and livelihoods.
This episode in American history might not be as violent as the Tulsa Massacre, but it certainly had a similar demoralizing effect on the African American community. What's worse is that the destruction of the Black neighborhood had been sanctioned by the Texas town. MSNBC or CNN easily could have gotten the author Lisa Bubert or, better yet, the local activist Willie Hudspeth in front of a camera as part of their Juneteenth coverage (the holiday traces its roots to the day slaves in Texas learned they were freed). However, neither network did.
If I were still at MSNBC, I certainly would have pitched this story. I don't know if anyone tried, but what I do know is that either network could have and should have made room for it, somewhere between the many redundant segments about the ongoing investigation of Donald Trump, Joe Manchin's obstruction in the Senate (though, to be fair, Lawrence O'Donnell hosted at least one useful segment on the topic), or how Republicans have obstructed an investigation into the January 6 insurrection. These are all worthwhile subjects, but on a 24-hour network you can do more than just a small handful of stories each day (I also wrote about that chronic cable problem for CJR).
What happened to Netanyahu?
Lastly, the man who has had a grip on Israeli politics (and their military) for well over a decade lost control during the election last Sunday. Benjamin Netanyahu was ousted by a newly formed coalition in a historic and monumental moment in global affairs. Astonishingly, neither cable network dedicated substantial time to the subject, not during primetime, anyway, which is when they have the biggest audiences and the choices are even more consequential.
Later in the week, Israel started launching airstrikes at Gaza after Hamas set off incendiary balloons, which was retaliation for the Israeli protesters in Palestinian neighborhoods (during which some chanted "Death to Arabs"). On Wednesday, if you wanted to see news about the reignited tensions, you would have had to tune in to CNN at 12amET, 1amET, 2amET, 3amET, 4amET, 6amET, or 10amET. You also could have caught it that afternoon during the 4pmET, 5pm, or 6pm hours. But they did not cover it at all during primetime. It's strange, isn't it? The overnight crew deemed it worthy enough to cover each hour. Jake Tapper and Wolf Blitzer also made room for it. CNN International certainly covered it adequately. But during the most watched hours on CNN, the biggest audiences were denied that story. The same goes for MSNBC. I didn't see any coverage in primetime. If I missed something, please correct me.
Now, I know, it's an international story and cable news producers think Americans don't care. But as I wrote last month, it's too big a story to mess up. Like it or not, Americans are heavily invested in the region. Ignoring the violence on cable news won't just make the violence go away. In fact, the opposite is likely to happen.
My point: These are just a couple of examples of what else CNN and MSNBC could have presented, but they certainly aren't the only other stories they could have done. Cable news could be a leader when it comes to providing more diversified content -- and it may well even grow their audience -- but they are so stuck in risk-averse, formulaic, and repetitive editorial mindsets, that they can't (or don't) see any other alternative. And that's a shameful disservice for the audience.