Last week, the Huffington Post's media reporter, Michael Calderone, wrote a long article on the widespread perception that MSNBC isn't so much a progressive network as it is "simply pro-Obama." Citing a new Pew study that found that MSNBC was actually more negative toward Romney than even Fox News was against Obama "and offered mostly positive coverage about Obama" -- most remarkably, during the last week of the campaign, MSNBC did not air a single story critical of Obama: not one -- Calderone wrote: "post-election, the question is whether MSNBC continues cheering Obama on -- or takes him on."
On Sunday, Politico's media reporter, Dylan Byers, set out in search of an answer to that question, not regarding MSNBC specifically but "progressive media" generally. Here's the crux of what he found:
"For the better part of four years, progressive media has had President Barack Obama's back.
"Now that he's won re-election, it is faced with a choice: Should the left continue always to play the loyal attack dog against the GOP, blaming the opposition at all hours of the news cycle for intransigence? Or, should it redirect some of that energy on the president, holding him to his promises and encouraging him to be a more outspoken champion of liberal causes?
"Already, there are rumblings of change.
"In the days and weeks following Obama's victory, progressive voices, primarily in print media, have made efforts to push the president on key parts of the unfinished liberal agenda -- including climate change, drone strikes, troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, the closing of the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, civil liberties and gun control. ...
"'Liberals in the media are going to be tougher on Obama and more respectful at the same time,' Hendrik Hertzberg, The New Yorker's chief political commentator and a former speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, told POLITICO. 'He was the champion of our side, he vanquished the foe... [but] now liberals don't have to worry about hurting his chances for re-election, so they can be tougher in urging him to do what he should be doing.'"
[I want to focus on this claim that media progressives will now be "tougher" on Obama, but first, an aside: Hendrik Hertzberg proclaims that they will now be even "more respectful" of Obama than they have been. Short of formally beatifying him, or perhaps transferring all their worldly possessions to him, is that even physically possible? Is there a reverence ritual that has been left unperformed, swooning praise left to be lavished upon him, heinous acts by him that have not yet been acquiesced to, if not affirmatively sanctioned, in the name of keeping him empowered? That media progressives will try to find ways to be even "more respectful" to the president is nothing short of scary.]
As for the vow that media progressives will now criticize Obama more and hold him more accountable, permit me to say that I simply do not believe this will happen. This is not because I think those who are taking this vow are being dishonest -- they may very well have convinced themselves that they mean it -- but because the rationalization they have explicitly adopted and vigorously advocated precludes any change in behavior.
Over the past four years, they have justified their supine, obsequious posture toward the nation's most powerful political official by appealing to the imperatives of electoral politics: namely, it's vital to support rather than undermine Obama so as to not help Republicans win elections. Why won't that same mindset operate now to suppress criticisms of the Democratic leader?
It's true that Obama himself will no longer run in an election. But any minute now, we're going to be hearing that the 2014 midterm elections are right around the corner and are of Crucial Significance. Using their reasoning, won't it be the case that those who devote their efforts to criticizing Obama and "holding accountable" the Democrats will be effectively helping the Republicans win that election? Won't Obama critics stand accused of trying to keep the Speaker's gavel in the hands of the Tea Party rather than returning it to Nancy Pelosi, or of trying to hand Senate control over to Mitch McConnell (or, soon enough, of trying to give the White House to Marco Rubio instead of Hillary Clinton)?
Once one decides in the name of electoral expediency to abdicate their primary duty as a citizen and especially as a journalist -- namely, to hold accountable those who wield the greatest political power -- then this becomes a permanent abdication. That's because US politics is essentially one permanent, never-ending election. The 2012 votes were barely counted before the political media began chattering about 2016, and MSNBC is already -- as one of its prime time hosts put it -- "gearing up" for the 2014 midterm.
I've described before how the permanent election cycle is the most potent weapon for keeping the citizenry (and media) distracted by reality-TV-show-type trivialities and horse-race excitement in lieu of focus on what the government is actually doing. But the other significant benefit of having all political disputes viewed through a partisan electoral prism is that it keeps partisans focused only on the evils of the other party and steadfastly loyal to their own. The desire to influence election outcomes in favor of one's own party subsumes any sense that political officials from one's own party should be checked in how they exercise their power.
How is it rationally possible that those who have embraced this reasoning can -- or should -- change behavior in light of the looming Incredibly Important 2014 midterm election and then the 2016 election after that? Former MSNBC host and frequent Obama critic Cenk Uygur -- who, in one of the most remarkable media events ever, was removed by MSNBC as prime-time host in favor of an individual who literally vowed never to criticize the president under any circumstances -- told the Huffington Post that it was hard to see how this would happen:
"'Should MSNBC take a more aggressive stance with President Obama after the elections to make sure he follows through on his progressive promises? Of course,' Uygur said in a follow-up email. 'Will they? Probably not. They've been leaning back on their criticism of Democrats for so long, that I'm not sure they know how to, or care to, hold them accountable.'"
If sustained criticisms of the president should have been suppressed in deference to the 2012 election, then I simply don't see why the same mindset won't apply to the 2014 and 2016 elections.
But let's assume for the sake of argument that I'm wrong here, and that the "progressive media" really is gearing up to change behavior and unleash a torrent of demands and criticisms aimed at Obama. Here's my primary question about that: why would that matter?