Social media, like so many Internet technologies that rose to prominence after the turn of the millennium, is both blessed and cursed by the fact that its capacity for human-generated content is basically limitless. If you throw out the people who use bots to post online at inhuman speed, it’s basically impossible for one person to shut down a social media service by making post after post. Most of us have at least one friend who seemingly tests that limit on a regular basis — posting a seventy-tweet thread on Twitter, sharing every vaguely interesting link posted to their Facebook feed without checking its veracity (Gorilla Channel, anyone?), and so on — but even for people who appear to live on these services, there’s a limit to how much they can put on social media every day.
Most of us have to be very self-conscious about how we use social media; anyone who needs any kind of employment needs to be careful not to post anything that could ruin their relationship with current or future employers, and online content producers (especially self-published authors like me) constantly have to calculate how to balance the need to put ourselves into our social media to attract an audience — letting the people who consume and purchase our content make a more intimate connection with us than they can get through our work alone — versus the possibility that talking about a certain topic, or posting about it on social media too often, will get us unfriended and unfollowed by people who won’t put the effort into hanging with us as we expose our rougher edges. It can be a rough internal battle, especially when we care so much about some issues and want to focus on them, but it’s one that content creators have had to deal with long before the Internet “became a thing” in the 1990’s. The Internet, and social media, just made it phenomenally easier for consumers to connect with creators in that way which, again, can be both a blessing and a curse.
Even as many public figures’ social media follower counts are outnumbering the viewership of the network nightly news shows, though, television news shows of all stripes continue to hold considerable power in our national discourse. Many forms of “old media” have stubbornly (if not ferociously) endured the challenges of the past quarter-century, and one of the reasons for this is a certain clout that comes with age. It’s hard to imagine any online news source gaining enough credibility and respect, at least in my lifetime, to have its name spoken with the same reverence as those of America’s biggest newspapers, and that’s without even taking into account the modern fracturing of information consumption by political ideology.
Indeed, that segment of television news that consciously presents content targeted to specific segments of the American political spectrum may have the most outsized role in shaping our national discourse in relation to the size of its audience, especially with our politics growing even more hyperpartisan this past decade. For all the problems I’ve had with MSNBC over the years, I think some of their employees have created some outstanding reportage, and I’d be a fool if I tried to deny the influence of Rachel Maddow on my blogging style. Unlike right-wing political television, which has fractured over the past few years with the addition of more and more competing networks, MSNBC remains fairly unchallenged on the left-of-(American-)centre end of things, and their ratings successes this past year have been fairly well-documented.
Having said that, watching MSNBC has become more of a chore than ever for me this past year, and not just because of all the bad news out there. The moments where I can go on my social media and wholeheartedly encourage my friends and followers to watch their content, because it manages to do a good job of showcasing the problems in America right now (like Chris Matthews’ Hardball mini-series “The Unkindest Cut” and Rachel Maddow’s coverage of the Flint water crisis) are now few and far between. Even in the wake of Republicans passing a massive bill that’s projected to result in millions of Americans losing their health care coverage while giving tax breaks to the well-off — to say nothing of destroying the beauty of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and other, less-publicized, deleterious effects — and even as more should-be national scandals develop, like children being forced to learn in sub-freezing schools in Baltimore and massive infrastructure failures brought on by the frigid weather in the eastern US these past couple of weeks (oh. and Flint still doesn’t have clean water), these stories barely get any notice, if they get any at all, from MSNBC’s vaunted prime-time lineup.
This isn’t to say that the various stories swirling around the current administration and its ties with Russia don’t deserve attention, because they certainly do. Regardless of political belief, the mere possibility that another country might have wreaked havoc with a national election should frighten all Americans, except for those who are so concerned about outcomes that they don’t care at all about how they’re achieved (which is, seemingly, a very large chunk of conservative America these days). Looking ahead to future elections, this country desperately needs to be proactive in ensuring their integrity, and minimizing (if not eliminating) the ability of hostile powers to influence our voting process. That being said, MSNBC’s fixation on all matters Russia, to the point of almost completely ignoring the tragedies befalling everyday Americans this past year, not only casts a dark pall over the network’s reputation, but also augurs ill for efforts to remove Republicans from power in future elections.
The tenor of MSNBC’s Russia coverage goes far beyond concern for the integrity of future American elections. If anything on the network is more cloying than its never-ending succession of fever dreams involving impeaching the current President (or, at the very least, invoking the 25th Amendment against him), it’s their relitigation of the 2016 presidential election. I’ve made it clear on numerous occasions that I’m no Hillary Clinton fan, but I’ll be the first to say that, in my (admittedly amateur) analysis of the current evidence, Clinton would have won the electoral college in 2016 (and by a significant margin) if it weren’t for the influence of foreign agents in the election. That’s not what happened, though, and there is no “magic eraser” that will change what’s already been written in the history books. Listening to some of MSNBC’s anchors, you’d think that they’re expecting Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi to come out one night, literally unmask Russian agents on live television Scooby-Doo style, and then everyone will be referring to Clinton as “Madame President” by the end of the hour as the credits roll over their triumphant Democratic heroes.
That’s just not going to happen. Even if Democrats far exceed their targets for the next election, and make impeachment a real possibility, that still leaves this next year to get through, when the people who have been hurt the most by this current President, and the Congress that has done so much to enable him, will continue to be hurt all the more. Especially for the Americans with costly medical conditions who are about to be priced out of the insurance market, they might not live to see whatever happens as a result of this year’s midterm elections.
These are the people who need to be heard, who deserve the attention of national news broadcasts. Their stories are already crossing my social media feeds several times a day, and I do what I can to raise awareness of them (while continuously calculating how many of those stories I can share before my efforts become counterproductive, and I start losing friends and followers). Their stories should be on MSNBC right now, as a reminder of the very human cost of Republicans’ political actions. This doesn’t mean that the network can’t keep covering Russia to some extent, or that it can’t devote some time to the “palace intrigue” pablum that always puts wry smiles on its hosts’ faces. What it does mean is that the network needs to start showing more concern for what’s happening in living rooms and schoolrooms across this nation.
MSNBC may revel in relitigating the role of foreign influence in the last election, but it sure doesn’t want to face the reality that Hillary Clinton was a phenomenally flawed candidate, and that even as the current president wallows in historically-high disapproval numbers for a first-year president, Clinton’s are still lower. A lot of that has to do with the miasma of negative publicity that Clinton has picked up in over a quarter-century in the American political spotlight (rightly or wrongly, and whole encyclopedias could be written on that subject), but Clinton failed to inspire the Democratic base, let alone actual left-wing Americans, because she campaigned as yet another neo-liberal centrist who was more concerned with corporate profits than kitchen-table issues. She sure didn’t speak to me and my values, and whether I was talking with friends or co-workers or students, that sure seemed to be a dominant sentiment heading into the 2016 election, even among people who ultimately held their nose and voted for her.
By prioritizing all things Russia over the same everyday concerns that Clinton failed to address in her campaign, MSNBC is only making matters worse. As long as cable news/political networks continue to play such a pivotal role in driving the national discourse, more and more Americans who are suffering under the current political governance in this country are going to feel like no one, save their small circle of social media friends, actually cares about their concerns. This, in turn, will drive up voter apathy, and unless the Democratic Party can find a 2020 presidential candidate who actually speaks to everyday Americans’ concerns — and, more to the point, give them a fair chance at winning the nomination — then they may be putting themselves in an even deeper hole than the Republicans.
The Americans who are hurting as a result of our current president don’t need a do-over of the 2016 election. They need help, and they need it now, and by not reporting on the crises they’re facing as I type these words, MSNBC is failing them. Given how they’re choosing to spend their limited amount of time to cover Russia issues to the exclusion of so much else, it wouldn’t surprise me if the Democratic Party winds up running Hillary Clinton for president again in 2020, and again insist that everyone who isn’t a conservative “has” to love her, regardless of her policies or past actions. The result probably won’t be any different than it was on Election Night 2016, and while that might be good news for MSNBC and their profits, it’s going to be bad news for the rest of us.
Those of us who are still alive for Election Night 2020, anyway.