Wednesday, December 22, 2010

An Open Letter to MSNBC


You are my preferred television news network. Those who describe you as the liberal counterpart to Fox News are either being disingenuous or they’ve never actually watched and compared the programming on the two networks. Yes, some of your hosts have and express liberal viewpoints, but other hosts have and express conservative points of view, as well. Even the most liberal of your hosts routinely give those with whom they disagree an opportunity to make their point without being interrupted or ridiculed and you don’t limit opposing viewpoints to a few neutered conservatives. Your programming is not perfect and your hosts do occasionally make mistakes, but they don’t simply make things up or repeat, without critical analysis, talking points designed to bolster one side or tear apart the other.

But your network could be much better.

First, stop being defensive about who and what you are. Be proud of being a home for liberal viewpoints. And be proud of being a home where conservative viewpoints are also given a forum. Stand up and shout to the rafters that you are a network with a point of view but one which is welcoming to dissenting visions. But be sure that those hosts on your network who express conservative views remember to commend the network for giving them a forum and to contrast that with the singular world view pushed by Fox News.

Next, be sure to always take the high road. Look, I agree that Bill O’Reilly is a clown (in the Stephen King scary clown mold), but there is no reason to call him such. And Rush Limbaugh may in fact be a drug addict, but there’s no reason for that to become his title. Instead, treat all of these people with the respect and dignity that you’d like to be extended to you and that we should all expect in a functioning civil society. By all means, criticize O’Reilly and Beck and Limbaugh and Hannity all you want, but call them Mr. O’Reilly, Mr. Beck, Mr. Limbaugh, and Mr. Hannity. Who cares if they act like prepubescent school yard bullies; there’s no reason for MSBNC and its hosts to sink to that level. Let their name calling roll off your backs the way you’d tell your children to ignore the taunts of a bully. Sticks and stones and all that. Instead, recommend to your hosts that they always be the adult in the room. Keep the criticism to the content of the communication, rather than focusing on the history of the speaker. Leave the ad hominem attacks to the other guys; that’s all they’ve got going for them.

On a similar note, why not have a dedicated webpage where errors can be reported? Every journalist makes an error from time to time. A sign of a quality journalist is one who can recognize an error, take responsibility, and correct it. So be up front with any errors that you make. Show the world that you do take facts seriously and that you work to be sure that what you present is accurate and that when a mistake is made, you recognize it and alert your viewers.

Newspapers have long included letters to the editor from readers. NPR airs listener feedback on a weekly basis. MSNBC should consider doing something similar. Don’t bother with a forum where people can argue back and forth. Instead, offer a place where viewers can express their thoughts and concerns about what they’ve seen on your network, take those expressions seriously, and, from time to time, present those thoughts within your programs. Maybe even take the time to have the occasional program to fact check things that you’ve said and which others have called into question.

One more thing that could, I believe, set MSNBC further apart and prove of enormous benefit to viewers: Be prepared to deal with guests who lie. If possible, your hosts should be armed with facts and statistics so that a guest who lies can be called out. But I recognize that this isn’t always possible. However, your viewership and the Internet may prove an invaluable resource to help identify lies. Just imagine if MSNBC had a policy in which no lie went unchallenged. And if the host was not able to recognize the lie at the time of its utterance, make it a policy to invite the guest back at a later date to address the issue; if the guest elects not to return, that’s fine, but the host should still go forward with the identification of the lie and the dissemination of the correct facts.

Unfortunately, in recent years, more and more people in our society have begun to recognize that there is no real penalty for telling a lie or half-truth and, especially in politics, facts just don’t matter. Perhaps MSNBC could be a bulwark against the further erosion of fact-based analysis and understanding that should be the basis upon which democratic decisions are based. Guests may be less inclined to dissemble if they know that your network will fact check the claims and present evidence when the claims don’t ring true.

Fox News has become the place to go for disinformation. Perhaps MSNBC can become the place to go for information that can be trusted or even, dare I say it, journalism.

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