12/10/04 MSNBC's Rightward Slant on Debate Coverage


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After standing virtually alone among mainstream media outlets in declaring Dick Cheney the clear victor in his October 5 debate with Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards, MSNBC made an odd decision about its coverage of the subsequent Bush-Kerry debate: It added more conservative voices to its panel discussion.

MSNBC's panel for the October 9 Bush-Kerry debate consisted of host Chris Matthews, NBC reporter Andrea Mitchell, conservative pundit Pat Buchanan and Ben Ginsberg, a Republican election lawyer who had to leave Bush's campaign when his links to anti-Kerry Swift Boat Veterans were revealed. Providing “balance” was Ron Reagan Jr., an MSNBC political analyst whose main liberal credential is that he does not embrace the views of his father, the most famous conservative politician of the 20th century.

In other words, two right-wingers, two centrist journalists (both of whom praised Cheney's performance nights earlier), and the not particularly ideological Reagan. While the right-wingers offered unvarnished praise for Bush (Bush “was outstanding at times and he was spectacular at times,” according to Buchanan), there was no one on the panel to offer similar support for Kerry, or substantive criticisms of Bush.

Andrea Mitchell thought that “the questions were very, I thought, tougher on Bush than on Kerry.” The panel agreed that Bush was better prepared this time around— as Matthews put it, “I think the president did well. I saw him wink twice, certainly an air of confidence exuding there.” NBC anchor Tom Brokaw, who joined the panel as a guest, agreed: “I think the president stepped up his game tonight. And I think that he came with a game plan in mind and tried to execute it on that stage.” The verdict on Kerry was less hopeful; as Matthews put it, “I think he was pulling all the ammo he could into his stockpile, but I'm not sure he shot it all with enough command.”

Even when the panel thought Kerry prevailed on issues like stem cell research, the verdict was that Kerry didn't do as well as he should have. (It's worth noting that this judgment was not necessarily shared by the voters who were the debates' intended audience; a Gallup poll taken after the second debate—9/9-10/04—found Kerry beating Bush, 45 percent to 30 percent.)

One would think that after the MSNBC panel's performance following the Cheney-Edwards debate, some re-tooling could be in order so as to represent a wider spectrum of opinion. That night, Matthews touted Cheney's unequivocal victory, declaring that he “was loaded for bear tonight. He was out on a hunting trip looking for squirrel,” and that the proper analogy to illustrate the gap between the two “would be a water pistol against a machine gun.” Cheney was “in to hit home runs and he did so,” and was so much better that Matthews wondered if Edwards was “not ready for this, bigger than that, like not ready to be vice president of the United States.”

Andrea Mitchell agreed, referring to the “stature gap” between the two, and said that “Dick Cheney did awfully well at, first of all, putting John Edwards in his place.” NBC anchor Tom Brokaw chimed in by comparing Cheney to heavyweight fighter George Foreman (”He kind of shuffles across the ring and then he unleashes a powerful right hand”) and a school principal “who calls you into the office and he sits there and he has got all the answers. You can go after him as much as you want to, but ultimately he has the authority.”

Matthews wondered: “Will the liberal press admit that Cheney won?” That would depend on how you measured a victory— a CBS poll of uncommitted voters (10/5/04) gave the edge to Edwards, 40 percent to 28 percent.

The MSNBC panel was particularly keen on Cheney's claim to have never met Edwards until the debate, a moment Matthews declared “we will relive for years to come.” There was considerably less interest in whether or not Cheney was telling the truth. NBC's Russert, for example, waited until an appearance on the next day's Today show (10/6/04) to explain that he knew the two were on his Meet the Press show together in 2001. “I thought that John Edwards would call him on it right at that very moment,” Russert explained. “I still don't know why.”

In the midst of the October 5 broadcast, MSNBC aired a clip of Edwards speaking after the debate about his previous encounters with Cheney. Though this fact undermined the very moment the MSNBC pundits had been praising as indicative of Cheney's superior performance, Matthews could only offer this response: “Well, that's it. That wasn't very edifying, was it?”

The same could be said of MSNBC's right-leaning debate coverage.

ACTION: Please encourage MSNBC to offer a more balanced panel discussion following tomorrow night's presidential debate.


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