October 25, 2013

This week on MSNBC’s “Now with Alex Wagner,” a panel discussion began to hit a bit too close to home. The discussion centered on the failures of the White House with the Obamacare rollout and featured commentary by David Corn of Mother Jones, Joy-Ann Reid of the Grio, Katrina vanden Heuvel of the Nation (and a Washington Post contributor) and Jeff Greenfield. After discussing how the White House should have dealt with its dramatic Internet failures of recent weeks, Greenfield started doing some awkward throat-clearing:

I realize that on … sometimes, networks can be … you know, I want to be just … Because I don’t represent myself — I represent myself as a humble country journalist, not an advocate. But what he said…

Ouch.

Wagner wasn’t going to allow such an affront to her network on her watch: “I think many people at this table would consider themselves journalists, too, and not advocates.”

Greenfield shot back: “Who are also advocates.”

Wagner: “No, we’re not.”

Greenfield: “Progressives and liberals.”

Wagner: “We can get into that question later.”

No, don’t get into this question later! Keep the uncomfortable discussion on-air, where it belongs.

Just so happens that Greenfield & Co. alighted on one of the hot topics in journalism over recent months, starting with the inane debate over whether Glenn Greenwald, who broke all those stories on the National Security Agency, was an activist or a journalist or, perhaps, both. Months later, that debate looks a touch silly; no matter what you want to label Greenwald the individual, the work he was producing — and very much continues to produce — qualifies as perfectly old-fashioned investigative journalism. Its impact speaks for itself.

As to whether MSNBC harbors a hive of pro-Obama advocates, well, that digs into a more complex set of considerations. Its programming feels more propelled by partisanship and activism during certain hours of the day than others: Sample the 4 p.m. program anchored by the massively slanted Martin Bashir, which would provide plenty of grist for Greenfield’s charge. “Now with Alex Wagner,” meanwhile, surely falls in line with MSNBC’s progressive worldview, but contrary views can find a home in her noontime show. Think of the very topic that prompted the Greenfield “advocate” charge to begin with: They were talking about the failure of Obamacare’s first weeks.

MSNBC’s airing of dire viewpoints on the health-care launch, in fact, even opened up a nasty little fight among pundits, as highlighted here. So of all weeks to argue that MSNBC is an beholden advocacy organization, this wouldn’t be the pick of the Erik Wemple Blog. When we asked the network this week for an interview about how it’s handling this particular story, spokeswoman Lauren Skowronski responded, “We’ll let the work speak for itself.”

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.