In a cheeky blog post that’s now attracting a great deal of Internet attention, HBO comedian Bill Maher chronicles his faltering relationship with liberal cable network MSNBC. The problem, says Maher, is New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, or at least MSNBC’s dedication to filling its air time with every last twist in his bridge scandal. “[N]ow we never talk about any of the things we used to talk about: global warming, gun control, povert. . . . All because Chris Christie came along and put you under his spell,” wrote Maher.
Hard, strong factual turf right there. The analytics confirm that Christie has indeed preoccupied MSNBC’s attentions in recent weeks. A week ago, for instance, NewsBusters reported that MSNBC spent 95 minutes covering the crisis between 5:00 p.m. and 11:00 p.m. on Feb. 10, a focus that suppressed other stories, such as a delay in implementation of part of the Affordable Care Act. Last month, the Christie camp itself hammered MSNBC for its “gleeful” attacks on the governor. On an edition of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” last week, political analyst Nicolle Wallace lashed out, “So much time has been spent in the last four weeks covering every teeny, minuscule, breaking non-news event” relating to the bridge.
So yes, MSNBC’s bridge work has crowded out other stuff, as Maher alleges.
Yet the humorist takes his case to another frontier altogether, addressing MSNBC, “Look at yourself. You’re turning into Fox News. Bridgegate has become your Benghazi, and this isn’t easy to say, but you and I are no longer on the same news cycle.”
Squishy factual turf right there. There may be a parallel between how extensively MSNBC has played the bridge story and how extensively Fox News played Benghazi in the weeks after Sept. 11, 2012, when an attack on the U.S. diplomatic installation in the Libyan city claimed the lives of four U.S. personnel.
Yet Fox News’s relationship with Benghazi involves more than just spending a lot of time together. On Oct. 26, 2012, the network issued what then appeared to be a resounding scoop about the goings-on of that controversial night. It reported that requests for military assistance were denied, that security operators were told to “stand down” instead of rushing to help and that a U.S. team at a CIA annex had “captured three Libyan attackers and was forced to hand them over to the Libyans.”
As documented in a extensive series of posts by the Erik Wemple Blog, these claims have undergone a punishing 1.5 years of challenge and debunkment. No component has gotten more of a lashing than the alleged “stand down” order, the last rites of which were administered last month by a Senate Intelligence committee report: “The Committee explored claims that there was a ‘stand down’ order given to the security team at the Annex. Although some members of the security team expressed frustration that they were unable to respond more quickly to the Mission compound, the Committee found no evidence of intentional delay or obstruction by the Chief of Base or any other party.”
So what’s MSNBC’s analog to Fox News’s Benghazi bombshell report? What piece of MSNBC reporting on Christie’s bridge scandal bears factual holes of comparable bore?
Thus far, MSNBC’s key break on the story came from MSNBC host Steve Kornacki, who in January reported on allegations from Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer that the Christie people held relief aid from superstorm Sandy hostage to concessions on the urban development front. CNN Investigative Reporter Chris Frates pointed out some contradictions in Zimmer’s story; the New Jersey Star-Ledger’s Tom Moran finds it credible; and the New York Times found evidence of development-related pressure on Zimmer from the Christie administration. However this whole thing shakes out, it’ll be hard to tie MSNBC to any frailties in Zimmer’s storyline; reporting the on-the-record allegations of public officials, after all, is a core journalistic responsibility.
Just a question to finish this out: When newspaper columnists and reporters stick with a story no matter what, they’re heroic and persistent. When TV networks do the same, they’re bloated and irresponsible. What gives there?