Sunday, October 30, 2011

MSNBC and the trouble with Pat Buchanan

Over many months MSNBC has been about its business quietly transforming its identity as a newsgathering organization, increasing both its impact and its viewership in a crowded, competitive television landscape. Its integration with NBC News, its partner and one of its literal parents, has improved; and the network has made big strides in the demographics of its newsreaders and program hosts, hiring on-air talent that more reflects the diversity of America.

All of which makes MSNBC’s retention of Patrick Joseph Buchanan such a big problem for a network that prides itself, with some justification, on Leaning Forward (consistent with the cornerstone tagline of MSNBC’s promotional campaign). As a grassroots organization takes aim at Buchanan (the same way this org trained its sights on Glenn Beck when he ruled the roost at Fox), what’s at stake is MSNBC’s rising stature as a news franchise for which racial and ethnic diversity is apparently becoming more than a lip-service issue.

The network faces a thorny short-term dilemma — one of its commentators is an enemy of that kind of inclusion; taking him off the air undercuts that inclusion — but a longer-term reality: Buchanan’s presence compromises MSNBC’s new evolving public identity.

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A long and tireless exponent of conservative ideology and the primacy of white Christian tradition, and for years an MSNBC political commentator, Buchanan has become the target for Color of Change, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization involved in lobbying, public education and grassroots political action on behalf of black and minority Americans.

Buchanan (a syndicated columnist and the author of 11 books) has just published “Suicide of a Superpower: Will America Survive to 2025?” The book, among other things, posits the idea that racial, ethnic and cultural diversity have corrupted what is, in his view, now and always essentially a white Christian nation. Diversity, he suggests, has polluted the American ideal; inclusion of a wider range of people and perspectives in the national life has damaged the country.

In an October interview with Thom Hartmann of “The Thom Hartmann Program,” Buchanan resisted any disavowal of the idea that nonwhites have inferior genes:

But this is nothing new. As far back as the mid-80’s, Buchanan flirted with anti-Semitic positions, ultimately drawing fire from William F. Buckley Jr., when the patron saint of modern conservatism wrote about Buchanan’s columns on the gulf war. In an exhaustive 1991 National Review essay on anti-Semitism, Buckley said “I find it impossible to defend Pat Buchanan against the charge that what he did and said during the period under examination amounted to anti-Semitism ...”

The Boston Globe reported in 1992 that during his time as a White House aide and speechwriter, Buchanan “suggested in a memo to President Nixon that efforts to integrate the U.S. might only result in 'perpetual friction' because blacks and the poor may be genetically inferior to middle-class whites.”

Media Matters, writing about the “Suicide” book this month, observed that: “Buchanan eulogized [white supremacist Sam] Francis in a May 2005 column, writing, ‘When God created him, He endowed Sam with a great gift — one of the finest minds of his generation. Sam did not waste it.’ In Buchanan's book ‘State Of Emergency’ … Buchanan lamented that Francis was fired after he suggested that only whites have the appropriate ‘genetic endowments’ to keep America from collapsing.”

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Jillian Rayfield, at TPM Muckraker, culled a dozen other curious quotes from Buchanan’s latest book. Here’s three of them:

On the group UNITY: Journalists of Color, which advocates for more racial and ethnic diversity in journalism:

“Half a century after Martin Luther King envisioned a day when his children would be judged ‘not by the color of their skin, but the content of their character,’ journalists of color are demanding the hiring and promotion of journalists based on the color of their skin. Jim Crow is back. Only the color of the beneficiaries and the color of the victims have been reversed.”

On the changing national demographic:

“Our intellectual, cultural, and political elites are today engaged in one of the most audacious and ambitious experiments in history. They are trying to transform a Western Christian republic into an egalitarian democracy made up of all the tribes, races, creeds, and cultures of planet Earth. They have dethroned our God, purged our cradle faith from public life, and repudiated the Judeo-Christian moral code by which previous generations sought to live.”

On the Jim Crow era:

“Perhaps some of us misremember the past. But the racial, religious, cultural, social, political, and economic divides today seem greater than they seemed even in the segregation cities some of us grew up in.

“Back then, black and white lived apart, went to different schools and churches, played on different playgrounds, and went to different restaurants, bars, theaters, and soda fountains. But we shared a country and a culture. We were one nation. We were Americans.”

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Small wonder, then, that Color of Change (which played a big role in soliciting advertisers to boycott Glenn Beck’s program on Fox News) mounted the charge. In an Oct. 25 e-mail to supporters, calling for MSNBC to fire Buchanan, Color of Change said:

“In general, Buchanan is pushing a vision of America that portrays white people and ‘white culture’ as genuinely American, and diversity and multiculturalism as a threat to America. Buchanan tries to blame the country's economic problems on programs like affirmative action, welfare, and food stamps — programs which help vulnerable and disadvantaged Americans of every race, but which Buchanan and others on the far right have portrayed as only helping lazy and undeserving minorities. He takes every opportunity to stoke the racial anxiety and fear that exists among some white people. In short, Buchanan wants to pit white people against people of color. He believes in it, he thinks it's good political strategy, and in his new book he encourages the GOP to become "the white party."

“If Buchanan didn't have a powerful media platform, he'd be just another person with outdated, extremist ideas. But it's irresponsible and dangerous for MSNBC to promote his hateful views to an audience of millions.”

The CoC e-mail includes an open petition letter sent to MSNBC President Phil Griffin and NBC News President Steve Capus; CoC supporters are invited to attach their names to the letter, which reads:

“I'm writing to demand that you fire Pat Buchanan immediately. Buchanan has a long and consistent history of peddling white supremacist ideology as legitimate political commentary, on your network and elsewhere. He recently went on a white supremacist radio show to promote his new book -- which argues that increasing racial diversity is a threat to this country and will mean the “End of White America.”

“Pat Buchanan has the right to express his views, but he's not entitled to a platform that lets him broadcast bigotry and hate to millions. If MSNBC and NBC want to be seen as trusted, mainstream sources of news and commentary, you need to fire Buchanan now.”

Human Rights Campaign, one of the country's largest advocacy and lobbying organizations for LGBT Americans, called on Oct. 28 for MSNBC to "sanction" Buchanan. 

Some in the blogosphere have been just as demanding for the network making a change, if less inclined to a moderated tone. Sluggo, commenting in Media Matters, asks flat-out, “At what point does MSNBC fire this old cracker? When he shows up on air wearing a white sheet with eye-holes?”

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Buchanan writes for Human Events, and a short list of his column titles is illuminating for the dire, fatalist, Chicken Little scenarios he posits for the United States. “Is America Disintegrating?” “A.D. 2041—End of White America?” You get the idea.

In his Oct. 21 Human Events column, Buchanan writes wistfully: “There was a time not so long ago when the nation was united on a common faith, morality, history, heroes, holidays, holy days, language and literature. Now we fight over them all.”

Implicit in Buchanan’s call for a return to these hypothetical Good Old Days is a pining for the time when the white male world-view was the only one that mattered. In this column and many of the others, Buchanan betrays nothing as much as a desire to turn back the clock on the evolution this country has made, painfully and slowly, toward full inclusion and citizenship of the people the Framers never considered part of the mix.

That’s the problem he poses for MSNBC. This grizzled cold warrior, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, ran for the presidency three times without success — a fact that in and of itself repudiates his vision of America. Since then, he’s made a handsome living as a proponent of extremist views that call into question the applicability of our nation’s founding principles — views that, left to come to fruition, would frustrate the organic process of assimilation, aspiration and achievement that make this country what it still is: A place to be somebody, and a place to dream of, and act towards, being somebody better than the somebody you already are.

Pat Buchanan has deep reservations about this country having a future with people that don’t look or pray like him. For an influential cable network, a year before a presidential election that promises (or threatens) to be momentous, whether or not to employ him as a voice of mainstream American thought isn’t a question of optics or public relations, it’s a question of the existential:

How can you lean forward and backward at the same time?

Image credits: Buchanan: Getty Images. Color of Change screengrab: TPM logo: Talking Points Memo. MSNBC logo: © 2011 MSNBC. Human Rights Campaign logo: © 2011 The Human Rights Campaign. Full disclosure: I worked for six years as a reporter, news editor and producer at

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