Thursday, November 17, 2011

Buchanan still MIA at MSNBC


It’s been about three weeks since MSNBC political analyst Pat Buchanan has been on the air, and about that long from the start of a grassroots backlash against Buchanan and the thinly disguised racial and ethnic intolerance he’s elevated (or attempted to elevate) to the level of political discourse on MSNBC programming.

Since Oct. 22, the date of his last appearance, Buchanan has been MIA from the network, officially on a book tour to promote “Suicide of a Superpower,” his 11th book. But there are other signs that his absence may be longer than that.

In MSNBC’s new “The Place for Politics” promos (a leading indicator of the on-air talent expected to lead election coverage next year), the snapshots of MSNBC political heavy hitters are proudly displayed; they’re all there: Lawrence O’Donnell, Chris Matthews, Rachel Maddow, Ed Schultz — even Al Sharpton, who just launched his own MSNBC news and commentary program in September, gets a spot in the honor roll.

Buchanan, a political analyst for the network since 2003, is conspicuous by his absence.

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We shouldn’t wonder. ColorOfChange.org, the social advocacy organization that launched an online petition drive to have Buchanan fired, has ramped up the pressure. On Tuesday, the organization announced that “[l]ast week, we delivered more than 275,000 petition signatures to MSNBC from ColorOfChange and CREDO Action members.

“ColorOfChange members are flooding MSNBC with phone calls, demanding that MSNBC break its silence and fire Pat Buchanan,” said the group, in a statement on its Web site.

From the statement: “Since more than 86,000 members called on MSNBC to fire Pat Buchanan there has been no sign of the right-wing correspondent on the airwaves. But MSNBC refuses to say whether Buchanan will return, and they seem to think they can hide him away for a while and let this blow over.

“MSNBC has continued to play dumb, keeping him off its broadcast in recent days but remaining silent about Buchanan's appearance on white supremacist radio and the extreme and hateful ideas in his new book. And they've refused to comment on whether he'll return to the air once his book tour draws to a close. …

“For too long Pat Buchanan has passed off racism and bigotry as legitimate political commentary and MSNBC continues to provide him a platform to do so. People are tired of turning to a trusted news source and getting hatred instead of real analysis.”

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It’s a given that Buchanan’s proven rhetorical and literary embraces of white Christian supremacist ideology complicate MSNBC’s drive for a fresh identity. But not for reasons of politics. This really isn’t a left or right political issue.

For colorofchange and others who complain both about Buchanan’s philosophy and his use of MSNBC as a platform for that philosophy, Buchanan’s thinking fails a basic moral test, crosses from enlightened dissent into attacks on the panorama of a rich and evolving American demography —people who don’t look and pray and think like he does — in a xenophobic, mean-spirited manner that scarcely deserves the label (or the cover) of “political analysis.”

One problem for Buchanan that can't be conveniently ignored or overlooked, is how he simply may have outlived his usefulness as an analyst for MSNBC. In previous years, especially during the time when the network was still struggling to establish itself in a then less-crowded mediascape, Buchanan was more vital as a conservative voice, and in the aftermath of Sept. 11, a more welcome one, as the country rallied round the flag and the conservative mindset was not just tolerated but embraced in a deeply troubled time.

Back then, Buchanan’s more ethnically intolerant statements and positions were likely dismissed or minimized as the deeply patriotic passion of a man whose xenophobia suddenly acquired a context that was, given the rush to the colors at the time, easier to overlook (and, no doubt for some, just as easy to forgive).

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What a difference a decade makes. In the midst of a rapidly changing political climate, closer scrutiny by an information-savvy public, a very different social demographic and a more aggressive conservative bloc, Buchanan isn’t the rara avis he used to be back in the day. There are any number of other conservative analysts — telegenic, informed and just as committed to the cause — who are filling the breach in Buchanan’s absence.

With conservative analysts and strategists like Joe Watkins, Mark McKinnon, John Feehery and Michael Steele (former chairman of the Republican National Committee, now an MSNBC political analyst) carrying the conservative message forward, it’s clear the network is actively exploring its options. Jettisoning Buchanan means the network maintains a leavening editorial balance in its news and political coverage, but without the vast baggage and record of intolerance that Buchanan brings to his every appearance on the air.

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The question is how long it takes MSNBC to understand this. As someone with long standing at a network that's not that old in the first place, Buchanan has presumably earned a measure of institutional loyalty; that’s almost certainly one reason for the deliberative process underway at MSNBC.

But that loyalty to one employee scarcely replaces or equals the network’s fidelity to its core values, its journalistic fidelity to its viewers, and the brand equity the MSNBC name has earned in the marketplace and the public eye since the network launched in July 1996.

(And anyway, it’s a safe bet that the day Buchanan exits MSNBC, whenever that is, he'll land a gig with Fox News, the right-wing combine directed by Roger Ailes, a Buchanan contemporary and a media consultant for Nixon and Reagan — the same two presidents Buchanan worked for).

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In 1987, while still White House communications director, Buchanan said “the greatest vacuum in American politics is to the right of Ronald Reagan." But there’s not a vacuum that far out there, just dangerously hot air.

And there’s no air at all for a network that’s otherwise fully solidifying its journalistic bona fides — the network that MSNBC President Phil Griffin told the Associated Press in June was “really the place to go for progressives and people who are looking for smart, thoughtful analysis.”

MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, one of the network’s leading progressive lights, has not quite affectionately called Buchanan “Uncle Pat,” but pointedly told him in July 2009 that “you're living in the 1950’s.” The Buchanan xenophobe world view suggests he’s a captive of history farther back than that. A forward-thinking MSNBC deserves better. So do its viewers.

Image credits: Buchanan: Bbsrock. World Trade Center towers, Sept. 11, 2001: Unknown. Logos are properties of their respective parent companies.

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