Saturday, February 22, 2014

MSNBC and the shock of the new

PUSHING ITS own envelope again, MSNBC is set to roll out two new dayside programs next week: “The Reid Report,” to be hosted by managing editor Joy Reid; and “Ronan Farrow Daily,” with journalist, activist and lawyer Ronan Farrow (son of Mia), both start on Monday in the latest shift of the viewing schedule of the network that reshuffles its programming identity more reliably than any other cable news property.

But thanks to a prospective major merger, and accusations of union busting at an MSNBC production company, MSNBC’s generally progressive hosts face something that both jeopardizes the network’s populist “Lean Forward” identity, and calls out their core progressive convictions.

In a relative instant, MSNBC is transmitter of, and subject to, the shock of the new.

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It all started in December, as a story that managed to fly under the media radar, and, for obvious reasons, off the radar of MSNBC.

In a Dec. 18 story in Salon, an official of the AFL-CIO called on MSNBC show hosts Chris Hayes, Rachel Maddow, Lawrence O’Donnell, Ed Schultz and Al Sharpton to speak out about alleged union busting at Peacock Productions, a production arm of MSNBC (the company co-produces the “Lockup” prison documentary series that remains a big part of MSNBC’s weekend lineup).

“These hosts have a particular responsibility,” AFL-CIO organizing director Elizabeth Bunn told Salon’s Josh Eidelson. “They have respect and they have clout that producers alone don’t have, and they’re part of the larger progressive movement.”

Bunn said the show hosts were “uniquely positioned to hear the stories of what their parent company is doing to workers, and broadcast that to the larger American public.”

Bunn said NBC, MSNBC’s parent company, was “guilty of hypocrisy and guilty of exploiting its workforce,” adding that “one would hope than an employer whose mission is to communicate accurately would behave more responsibly.”

WGA-E organizing director Justin Molito told Eidelson that Peacock directed “a textbook anti-union campaign that you would see at companies like Wal-Mart.” Some workers at Peacock decided to take independent action, putting them at odds with the company they work for.

Bunn told Salon that the AFL-CIO was “prepared to escalate the pressure on these hosts” as well as on NBC. Eidelson reported Dec. 18 that “[t]he only MSNBC host to respond to any of Salon’s inquiries on the issue has been Ed Schultz, who when asked about the campaign Dec. 10 emailed, ‘ has never been an ally of Ed Schultz, why should I help you with a story? Give me a reason.’”

That was last year. Now, fast forward to Thursday.

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ON THAT DAY the revolving doors at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, NBC’s headquarters, were quietly besieged when leaders of the Writers Guild America-East and renegade producers from Peacock Productions, arrived carrying boxes of petitions ... for Hayes, Maddow, O’Donnell, Sharpton and Schultz. The petitions call on them to use the bully pulpits of their programs to weigh in, on the air, about another uncomfortable situation right at their high-profile doorstep.

When Comcast announced plans to buy Time Warner Cable on Feb. 13, for $45.2 billion in stock, it was a thunderclap in the business world, one that fully declared Comcast’s intention to dominate in the cable space like no company ever had before. The deal proposes to combine the country’s two biggest U.S. cable companies into one inescapable media behemoth.

“This leaves Comcast as the sole king of the cable hill,” said Richard Greenfield, an analyst with BTIG LLC, to Bloomberg. “This is a game changer for Comcast.”

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Based in Philadelphia, Comcast has had a voracious appetite, making $65.6 billion of acquisitions over the past 10 years, this according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Last March, Comcast acquired from General Electric the rest of NBCUniversal that Comcast didn’t already own (by way of the controlling stake it acquired from GE in January 2011) for $16.7 billion. NBCUniversal is the parent company of MSNBC and NBC.

Bloomberg reported that the proposed Comcast-Time Warner Cable nuptials could face up to a year of scrutiny, but would “probably will end in approval after regulators secure pledges the combined company won’t harm Internet users.”

Richard M., a Huffington Post Super User, isn’t hopeful: “Every time there is a large merger like this we see 1000's of people who are put out of work, and we see increases in the costs so that the company can get their expenditures back as quickly as possible. These deals NEVER work out well for the consumer.”

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SUSAN CRAWFORD, John A. Reilly visiting professor in intellectual property at Harvard Law School and a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, doesn’t look forward to that outcome either. In a blistering op-ed piece at Bloomberg, she explained the sum of many fears:

“The reason this deal is scary is that for the vast majority of businesses in 19 of the 20 largest metropolitan areas in the country, their only choice for a high-capacity wired connection will be Comcast. Comcast, in turn, has its own built-in conflicts of interest: It will be serving the interests of its shareholders by keeping investments in its network as low as possible -- in particular, making no move to provide the world-class fiber-optic connections that are now standard and cheap in other countries -- and extracting as much rent as it can, in all kinds of ways.”

“If all of this sounds technical, try this: We're all the people of Fort Lee, New Jersey, trying to get on the George Washington Bridge. There's a bully narrowing our access to the world whose interests aren't aligned with ours. ... Let's be clear: This is old-school monopolistic behavior.”

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All of which creates a problem for the progressive show hosts of a progressive, forward-leaning news network — a problem that’s more than purely imagistic.

The two-front war now under way against the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger and alleged anti-union activities at an MSNBC entity puts these hosts in a quandary. Every one of their programs has been part of the network’s emerging identity as a progressive bulwark, an identity fully established in its coverage of the 2012 presidential campaign.

Now these five hosts, the face of MSNBC, confront nothing less than a test of their core beliefs — where the hearts really are, not just their public identities. Scott Jones, commenting at HuffPost, cut to the chase: “The fact that these very well paid corporate television hosts have been placed between this rock and a hard place will expose the true courage of their beliefs. Let's see how they stand up to it.”

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THERE’S no schadenfreude joy to be found in the dilemma of these show hosts, and others under the MSNBC banner, including Farrow, whose new show airs starting Monday at 1 p.m. eastern, and Reid, whose program starts an hour after that. In some ways, their possible conflicts of interest are nothing new, and they’re certain to happen again.

As media companies get larger, as their technologies get more diversified, and as content — information — furthers its hold on a public that gets that information in more ways than ever before, we can expect crises of media gigantism, and what happens when the progressive tendencies of the newsroom are forced to contend with their fiscally conservative, risk-averse opposite number in the boardroom.

When journalists and newsgatherers at one network call out governors or officials for anti-union behavior, it’s easy to see how those journalists might have a problem with one of its production partners accused of doing the same thing — and another problem with not being able to report about that on the air.

And when one company owns not just the pipes but a disproportionate amount of the content that runs through those pipes, it’s easy to see how labor groups, civil libertarians and the public at large might have ... issues with how a bigger, more muscular version of that company could do business in a nation that’s more and more wired by fewer and fewer companies all the time.

Image credits: MSNBC logo, The Ed Show promo: © 2014 MSNBC. Comcast logo: © 2014 Comcast. Pre- and post-buyout charts: The Huffington Post via Imgur. 

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