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Monday, December 04, 2023

Opinion | MSNBC should bring back Mehdi Hasan and not become DNC-TV - The Washington Post

Opinion MSNBC should be careful not to become DNC-TV

The fifth Democratic presidential primary debate of the 2020 election, on Nov. 20, 2019, in Atlanta. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)
The fifth Democratic presidential primary debate of the 2020 election, on Nov. 20, 2019, in Atlanta. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

"The cancellation of Mehdi Hasan’s show is the latest in a series of recent moves by MSNBC that are pushing the network in the direction of being the television arm of the Democratic Party leadership, as opposed to a news outlet that upholds left-wing values and perspectives. The network should reverse its decision on Hasan and make clear that it embraces progressive criticism of President Biden and other Democratic leaders.

Hasan has hosted a show that airs on Sundays at 8 p.m. Eastern time. It is not a ratings blockbuster. The audience has been around 500,000, often with fewer viewers in the 25-to-54 age range that TV networks and advertisers covet than CNN and Fox News programming in that hour. But segments from Hasan’s show often go viral online, reaching people like me who don’t regularly watch cable news. A recent Hasan interview with Mark Regev, who has served in several senior positions in the Israeli government, was watched nearly 6 million times on X.

Hasan is a rarity in cable news. The 44-year-old, a British-born son of immigrants from India, is one of the few Muslim cable news hosts. He is fairly left-leaning but not a partisan Democrat. So Hasan’s interviews with Biden administration officials and other Democrats are often quite adversarial (unlike most on MSNBC) but question them from the left, not the center or right, as other networks usually do. In recent weeks, he has been a sharp critic of Israel’s military actions in Gaza, which the Biden administration has largely supported.

What is most distinct about Hasan is his style. He is very skilled in debating people. So his conversations with politicians, both Republicans and Democrats, have often resulted in them squirming as he pointed out contradictions and weaknesses in their arguments. It is entertaining and informative.

MSNBC has not said exactly why Hasan’s show was canceled, so we can’t be sure the decision was because of his policy views. The decision was part of a reshuffling of the network’s weekend programming. Some other MSNBC hosts, most notably Chris Hayes, have been critical of Israel’s bombing of Gaza and regularly bring on guests who are to the left of the administration. Ayman Mohyeldin, who is also Muslim, will be filling the time that used to belong to Hasan and will have a two-hour program on Sunday nights.

But I doubt this decision was driven only by ratings and revenue. A one-hour show on Sunday night hosted by Hasan isn’t a major cost for a big network such as MSNBC. The revenue and reputation of cable news networks are determined largely by their early-morning and prime-time shows on weekdays. (I was an on-air contributor at MSNBC from 2011 to 2016.) MSNBC had a lot of reasons to keep Hasan as a host and no obvious ones to remove him.

The network says Hasan will remain as an analyst and guest host. But those roles don’t allow Hasan to shape a program and choose its focus and guests in the way that running a weekly show does.

“MSNBC can claim [Hasan’s criticism of the Israeli government] wasn’t why they sacked him, but nothing will remove the stench of this decision short of returning Hasan to his rightful place as a host of his own show,” press critic Dan Froomkin wrote on his blog.

Hasan’s diminishment is the latest indication of a worrisome drift in political journalism. The Black Lives Matter movement and the resistance to Donald Trump’s presidency pushed the news media in a more liberal direction from 2017 to 2020. But with Biden in office, many news outlets have tried to recalibrate — most notably CNN, which pushed out several journalists who the network felt were too anti-Republican. Apple recently ended Jon Stewart’s show, reportedly wary of his left-wing stances.

MSNBC is very anti-Republican Party and pro-Democrats, but it’s not immune from this trend. As another part of the shake-up that is resulting in Hasan losing his show, former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele was named part of a three-person ensemble who will host a new MSNBC program on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Steele long ago broke with the GOP and is a fierce critic of his former party. But he isn’t likely to go viral attacking the Biden administration from the left. The network also hired former Ohio governor and anti-Trump Republican John Kasich as an analyst earlier this year.

A related shift at MSNBC is having prominent former figures from the president’s administration not just as analysts, which has long been a trend in television news, but as anchors who direct programs and ask questions. Symone Sanders-Townsend, who was a senior aide on Biden’s campaign and in the administration, is part of the three-person show that Steele is co-hosting. Former White House press secretary Jen Psaki is taking on an increasingly prominent role at MSNBC.

I reject the analogy of MSNBC as a liberal version of Fox News, even though some of the patterns are similar. (Fox News staffers critical of Trump were fired or quit, while the network hired people who had worked for him.) By amplifying lies and misinformation coming from GOP leaders, Fox News has ceased to be a real journalism outlet. Since Democratic Party officials typically rely on facts and objective data, a network aligned with the party can produce accurate journalism fairly easily. And there is far more criticism of Biden on MSNBC than of Trump on Fox News.

But sidelining Hasan, one of the network’s most frequent critics of the Democrats, while boosting staffers most aligned with the official party, communicates to other MSNBC personnel that the way to succeed at the network is to be a party loyalist and that dissent could be a career risk.

And that’s not good. I worry America’s cable news landscape is turning into one network (Fox News) that covers every story through the frame that Republicans are good and Democrats are bad; another (MSNBC) that suggests Democrats are always good and Republicans always bad; and a third (CNN) whose message is Democrats and Republicans are equally bad on every issue.

In reality, most issues have more than two sides. Sometimes the most important debates are intraparty, not interparty. On a whole host of matters, the key conflict is not Democrats vs. Republicans but, say, workers vs. management.

The best version of a left-leaning news network would be one where guests agree that Trump should not be president again but are free to debate basically everything else, from the United States’ role in Gaza to whether Biden is running a flawed reelection campaign. Such discussions are almost certain to be deeper and more thoughtful if led by a skilled journalist such as Hasan looking for flaws in everyone’s arguments, instead of former senior aides to the sitting president.

MSNBC still hosts some strong intraparty debates. But Melissa-Harris Perry, Tiffany Cross and Hasan are among the smart, left-leaning, Democrat-skeptical voices who have lost their shows, while more party-line figures have been given their own programs. And other hosts have seen where the wind is blowing and have become more party-line. A pro-Democrats network is fine. MSNBC should make sure it doesn’t become MSDNC."

Opinion | MSNBC should bring back Mehdi Hasan and not become DNC-TV - The Washington Post

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