After Cheerios brought back the interracial family that viewers either loved or hated last year for a Super Bowl ad, an unnamed MSNBC tweeted: “Maybe the rightwing will hate it, but everyone else will go awww: the adorable new #Cheerios ad w/ biracial family.” Anywhere else, such sentiments would have quickly vanished amid the countless flippant opinions expressed hourly in the overcrowded Twitterverse.
But because this tweet appeared under the lucrative, left-leaning MSNBC masthead, Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus took highly telegenic umbrage. MSNBC president Phil Griffin deleted the tweet and released a statement distancing his organization from the sentiments. In his apology, he also stated that the responsible staffer had been sacked, presumably ensuring that nobody but the network’s celebrity pundits can voice controversial opinions ever again.
This comes after MSNBC stalwart Martin Bashir resigned following crude comments about half-term Alaska governor Sarah Palin; Melissa Harris-Perry apologized so often for ill-considered comments about Mitt Romney’s mixed race grandchild that she resembled a medieval flagellant; and MSNBC killed Alec Baldwin’s weekly chatfest after only five episodes because he used coarse language in a shouting match with paparazzi.
MSNBC, which strives to provide a liberal counterweight to monolithic conservative opinion aggregator Fox News, is instead quickly becoming the leader in retraction journalism. Repeatedly, some paid opinionator says something relatively mild by cable standards, then the other side’s professional representatives scream bloody murder. MSNBC, its delegates, or its stars hastily retract whatever they said, and once again, heads roll.
In fairness, sometimes consequences make sense. Melissa Harris-Perry’s absurdly personal comments about the Romney family are inexcusable. But Sarah Palin chose public life, and compared to what online opinionators have said about her, Martin Bashir sounded downright modest. And if Reince Priebus dislikes glib tweets, he should talk with Bill O’Reilly, whose modus operandi is to have an apoplexy and shout abuse whenever anybody refutes him.
That nameless staffer’s comments aren’t unjustified, either. While official Republican leadership distances itself from Bull Connor-style racism, attitudes haven’t vanished just because leaders disavow them. I’ve heard people use ugly racial language at my workplace, and must carefully time when I visit my favorite bar. Anyone who remembers last spring's Cheerios controversy saw language that makes my most unevolved coworkers sound like NAACP allies.
Conservatism isn’t one unified movement. Duck Dynasty religious conservatives disagree deeply with Ayn Rand libertarians, gunslinging neoconservatives, and unreconstructed racists. Although leaders like Reince Priebus struggle to keep conservatives focused on their shared values, icons like Dick Cheney and Ronald Reagan have voiced frustration whenever internal divides become visible. Last year’s Cheerios explosion, when a vocal minority used profoundly disturbing language, was one such time.
Simply observing that this behavior happened once, and could happen again, doesn’t make MSNBC bad. Conservatives and liberals see the world differently. They bring distinct presuppositions to simple acts like watching television. What one group considers innocuous, even sweet, another side considers shocking. More important, the two opposing views define how unaligned Americans perceive the debate.
Outlying extremes delineate the acceptable parameters of American political discourse. While most thinking citizens would disavow both John Birch conservatism and old-school Communism, such groups’ continued existence serves to help people split the difference and find the common middle. Since most citizens prefer to identify with moderate, centrist politics, and avoid extremism, a clearly defined middle is absolutely necessary.
But the organized conservative media, distinct from Republican party leadership, has become increasingly strident in recent years. The rise of talk radio in the 1980s, and cable news in the 1990s, gave public podiums to opinions formerly reserved for mimeographed partisan newsletters. These new media opportunities redefined public conservatism just as Cold War exigencies surrendered to New Millennium opportunities.
Whenever MSNBC, or any other progressive venue, apologizes for itself, it permits organizations like Fox News (which almost never apologizes) to move America’s political center further right. Ideas that sounded like partisan codswallop not long ago, like defaulting on national debt as political maneuvering, have entered ordinary discourse. And it happened because one side makes strident demands, while the other demurely refuses to call bullshit.
Every time MSNBC retracts mildly boisterous opinions or fires slightly vociferous pundits, they tacitly permit Fox News to set America’s political tone. We need opinionators who say things too harsh for ordinary discourse, because it lets us seem polite when chiding disruptive or antisocial behavior. MSNBC’s concession to Reince Priebus, who is himself not racist, nevertheless lets racism seem that much more normal. And that’s a step backward.