You can agree with everything that Rachel Maddow or Ed Schultz say on MSNBC and still oppose their right to say it.RELATED: MSNBC ups the ante on race as a factor in Obama opposition
Especially when they and their hyped-up panelists shout that Republican claims are “lies,” or Chris Matthews says that Republicans view welfare recipients as “looters.” MSNBC panelists gave Mitt Romney his due on Thursday but mocked his audience. Mr. Matthews noted that when Mr. Romney called for Americans to give the poor a helping hand, Mr. Matthews said, “He got zero applause,” adding, “I think that’s so telling about tonight.”MSNBC has pumped up its ratings by recasting itself as a left-leaning riposte to Fox News, and that’s fine. Fox long ago proved that a lot of viewers like to hear cable anchors echo what they already think; MSNBC is just playing catch-up. Fox is still well ahead, especially during a Republican convention, but on Tuesday, there were times when MSNBC drew significantly more convention viewers than CNN.That’s because MSNBC offers counterprogramming, not coverage. All that arch sarcasm and partisan brio may rev up the cable channel’s fans, but it constrains — and stains — NBC News, its corporate sibling, which is still the country’s No. 1 source in the evening.NBC and the other broadcast networks cut their live convention coverage to an hour during prime time this year, which leaves barely time to show the main speeches, let alone analyze them. Yet NBC’s chief anchor, Brian Williams, has conspicuously avoided the most fractious MSNBC discussion panels. Those anchors who do make dutiful appearances, like David Gregory and Tom Brokaw, are badly needed but don’t stay long or join the fray — like piano players in a brothel, they don’t go upstairs.And that leaves fewer choices for viewers who like their election coverage with informed commentary without a twist of bias. They have to D.I.Y. either on the Internet or C-Span, or turn to PBS or CNN. And, unfortunately, because CNN’s ratings are so low, there is a danger it will disappear or turn to a more marketable model.Fox News doesn’t have a network news division, and its star anchors can be as defiantly partisan as they like. They favor Republicans, but even more they like to goad Republican candidates into criticizing the liberal media and President Obama.Both Fox News and MSNBC have experienced reporters in the field who stay neutral even when their anchors let loose. The NBC network’s anchors keep their opinions to themselves, and so do its star reporters, like Andrea Mitchell and Chuck Todd, who appear on both cable and network shows, and somehow skillfully navigate past the rockier shoals.Ms. Maddow made her mark by breaking with the mindless Ping-Pong between two opposing views that sometimes passes for objectivity — and that is routinely mocked by Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show.” MSNBC’s stridency is certainly a reaction to the ratings success of Fox News. But it’s also inspired by Mr. Stewart’s satirical commentary.The smugness is easier to copy than the wit. MSNBC has a growing cast of anchor-bloviators — hosts like Martin Bashir, Tamron Hall and, of course, Al Sharpton, who rant and then invite like-minded guest commentators to assure them that they are right.Chris Matthews, who hosts a Sunday talk show syndicated by NBC and a daily MSNBC show, seemed determined during this convention to outflank his most outspoken rivals, including Mr. Sharpton.He started with a bruising harangue against Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee Chairman, that made even his hosts on “Morning Joe” wince. Mr. Matthews looked almost thuggish on Wednesday night when the Arizona governor, Jan Brewer, 67, speaking from the din of the convention floor, complained she couldn’t hear his question.“You can’t hear me?” he said. “Well, that’s convenient.”On Thursday, Mr. Matthews fulminated against Paul Ryan’s — admittedly misleading — assertion that Mr. Obama did nothing to prevent the closing of a GM plant in 2008. Then Fox News attacked media figures who attacked Mr. Ryan. CNN took the harder course of parsing the entire issue: The correspondent Tom Foreman gave a long, industrious analysis that explained where and how Mr. Ryan finessed the facts.MSNBC talk shows are to network newscasts what blogs are to newspaper columns, shaggier and often less considered. And increasingly, viewers, like readers, have a hard time distinguishing one from the other. But it’s all that attitude on MSNBC that raises eyebrows.Virginia’s governor, Bob McDonnell, who backed, then rescinded, a state bill that would require women seeking an abortion to first have an invasive ultrasound, is a favorite target. After his convention speech, the MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry said sarcastically that Republicans might be nervous “standing next to a governor who represents a vision of small government that is small enough to put on the end of a transvaginal probe.”No wonder Brian Williams stays away.