Maddow, Propagandist…

Posted on December 22, 2010


In her six years in the media spotlight, Rachel Maddow has earned a solid reputation as a liberal-left cable television commentator. Maddow had her own syndicated radio show on the liberal Air America for several years before appearing with increasing regularity as a substitute host on Countdown, and then as a fixture of MSNBC’s 2008 presidential campaign coverage. The New York Times called Maddow’s show an “easy fit” for a network that had interpreted the success of Countdown “as cause to turn its evening programming further to the left”i. The left-leaning Nation called Maddow, “one of the few left-liberal women to bust open the world of TV punditry.

It’s true that Maddow does do very good investigative journalism on her show, with a level of skeptical inquiry that exceeds the standards of competing cable and tv news programs. But much of that skepticism and penetrating insight seems reserved for issues that hew to the Democratic party line. When issues come up that represent a threat to the establishment,  Maddow in fact sounds very much like the typical conservative/post-partisan political operative. Here she dons Joe Lieberman drag to sound a note of caution against Assange.

Perfect. Government should be more transparent, but we should wait as long as it takes for our government to be more transparent, and we should diminish the acts of people who take the matter into their own hands and force that transparency for the benefit of the people. What’s most disturbing is that Maddow turned down the chance to speak of the conditions of detention of Bradley Manning before a huge national audience. She dismisses him with the qualifier of “one guy that is low ranking” and nothing more. The fact that both Assange and Manning face an extra-legal onslaught from the US and allied governments is never mentioned.

This odd attitude isn’t so surprising when you look at how eager Maddow is in helping the government when she finds herself ideologically aligned with its  goals, such as continuing, in apparent perpetuity, the war in Afghanistan.  As I wrote here, she spent an entire programming week in Afghanistan, and never mentioned Afghan casualties, or even newspaper accounts about escalation of force incidents. Rather, her reporting almost seemed to be a public relations junket designed to hide such discomfiting facts.

At that time, many former fans of Maddow averred that she had sacrificed some of her adversarial journalistic instincts to gain better access to the White House. But its quite clear that on certain issues, most especially Democratic party initiated or supported foreign policy and military decisions, Maddow not only supports the mainstream, she is active in disseminating the status quo view. Long before her trip to Afghanistan, Maddow’s sympathy for that conflict, and others, was reflected in this bit of reporting on the capture of Bowe Bergdahl [aired: July 20, 2009]:

Note the carefully maintained focus on only those facts associated with the welfare of American soldiers in the US occupation of Afghanistan. There is a conspicuous absence of any mention of the Afghan people or Afghan casualties throughout the program. Indeed, even the protagonists who have captured Bergdahl are referred to as “Taliban”, not Afghans. More importantly in this regard, Maddow claims that the capture of Bergdahl has drawn “the attention back to the war in Afghanistan in a way that almost nothing else has been able to in months”. She makes similar claims throughout the segment: “the story that is now getting the war in Afghanistan back on to the front pages” and “knowing that this can get the war back on the front pages”.

The Afghanistan war, however, had regularly appeared on the front pages of American papers of record in the preceding weeks, despite Maddow’s claim. The revelation that an Afghan government official supported by the US had committed atrocities against Afghans during the American invasion of the country had appeared on July 10. Another front page article on July 2, examined Afghan anger at American troops. Ironically, on the same day that Maddow aired this segment, the New York Times reported on its front page that the US government was considering dismantling its prisons in Afghanistan because their notorious and well-documented brutality had created wide-spread resentment among Afghans .

Thus, it is “true”, in  a certain sense, that the “war” had not appeared in the nation’s newspapers in months. Maddow’s“war” does not include thousands of Afghans in US detention facilities or Afghan civilians killed in military “accidents” in the last 8 years, though such events have appeared regularly on America’s front-pages. Since, the negative consequences of this “war” only happen to American soldiers, no story is about the “war” unless it focuses on the welfare of American soldiers. Maddow’s explicit claim that only Bergdahl’s human interest story could draw the attention of the American public back to Afghanistan, also precludes the possibility of a public that concerns itself with the welfare of Afghan civilians. Thus, unlike America’s most mainstream papers of record in the first week and a half of July, Maddow found herself repositioning the perspectives of her viewers away from information that might make them critical of the US war effort in Afghanistan, and toward an appeal to emotion that would instead cause righteous indignation towards Afghans.

More conspicuously, Maddow refers to a historical narrative of abuse against US soldiers with her claim that Bergdahl is being “forced to do the types of propaganda videos that we have seen for generations now, when American soldiers are taken prisoner”. Maddow goes further in positioning the story of Bergdahl as the latest in a succession of crimes against American soldiers by drawing a sympathetic parallel with Senator John McCain, the well-known former POW captured during the US invasion of Vietnam. Maddow recounts McCain’s coerced confession of being a “criminal” who had been performing “the deeds of an air pirate” when he was shot down over Vietnam. In this context, Maddow’s choice of descriptors is instructive. Maddow refers to Bergdahl’s situation as “heart-breaking” at the opening of the segment and referring to the capture twice as “infuriating”. With such characterizations, Maddow ignores the idea that the predicament of both Bergdahl and McCain as the logical and negative consequences of invading another country—that in invasive wars, bomber pilots are shot down and occupying troops are captured.

These attempts to explicitly position the viewer as a sympathetic party to Bergdahl’s situation, and an angry critic of the Afghan “enemy” are even more focused when Maddow describes the Taliban “propaganda”. Bergdahl states: “Please bring us home so that we can be back to where we belong and not over here wasting our time and our lives and our precious life that we could be using back in our own country.” Maddow instructs viewers to reject Bergdahl’s plea, claiming “that statement from Private Bergdahl is not about the war in Afghanistan, whatever you think about it”. Converting the substance of Bergdahl’s remark from a challenge to a product of enemy manipulation, the program recuperates anti-war sentiment as merely inadvertant repetition of Taliban propaganda.

Finally, Paul Rykoff—a former officer in the military and the director of an influential veterans group—seals the pro-military deal. Rykoff transfers sympathy for Bergdahl to concern about the Bergdahl family. Though Rykoff only appears for two minutes, he mentions Bergdahl’s family no less than four times: “we have tremendous concern for the private, for his family…our hearts go out to the family…his family deserves our support…seeing a young twenty three year old guy on TV, hearing about his family, his hometown…”. The viewer not only has Bergdahl to worry about, he/she is now burdened with concern about Bergdahl’s entire family—and perhaps even his entire “hometown”. Bergdahl represents thousands of people whose fate now hang in the balance.

In another segment, on January 29, 2009, a US military official spoke about Afghan elections, never mentioning the US’s military occupation. Maddow, instead, called it a “mission”; a banner below the guest ran titles such as “July is deadliest month for US soldiers.

Maddow has done more to white wash the Afghan war than any other left-wing commentator. People should keep that in mind when evaluating her commentary on one of the new breed of journalists who has sacrificed so much to help end it, and the spectacle of her ironic sympathy for Bergdahl and her callous disregard for Manning and Assange.