Rebecca Juro

Insightful Yet Still Blind: MSNBC Just Doesn't Get the LGBT Civil Rights Movement

Filed By Rebecca Juro | May 28, 2010 12:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Media, Politics, Politics
Tags: cable news, Dan Choi, Don't Ask Don't Tell, Employment Non-Discrimination Act, ENDA, MSNBC

I mean, what else could it be? How else can you explain the logic involved in presenting the kind of excellent coverage MSNBC has been doing on Don't Ask, Don't Tell and the virtually absolute silence from the network on its "Big Sister" bill, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act?

Surely, it can't be about the policy itself. Both efforts if successful would do essentially exactly the same thing: open the workplace to more LGBT Americans (though it should be noted that the repeal of DADT would allow gay and lesbian but not transgender soldiers to serve openly in the military, while ENDA's protections for civilian workers would cover both sexual orientation and gender identity).

It can't be about the relative impact (and therefore potential audience interest), either. If we're talking sheer numbers, it's absolutely ludicrous to even try to compare those who could be potentially directly affected by the repeal of DADT against the rest of the United States LGBT workforce, most of which would be impacted by ENDA to varying degrees depending on current state and local laws.

Could it be that MSNBC really isn't quite as progressive as some of its pundits like to make it out to be?

Well, first and foremost, as with all commercial media, MSNBC exists to make money, to keep you entertained long enough to sit through the next block of commercials, and the next, and the next. That said, however, MSNBC, like Fox News, has chosen a side. While MSNBC is infinitely more even-handed and comprehensive in how they present the news to their viewers than Fox, their choice of which commentators and perspectives run on their air speaks as much to the audience they're seeking to attract as Fox's choices do to theirs.

So what's the real difference between DADT and ENDA for MSNBC? When you get right down to it, there's really only one: on DADT, MSNBC has their very own ratings-generating rock star, Lt. Dan Choi. Lt. Choi came out publicly to great media fanfare on The Rachel Maddow Show, and since then has become the recognized public voice and face of the effort to repeal DADT. Choi and other gay and lesbian soldiers actively or formerly serving in the military have appeared on the network numerous times to tell their stories, thus effectively promoting that effort but also apparently unintentionally ensuring that whatever MSNBC airtime might be devoted to covering the LGBT civil rights movement is virtually exclusively devoted to covering DADT, no doubt to ensure (what NBC believes will be) the maximum ratings boost from the coverage.

When Keith Olbermann got his viewers to donate millions to fund nationwide heath care fairs, MSNBC demonstrated that they understand that the real impact of government law and policy (or the lack thereof) isn't felt most deeply at the highest levels of Washington, but rather at ground level, by the true victims of these failures of government, by average Americans still being squeezed to the bone financially by this "economic recovery" of ours.

What's most interesting here is that it seems that when an issue directly impacts the lives of average Americans like health care or the BP oil spill, MSNBC takes its coverage to "the streets," covering in great detail the efforts being made to help Mom and Pop America deal with this ongoing problem. Yet, when the issue at hand is one that chiefly concerns LGBT Americans, MSNBC heads straight for the big and shiny like a crow on meth.

Average Americans in desperate need of health care get the coverage they deserve on MSNBC.

Average LGBT Americans serving in our nation's military and in need of civil rights protections get the coverage they deserve on MSNBC.

Average LGBT Americans in our civilian workforce who are just as desperately in need of civil rights protections as our soldiers don't get so much as even a causal mention from MSNBC.

How does this make any sense at all? How is it consistent? How is it credible? How is it comprehensive? Most of all, how can it possibly be considered progressive?

We in LGBT media often treat DADT and ENDA as separate stories in our coverage because we cover these issues in far greater detail and with far greater frequency than is generally seen in any straight mainstream newsmedia. Despite that, we know and understand that both of these efforts are really just two aspects of the very same issue: ensuring full workplace equality for all LGBT Americans.

How can it be that MSNBC gets it on health care, gets it on environmental issues, gets it on DADT, gets it on so many important issues, but doesn't get it on ENDA, nor understand how completely it intertwines with DADT? You have to wonder if anyone at MSNBC has ever thought to investigate exactly what kind of lives these soldiers will come home to once they've left the service.

All that said, I want to make it clear that this isn't an attack on MSNBC. Quite the opposite, in fact. I'm a loyal viewer of both The Rachel Maddow Show and Countdown with Keith Olbermann, and MSNBC is always my go-to channel for coverage of big stories. It's precisely because MSNBC has demonstrated repeatedly that they can consistently meet such a high standard that I feel compelled to call them out on this and ask why this standard isn't being met in their coverage of the LGBT civil rights movement. In short, we know MSNBC can do better than this because they already are doing better than this on any number of the important issues which fill their airtime. The question that must be asked is why aren't they doing better here?

In the end, it comes down to just one point, one which I hope will resonate with the folks at MSNBC should any of them actually read this, and that point is this: when you focus solely on the shiniest, sexiest part of a story and completely ignore the rest of it, the dirty, unpleasant parts where there are no brass buttons shining in the sun or American flags flying proudly in the background, just the unattractive, unsexy daily lives that most LGBT Americans struggle to live, you then become that which you spend so much of your airtime condemning: hypocrites.

If it's sauce for Fox, it's sauce for MSNBC.


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Good points, Becky. I've been wondering about this for a while now.

Thought I was going to only ever hear these words out of my own mouth. Thank you!

Let's please hear someone on MSNBC calling out Representative Frank for what ENDA's not protecting, like the pre-and-non operative or the genderqueer.

Actually Valerie, that's not really what I want to see from MSNBC. From my perspective, taking on Barney Frank and other Democrats aggressively on the failings of the bill itself or of the Democrats shepherding of it through Congress is mainly the job of the LGBT community media, us, not MSNBC.

What I want to see most from MSNBC is:

1. Asking the questions of Frank and others about ENDA that we can never seem to get answered ourselves, such as the actual bathroom language and whether or not ENDA is actually going to pass this year or if what we've been hearing is just more BS delaying tactics.

2. Consistent coverage and promotion of the issue like they do with DADT. I want to see interviews with fired and discriminated against LGBT civilian workers like we see with similarly situated soldiers, and I want to see coverage when something important happens regarding the bill, just like we get with DADT.

3. Remembering that "LGBT" has four letters, not two, and also remembering that when they talk only about gays and lesbians in reference to important issues like civil rights they're not giving their viewers comprehensive coverage nor reporting the news in a way that's really any more progressive than, say, Fox.

4. Putting an end once and for all to the offensive and bigoted jokes about transpeople spewed by Michael Musto on Countdown.

That's mainly what I'm looking for from MSNBC and frankly, I really don't think it's too much to ask.

Asking them to act like a real news organization, no, that's not too much to ask.

You and I have different definitions of calling out. That's what I meant.

... okay, maybe just one Special Comment too. I love those. :P

I think you're taking the wrong perspective on this, Becky. I think a better answer to the question, "Why aren't -any- of the media conglomerates (radio, TV, newspapers, online media) simply not covering ENDA?" would be:

Because we're not helping them do it.

I should write a post about my speech in Seattle. It really focused on this issue specifically - DADT vs ENDA and the messaging around it. Until I do I'll give you the main thrust and save the rest for a new post.

The messaging by Gay Inc around ENDA has been almost criminal in it's negligence. The fault isn't MSNBC's or FOX's or CNN's. It's ours. We're not leading the way like some orgs did with DADT.

Bil, please read my much longer comment on Joe's post as it addresses your point as well as his directly.

Actually, for the sake of convenience if nothing else, here's my response to Joe's post: I completely agree, Joe. Our messaging stinks, and I think that's mainly for two reasons:

First, because we don't have a media rock star like Dan Choi promoting the ENDA effort, nor does ENDA have those same patriotic, flag-waving undertones that the commercial newsmedia loves so much, and so all the media attention tends to focus in that direction.

Second, because MSNBC is making a conscious editorial choice to ignore ENDA and focus on DADT. These people are journalists, Joe. They read the same news sources and blogs we do. They know what's going on with ENDA, they're just choosing not to give it any airtime.

What I did was attack in my piece was their reasoning for their editorial decision, and make the argument that it didn't reflect the usual high standard seen in their coverage.

There are a lot of us who are speaking out on ENDA, Joe. Some of us have been doing so for a very long time. The problem isn't really the messaging as much it's getting people in the mainstream to listen to what we have to say in the first place. We can write hundreds of blog posts, do dozens of podcasts and Internet radio shows, shout our message as loudly as we possibly can, but, as we've seen with DADT, a few good segments on the topic from Rachel Maddow or Keith Olbermann will have far more real-world impact than anything we can do.

Personally, I don't believe that it's at all a coincidence that MSNBC's coverage has fully promoted DADT and ignored ENDA, and we're seeing DADT now move quickly in Congress while ENDA is delayed again and again and again.

We've seen over and over how Republicans have been influenced and even publicly humbled by Rush Limbaugh. I have no trouble believing that there's some of that happening on the other side of the aisle, regarding Olbermann's and Maddow's coverage of these issues in particular.

If there's anything those of us who have been covering the ongoing battle for ENDA for a long time know from previous skirmishes such as 2004 and 2007, it's that unless we can get mainstream media's attention, little or nothing will happen in Congress.

In 2004, when we protested HRC at their DC headquarters twice, the only media that bothered to show up were Pacifica Radio and NYC's Gay City News. The Washington Blade, DC's premier gay newspaper (under then-Editor-in-Chief Chris Crain), apparently couldn't be bothered to send a reporter to either event.

In '07, there was a lot more support for trans-inclusion, and that was galvanized into a basic precept of modern LGBT civil rights advocacy by the Democrats themselves by triggering strong negative backlash from progressives when they dumped transgender Americans from ENDA. Hence, a lot more mainstream media coverage than before, but still a relative pittance when compared to the issue of same-sex marriage.

It's the same problem we've always had. We can talk until we're blue in the face, but until we get the mainstream's attention it's all ultimately just shouting in the dark. Some of us have spent a very long time trying to break down that wall but until at least some of these mainstream media folks are willing to listen to what we have to say and to give it some airtime, it's mainly just preaching to the choir.

MSNC isn't even that liberal, much less left-wing. They just found a couple talking heads that don't piss off the monied elite in this country too much but can still pass for democrats. It's not really much of a surprise that they don't get workers issues and focus more on DADT, which has become the cause celebre of middle class and wealthier gays for reasons I can't fully comprehend (like the folks who are willing to get arrested to end DADT even though they have never and will never serve in the military. I understand empathy, but where's their empathy for all the other clear human rights abuses happening around the world?).

MSNBC helped get Clinton impeached, told the country to STFU when Bush stole the 2000 election, and cheer-led the Iraq War, and now I hear they're pushing the weird sestak-obama non-scandal. They're not progressive - they've just found a different formula for the same thing.