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MSNBC Palin hoax: the wages of partisan newscasting

By now, everyone knows the story of MSNBC being duped by a hoaxster in a report it aired on Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. But what's distressing is that no one seems to notice or care about the obvious connection between the cable channel's journalistic faux pas and its recent all-out commitment to ideologically-driven programming.

MSNBC, which was once as solid in its newscasting as NBC, has now become as shoddy and subject to mistrust in what it presents as Fox News, the channel it has taken to imitating from the left.

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While MSNBC has enjoyed ratings gains with its embrace of the partisan presentations offered by Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow, who joined the network in September, MSNBC has done serious damage to its credibility and that of sister network, NBC. And that is a stiff price to pay for a few hundred thousand more cable viewers a night.

The public's lack of confidence in MSNBC was evidenced by the NBC-owned channel finishing last on election night -- a time when a record number of Americans was looking to TV for information they could trust. What a diminished stature MSNBC now suffers compared to the days when Brian Williams rather than Olbermann was the "face" of the channel as Williams prepared for the day when he would replace Tom Brokaw at the network anchor desk.

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Here are the nuts and bolts of hoax story as reported by AP, but again, it's the moral of the story that is not being told.

According to the AP: "MSNBC was the victim of a hoax when it reported that an adviser to John McCain had identified himself as the source of an embarrassing story about Palin.

"David Shuster, an anchor for the cable news network, said on air Monday that Martin Eisenstadt, a McCain policy adviser, had come forth and identified himself as the source of a Fox News Channel story saying Palin had mistakenly believed Africa was a country instead of a continent. Eisenstadt identifies himself on a blog as a senior fellow at the Harding Institute for Freedom and Democracy.

"Yet neither he nor the institute exist; each is part of a hoax dreamed up by a filmmaker named Eitan Gorlin and his partner, Dan Mirvish, the New York Times reported Wednesday (in first breaking the story). The Eisenstadt claim had mistakenly been delivered to Shuster by a producer and was used in a political discussion Monday afternoon, MSNBC said."

"The story was not properly vetted and should not have made air," said Jeremy Gaines, an MSNBC network spokesman. "We recognized the error almost immediately and ran a correction on air within minutes."

The irony is the way in which MSNBC was hoisted on its own petard. The ratings bump generated by Olbermann and Maddow comes from liberal viewers enjoying the echo chamber between what is in their heads and on the screen at MSNBC. And they will keep tuning in as long as you don't give them any facts that conflict with their world views and prejudices -- because such facts cause cognitive dissonance and tune out.

Of course, what that means is that you providing information, analysis and conversation that has more to do with propaganda than journalism. But who cares? Ratings are ratings, right?

In this case, the "information" that was too good to resists was that Palin didn't know Africa was a continent. It was just the kind of "information" that would delight its viewers. It would create an echo chamber with the world view in the viewers' minds.

Forget going the exemplary journalistic route that CBS anchorwoman Katie Couric went in preparing intensely and then doing a stellar interview with Palin to help viewers access the candidate's knowledge of world geography and affairs. This is easier: just grab the first piece of information that arrives in an email that conveniently fits your audience's worldview and present it on-air as verified fact.

And there are larger ramifications: MSNBC's careless mistake gives Palin followers a wedge to attack the "liberal" media and try to dismiss all of the mistakes and mis-statement Palin made in interviews with Couric and ABC anchorman Charles Gibson. Ask not for whom the gong sounds -- all of us in the media are diminished by such incompetence and carelessness as that of MSNBC.

I do not suspect MSNBC will learn anything from this emarrassment. Oh, they will probably issue more statements about "editorial controls" and ""checks and balances" being put in place to keep it from ever happening again. But it is all hot air, like the stuff that Olbermann blows every weeknight in prime time.

(Photo of David Shuster by MSNBC)

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