“Perhaps the surest test of an individual’s integrity is his refusal
to do or say anything that would damage his self-respect.”
— Thomas S. Monson, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
The NBC Peacock is no longer fanning its colorful plumage.
It is now cowering and no longer proud, given the news of sexual misconduct by a contributor at its affiliate, MSNBC. Trouble is an ongoing program at the cable network. Left-leaning viewers — and all serious students of politics -- should be looking to pull the plug on MSNBC.
Mark Halperin is the latest collateral damage in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment/sexual predator scandal. Halperin is a former political director of ABC News, former co-managing editor of Bloomberg Politics, host of Showtime’s The Circus (a politics-focused documentary series), an author (Game Change), and, since 2010, a political analyst at MSNBC. He is also accused by multiple women of sexual harassment during the time he worked at ABC.
One woman, Lara Setrakian, wrote about her ugly Halperin experience for The Washington Post. And another, Eleanor McManus, did the same, writing on cnn.com. After acknowledging his “inappropriate” behavior, MSNBC and NBC have terminated Halperin’s contract. (Other media enterprises have also severed relationships with him.)
The Halperin case is troubling on several levels — most importantly, of course, about the well-being of the affected women. But also troubling are issues surrounding Halperin’s — and, particularly, MSNBC’s — integrity and character.
Halperin said, “I now understand from these accounts that my behavior was inappropriate and caused others pain.” Now? This suggests that, until recently, Halperin considered and understood his lewd actions to be acceptable behavior.
It is not far-fetched to suggest, then, that a man unable to distinguish between fundamental basics of right and wrong behavior on a personal level, is also unable to distinguish between right and wrong on a journalistic level, too. Notably, Halperin was suspended in 2011 by MSNBC about a vulgar comment he made regarding President Obama on the show Morning Joe. He was encouraged to “take a chance,” ironically, by hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski. That episode explains a lot. Especially about MSNBC.
Just as disturbing for MSNBC — and, for that matter, the larger media industry — Halperin’s boorish behavior was well known to many people long before last week’s revelations. As thedailybeast.com reported, “According to numerous sources at NBC, MSNBC, ABC and Bloomberg, the private allegations of Halperin’s sexual misconduct were an open secret, particularly in New York City and D.C. political media, for many years.” One prominent cable-news host told The Daily Beast, “Everybody knew.” Except, apparently, the Morning Joe hosts. And MSNBC executives.
Still, it is hard to believe that the normally sanctimonious Brzezinski (along with her pugnacious fiancé, Scarborough; they are the penultimate politically connected, media-savvy power couple; the “In-Crowd”) did not know. In her on-air statement last Friday, Brzezinski seemed almost surprised by the serious charges against Halperin. (She said, with trembling voice “Now, ah, we’re looking at it, we’re talking about it …” and added, “We need to know what happened …”) Now? How did they not know of this “open secret” before last week?
What isn’t surprising is this: Readers of this column are likely subject to more intense scrutiny and vetting for their jobs than Halperin was when passing through the sieve-like gates of talent acquisition at MSNBC.
Sexual harasser? Check.
In 1996, Microsoft and the National Broadcasting Co. formed a partnership with the goal of fusing branded content and state-of-the-art technology for both television and online distribution. The collaboration became MSNBC. It was launched nearly three months before Fox News and was seen, at first, as an alternative to CNN. But with the rise in ratings of Fox News over more than a decade, MSNBC turned decidedly left, attracting a definitively progressive audience. Today, long after Microsoft divested its interests, the network is competing with Fox News for cable news and commentary supremacy (and ratings).
Morning Joe, incidentally, occupies the same time slot that was held by Imus in the Morning, the radio program simulcast on MSNBC. The Imus cable program was dropped in 2007 after Don Imus uttered a racial slur against the Rutgers University women’s basketball team.
At MSNBC it seems that personal integrity is not linked to professional integrity.
Halperin joined a roster of misfits and malcontents — poseurs of serious journalism — at MSNBC where standards seem fluid, if unnecessary. Mike Barnicle, unrepentant, is still a frequent contributor to Morning Joe and is opaquely listed as “Veteran Columnist,” despite resigning from The Boston Globe in 1998 amid plagiarism charges as a columnist. Another MSNBC veteran, the Rev. Al Sharpton, unapologetic in his role as inflamer of racial tensions in New York City during the incendiary Tawana Brawley incident in the 1980s, has had longstanding issues of unpaid taxes; since 2011, he has hosted the now weekly PoliticsNation. And Brian Williams, was removed as anchor of NBC’s Nightly News in 2015 after embellishing several stories (called “inaccurate statements”) that were “ego-driven.” His time in Purgatory was brief; he is now host of The 11th Hour With Brian Williams. As the in-house advertisement on MSNBC says: “This Is Who We Are.”
And who can forget past contributors to journalistic excellence at MSNBC?
Keith Olbermann, former host of The Countdown, was suspended in 2010 for apparently violating an NBC News ethics policy by making campaign donations to Democratic congressional candidates. He left in 2011. Ed Schultz, former host of The Ed Show, was suspended in 2011 for calling Laura Ingraham a “right wing slut.” His show was cancelled in 2015. And Melissa Harris-Perry, professor at Wake Forest University, and former host of MHP, apologized in 2013 for comments on her show about Mitt Romney’s African-American adopted grandchild. Mercifully, she and the network parted ways last year. Truth, justice and the MSNBC way.
True journalists must be lonely at MSNBC and its parent, NBC. One of them was Ronan Farrow, a former MSNBC contributor and former freelancer at NBC News. While at NBC, after months of scrupulous research and on-the-record sourcing, he had an iron-clad explosive exposé on Harvey Weinstein’s exploits. But NBC News President Noah Oppenheim killed the story, which ultimately appeared in The New Yorker. (Raising legitimate conflict-of-interest concerns as Oppenheim also moonlights as a Hollywood screenwriter.)
On a daily basis, though, NBC reporters use anonymous sources without hesitation for negative stories about President Trump. Such are the tribulations of intrepid journalists at a national media conglomerate with many layers of hierarchical management (MSNBC, NBC News, NBC Universal, Comcast).
Earlier this year, Ted Koppel, an elder statesman of journalism and a former host of ABC’s Nightline, said, in a feature segment for CBS Sunday Morning during an interview with Sean Hannity, that the Fox host and his show were “Bad for America,” lamenting the political polarization of American life. Especially regarding cable news programs. Koppel’s sentiments are understandable and largely correct. For Fox is hardly "fair and balanced''.
But Fox has also cleaned its house of the likes of Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly — and, most recently, Eric Bolling — before the Weinstein scandal broke. In retrospect, it is highly probable that Halperin would still be at MSNBC had the Weinstein story not been made public. Ironically, MSNBC is the biggest beneficiary of Fox’s personnel problems. For this year's third quarter, MSNBC had its most-watched quarter ever, it was reported in September. And, remarkably, the network is in the closest competitive position to Fox News in 17 years. Just imagine what new viewers are being exposed to every day. When will Koppel dwell on MSNBC?
Next June will mark the 10-year anniversary of the death of NBC’s well-respected Tim Russert, the longest-serving moderator of Meet The Press. NBC and MSNBC would be unrecognizable to him today, and his journalistic excellence and impeccable integrity are unrecognizable to those who reduce such attributes to parody at NBC and MSNBC.
Meanwhile, the Peacock scampers, searching for the giants. But the ghosts of Huntley-Brinkley, John Chancellor and Tim Russert are long gone.
James P. Freeman is a New England-based writer, former columnist with The Cape Cod Times and former banker. His work has also appeared in The Providence Journal, newenglanddiary.com and nationalreview.com.