Two Commentators Walk into a Bar

Opposite Poles

Whether it’s from watching TV, listening over the radio, tuning into a podcast, or reading the newspaper, we are bombarded with the word “polarization”. More often than not, it’s referring to the state of our government. Though there has always been gridlock between both sides of the aisle, the climate of our government only seems to be growing more volatile to the American people observing from the outside. Each day brings a new news burst of foreign probes, appointed advisors forced to resign, FBI investigations, and threats to our national security.

In these times of uncertainty, journalists have the honor and responsibility of providing transparency to the American people as watchdogs to our society. Journalists uncover the truth and put it into context for watchers, listeners, and readers to educate themselves on the world they live in. But, portions of today’s news media are at risk of falling into the same hole of fierce partisanship and polarization.

Programs like MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show and FOX New’s The O’Reilly Factor epitomize this trend. The two segments sit at complete opposite sides of the spectrum, which directly influences the way they communicate news to their viewers. Though hosts Rachel Maddow and Bill O’Reilly are more commentators and TV personalities than they are journalists (if you could call them journalists at all), their segments bring an important issue to light. Now more than ever, those in a position of influence to the American people must realize their responsibility to the truth. When those people come dangerously close to broadcasting their opinions as fact, respected journalists, reputable news outlets, and the American people the ones who lose.

In alignment with the network it’s broadcasted on, The Rachel Maddow Show sits on the far left of the aisle in terms of media coverage. The predominantly liberal program with it’s unwaveringly liberal host is hardwired produce stories that dig into the Trump Administration, advocate for the environment and LGBTQ rights, and fight to make sure “Wall Street never wrecks Main Street again” (too soon?).

To the far and conservative right, The O’Reilly Factor reigns. Within our community, Bill O’Reilly could be referred to at Boston University’s black sheep; a conservative republican commentator that strays far from his alma mater’s liberal core. The O’Reilly Factor bring on like-minded conservative guests and is never shy to be critical of our government or the media that covers it. O’Reilly is controversial and forward,

Both programs are the two most popular cable news shows and within the last few weeks have continued to go neck in neck with each other in the ratings department. The Rachel Maddow Show has just surpassed The O’Reilly Factor in ratings, and with the recent developments in Bill O’Reilly’s personal-professional life, that trend may continue. But when it comes to covering politics, it’s not a surprise the two don’t stand on the same side of most issues. Both unapologetically loud and attention demanding hosts aren’t afraid to show the American people how they feel about an issue, but they also don’t try to hide what party they are loyal to. The question is, are they too trapped in their own bubbles to effectively communicate the news to their viewers?

Let’s take a look, shall we? We’ll start with something light: Obama’s Legacy.

Remember Him?

There’s no question that our former POTUS shook things up between the left and right throughout his time in the White House, especially during his last days. Obama heavily exercised his executive power, something that angered the right of the aisle throughout his presidency. He also made strides in legislation is support of the LGBTQ community, and tried his earnest to put environmentally friendly policies in place up until his last moments as our president.

After 8 years, Obama has left a lasting legacy on our country. That legacy, however, is perceived quite differently by Rachel Maddow than it is by Bill O’Reilly.

Maddow’s piece enters with a 5-minute long narrative of Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first hispanic woman on the Supreme Court and Obama’s first Supreme Court appointee. She takes her time with the sentimental story before transitioning into a 10-minute-long Obama praising segment where she highlights his strides made towards diversity within his staff. In between each compliment to Obama’s legacy, she intertwines the hardship he faced from not just republicans but the conservative media over the choices he made in his administration. She almost makes Obama seem like the victim to a group of bullies that blocked his policies, denied Supreme Court appointees, and took his lunch money. She goes on to praise his accomplishments in high school graduation rates, unemployment rates, nuclear security, environmental policies, and LGBTQ rights. She attributes Obama with the feat of saving medicare and the U.S. auto industry as she wraps up her commentary that could be packaged into a reelection ad for Obama. Maddow doesn’t fail to end on several digs at Trump and all of his wild accusations and inappropriate comments about Obama’s birth certificate, his aptitude, and his qualifications to hold office. She paints Obama as America’s savior and slams the then incoming president Trump as an enemy to Obama and a threat to our entire democracy.

This commentary is bad for multiple reasons. First off, by being irrevocably biased and one-sided, Maddow robs the American people of the choice to make their own decision on Obama’s legacy based on the facts presented to them. After 16-minutes of an Obama pep rally, it’s unlikely viewers will remember the darker times of the administration, which are essential to depicting Obama’s true legacy in a well-rounded manner. You cannot judge someone’s lasting mark only by highlighting their triumphs and ignoring their short comings. Her direct disdain for Trump’s succession that wraps the broadcast is also more harmful than it is helpful. Instead of easing the obviously harsh transition between Obama and Trump, her commentary reinforces the divide.

Though skewed in favorability, Maddow presents her information in fact after fact organization. She supports each of her claims with screen shots of newspaper headlines and video clips of events, and instead of loading her opinion into each of Obama’s compliments, she just lists them plainly one after the other. I think the listing was a powerful tactic employed by Maddow that emphasized the great accomplishment of Obama, but the complete absence of any hardship in the Obama Administration (which there was a significant amount of) voids her broadcast of both sides of the argument and transforms it into Obama propaganda. She effectively communicates the information she chooses to include to her viewers and there is no question about where she stands on Obama’s last day and Trump’s looming move to the White House. She uses facts to get her message across, but is extremely selective in the facts she chooses to structure those arguments.

As for Bill O’Reilly’s take on Obama’s legacy, he brings in two presidential historians to join in his commentary. Both presidential historians lean to the right, which is no coincidence. Like Maddow, O’Reilly isn’t shy to share his point of view of Obama’s time in the White House and immediately challenges his guest that recognizes the obvious areas of Obama’s success like unemployment rates and the state of the Dow.

Both historians briefly recognize Obama’s positive impacts on the country and appreciate his historic time in office as the first African American president before cascading into a take-down of his failed policies and overuse of executive action. O’Reilly acts as a moderator to his guests, but frames his questions to knowingly steer the conversation against Obama due to his anticipation of his guest’s responses that will align with their conservative point of view. However, O’Reilly’s panel is already more of an open conversation than Maddow’s fan-girling.

The group talks health care, ISIS, and Obama’s character as a leader. The breakdown of Obama’s leadership qualities is where the most bias comes out. O’Reilly is eager to bring up every major problem in Obama’s administration, namely his initial actions regarding ISIS, and beats Obama’s error of  judgement like a dead horse. Each new talking point O’Reilly introduces is a short coming of the Obama Administration, and when either of his guests aren’t regurgitating his Obama take down, he does his signature move of cutting them off mid-sentence and shifting the conversation back into the realm he wants it to be in. He then wraps the episode with having each of his guests grade Obama on an A to F scale.

It’s clear to harsh contrast between O’Reilly and Maddow’s segments on Obama’s legacy. Where Maddow chose to focus too much on the good, O’Reilly constructed his commentary around the failure and problems. From an editorial standpoint you can see the difference in the way left and right media choose to report the same topic. Though both segments were biased and uneven, O’Reilly’s segment did offer more back and forth than Maddow’s and refrained from a direct comparison between Obama and an incoming Trump, which is valuable for listeners on both sides of the political spectrum.

Head to Head

Back in March of this year, Rachel Maddow got her hands on some pretty… underwhelming information that she presented in a monumental (and misleading) manor. Drum roll please… Trump’s tax returns! The MSNBC host built this story up big enough to elicit a countdown clock to her episode revealing all of the secrets of Trump’s finances with just two front-to-back pages of his tax return from over a decade ago. It came as no surprise that Maddow received backlash from media outlets of all mediums and ideologies after her anticlimactic episode. Bill O’Reilly seemed overjoyed to call her out directly in his following episode.

While her build up was dramatic and misleading, O’Reilly wasn’t scared to launch an attack on Maddow and MSNBC, saying they’ve turned into a “Sci-Fi” channel dreaming up Trump conspiracies on live TV. I can’t say I wasn’t amused by his sarcastic anecdotes of Maddow and her guests comparing Trump to Dr. Evil, but I found myself shocked that this type of commentary was on a national news program instead of a late night entertainment channel.

The perpetually irritated Bill O’Reilly could cut Maddow down all he wanted (and he did), but he was right in the fact that MSNBC would skyrocket in viewers for this episode, The March 15th tax reform reveal scored Maddow her largest audience to date of 4.13 million viewers (via Deadline).

 Popularity Contest

Taking a look at the numbers, more American’s seem to hear what Maddow is saying. The MSNBC host trumps O’Reilly in Twitter followers by over 5 million people, and her popularity is rising in ratings as well.

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According to a Deadline report from earlier this week, The Rachel Maddow show average 2.70 million total viewers, beating The O’Reilly Factor by 40,000 viewers. This study specifically measured viewership among the 25-54 year old age bracket. Maddow has ruled the cable news world after surpassing FOX’s The O’Reilly factor in ratings for the past three weeks. This trend shows no sign of slowing down as MSNBC has seen a spike viewership since O’Reilly’s sexual harassment settlements were released by the New York Times early last week.

Give the People What They Want

Ultimately, that’s drama and controversy. There’s a reason why “if it bleeds, it leads” is a token phrase in newsrooms across the country. Viewers want to see emotion and conflict when they turn on the news, especially if they’re tuning into a commentary segment like O’Reilly’s or Maddow’s. Both host’s point of view is clearly expressed and neither of them try to play both sides of the field, which is a testament to the beauty of our democracy and the 1st Amendment, but also reinforces a concerning climate that is plaguing political news media in the current political environment.