Accuracy in Media

MSNBC producer Ariana Pekary resigned from the network in an open letter Monday containing a litany of complaints that she says affect the stories it covers.

The letter confirms several long-held viewer theories: that the network overamplifies minor stories, that it is politicizing the pandemic, that it selects guests for ratings rather than expertise, and that it almost exclusively reports on President Donald Trump.

Pekary is the latest in a string of media bias-related resignations, following Bari Weiss of the New York Times and Andrew Sullivan from New York Magazine. She had been at the network for seven years, most recently as a producer for The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell, which is the network’s second-most-watched program, according to The Hill.

In the letter, she said that the network’s entire editorial process is a “cancer” that revolves around ratings, which means that it “blocks diversity of thought and content because the networks have incentive to amplify fringe voices and events. All because it pumps up the ratings.”

“I don’t know what I’m going to do next exactly but I simply couldn’t stay there anymore,” Pekary said. “My colleagues are very smart people with good intentions. The problem is the job itself. It forces skilled journalists to make bad decisions on a daily basis.”

“It’s possible that I’m more sensitive to the editorial process due to my background in public radio, where no decision I ever witnessed was predicated on how a topic or guest would ‘rate.’ The longer I was at MSNBC, the more I saw such choices — it’s practically baked into the editorial process — and those decisions affect news content every day,” she continued. “Likewise, it’s taboo to discuss how the ratings scheme distorts content, or it’s simply taken for granted, because everyone in the commercial broadcast news industry is doing the exact same thing.”

“But behind closed doors, industry leaders will admit the damage that’s being done,” she said.

She also criticized the network for politicizing COVID.

“As it is, this cancer stokes national division, even in the middle of a civil rights crisis. The model blocks diversity of thought and content because the networks have incentive to amplify fringe voices and events, at the expense of others… all because it pumps up the ratings.

“This cancer risks human lives, even in the middle of a pandemic. The primary focus quickly became what Donald Trump was doing (poorly) to address the crisis, rather than the science itself. As new details have become available about antibodies, a vaccine, or how COVID actually spreads, producers still want to focus on the politics. Important facts or studies get buried.

She closed with a criticism of how MSNBC fails to include contextual details in its stories, assuming that facts are too “cumbersome” for viewers – a choice that in many cases further misleads viewers by oversimplification or omission of important data.

“Context and factual data are often considered too cumbersome for the audience. There may be some truth to that (our education system really should improve the critical thinking skills of Americans) – but another hard truth is that it is the job of journalists to teach and inform, which means they might need to figure out a better way to do that. They could contemplate more creative methods for captivating an audience. Just about anything would improve the current process, which can be pretty rudimentary (think basing today’s content on whatever rated well yesterday, or look to see what’s trending online today).

“Occasionally, the producers will choose to do a topic or story without regard for how they think it will rate, but that is the exception, not the rule. Due to the simple structure of the industry – the desire to charge more money for commercials, as well as the ratings bonuses that top-tier decision-makers earn – they always relapse into their old profitable programming habits.”

 




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