MSNBC dropped all pretenses of neutrality at last week’s debate, not that its pretenses were ever remotely credible to begin with. Most of the time they’d at least attempt to play it straight, however perfunctorily. Of course, no one should have been under the illusion that running a debate well was within the repertoire of Rachel Maddow — one of the nation’s leading conspiracy theorists — whose very presence as lead moderator undermined the legitimacy of the entire affair from the outset. Even with the albatross of Maddow, though, it is conceivable that they could have striven for something resembling an impartial approach. Not surprisingly, that all went out the window when one particular candidate was targeted for open contempt.
Nearly half an hour went by before a question was asked of Tulsi Gabbard — and the question finally asked was tailor-made to generate a negative reaction among viewers. Co-moderator Ashley Parker reminded the audience that Tulsi had recently responded to an attack from Hillary Clinton by labeling her a warmonger and the personification of corruption, and pressed Tulsi for elaboration on these points. (Hillary, being the party’s previous presidential nominee, is still held in high regard by many Democratic voters.) This might have been a slightly strange introductory question, but is still arguably justifiable because there is a legitimate debate to be had about the continuing influence of the Clintons on the Democratic party. Plus, the dispute the two had last month did generate substantial attention. Parker showed her cards, however, when completely out of the blue she asked Kamala Harris for a reply.
Typically, candidates are only invited to interject in this manner when they are referenced by name, or when there is some obvious reason why they ought to be given the floor. Tulsi made no reference at all to Kamala. Still, the anchors took it upon themselves to initiate an altercation — an opportunity gladly seized upon by Kamala as she proceeded to rattle off a litany of well-rehearsed anti-Tulsi attack lines. Everyone who even tangentially follows Tulsi’s campaign knew exactly what these attacks would be — with the ‘Assad apologist’ talking point being the most obvious, and tedious. MSNBC nonetheless achieved their desired outcome of a choreographed ‘spat’.
We can only assume that the moderators had made an editorial judgment ahead of time that they would be prompting Kamala to weigh in like this: otherwise there is no discernible rationale for why that little tiff transpired in the way it did. Of course, few remarked upon the irony that Kamala had suddenly taken it upon herself to launch an anti-Tulsi diatribe, when at an earlier debate Kamala had infamously maligned Tulsi as unworthy of her attention; Kamala proclaimed herself a ‘top-tier’ candidate who need not worry about the niggling criticisms of lesser candidates like Tulsi. Fast forward a few months, and not only Kamala has essentially shuttered her entire New Hampshire operation, she’s apparently so desperate for ‘viral moments’ that she felt the need to square off with the disreputable Tulsi, a symptom of a change in the whole ‘tier’ calculus.
They also completely froze Tulsi out of the foreign policy portion of the debate, which is the central focus of her campaign. A conscious decision by Maddow & co? You can never quite know for sure, but the functional result was disadvantage Tulsi — which is firmly in line with the editorial tack taken by the rest of the network. MSNBC appears to have entered a full-blown crusade to destroy Tulsi by any means necessary.
In the ceremonial post-debate spin room, Tulsi appeared for a brief interview with Chris Matthews. Without missing a beat, Matthews immediately handed it off to Steve Schmidt, the former Republican operative who is now an anti-Trump MSNBC superstar. ‘Miss woman,’ said Schmidt, ‘I thought your performance was dishonest. I think your positions are extreme.’
‘Miss Woman?’ What the hell? This may have been a bizarre slip of tongue, but Schmidt was dripping with such blatant contempt that you can’t be totally sure. He continued, ‘and one question I would have for you, is why did you go to Syria to meet Bashar al-Assad? What was the intent of your visit there, and why were you so dishonest with regard to the mayor, insisting that he called for plans to invade Mexico, which of course he did not?’
Tulsi has addressed the reasons for her Syria visit countless times, so the purpose of Schmidt asking the first part of that tendentious question was not to sincerely elucidate any facts, but to hammer home for the viewing audience that she is supposedly a dictator-loving fringe candidate who should be regarded as evil. As for the Mayor Pete jab: contra Schmidt, Tulsi never ‘insisted’ that he had called for an invasion of Mexico. Rather, Tulsi accurately relayed what Pete had said at a public forum just a few days prior, where he expressed a willingness to send US troops to Mexico in the context of some ill-defined ‘partnership role’ to combat the drug cartels. Of course, any military intervention in Mexico would undoubtedly inflame the Drug War, but rather than press for real expansion on that issue Schmidt opted to erect the same straw man as Pete, who during the debate also indignantly denied that he’s planning to invade Mexico: even though that was never alleged.
As the night wore on, the evidence continued to pile that MSNBC had deemed Tulsi persona non grata. They are collectively offended by her mere presence on the debate stage and are determined to make sure that such an egregious affront never occurs again. Joy Reid, hosting a late-night post-debate panel discussion, declared that Tulsi’s views on regime change wars were ‘straight out of the Kremlin’. Reid, who infamously fabricated a story about a time-traveling hacker to explain her old anti-LGBT blog posts, kept the routine going in subsequent days — again describing Tulsi’s opposition to regime change wars as nothing more than a highly suspicious Russian talking point. Aided by notorious think tank alarmist and internet censorship advocate Clint Watts, Reid threw up nonsense statistics purporting to demonstrate that Tulsi is the favored candidate of online Kremlin propagandists.
The only viable conclusion: MSNBC is waging a multi-faceted de-legitimization campaign against one candidate. In a way this benefits Bernie, a previous de-legitimization target, because Tulsi is currently sucking up much of that angry energy — in part because she refuses to kowtow to Democratic party establishment factions and much of her appeal is predicated on taking a confrontational approach toward them. Bernie meanwhile has grown a bit more conciliatory, which may work to his electoral advantage.
MSNBC of course does not exist in a vacuum within the media landscape: like-minded outfits have also exiled Tulsi from mainstream respectability. But annoyingly for them, she continues to generate enough support to remain a significant candidate: probably in part as a reaction to these continued media attacks. The New York Times last week published a fashion critique in which Tulsi’s choice of white clothing was described as cult-like and having ‘connotations of the fringe’, the latest in a long line of outlandishly hostile coverage from that outlet. And Politico just granted anonymity to an unknown Democratic senator solely so that senator could bash Tulsi as a dangerous imposter. (Saturday Night Live’s subsequent depiction of the debate, in which Tulsi was introduced by Maddow as ‘tonight’s villain’, was only semi-satirical.)
These attacks will intensify as Tulsi maintains a prominent position in the primary race. MSNBC, the most reliable conduit for the DNC, is the most instructive barometer for anti-Tulsi frustrations in the party. Her propensity to frustrate party elites, however, is one of the things Tulsi supporters like about her the most. As such, this sputtering media hatred is maybe her most valuable asset.