You may have said to yourself when you got up this morning, "You know what I could use? A mini-scandal that I'll forget about in a day or two!" No? Well anyway, this one is actually kind of interesting. You see, Mitt Romney has periodically used the slogan "Keep America American," which is obviously an attempt to appeal to various strains of xenophobia and resentment that run through the American electorate but are particularly strong in the Republican base. It also dovetails nicely with the attacks he and others make on Barack Obama, charging that the president has foreign ideas and is trying to turn America into a nightmarish Euro-socialist hellscape. The slogan would be pretty repugnant on its face, but it turns out, as John Aravosis of AmericaBlog discovered, it's been used by other people before Romney, including the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. As Rick Perry might say, "Oops."
So MSNBC picked up Aravosis's post and did a brief story on it. Among other things, the story included a chyron that perhaps went a bit far, reading, "Romney's KKK slogan?" What happened next is what's interesting. The Romney campaign complained, and MSNBC began to grovel profusely. Chris Matthews read an apology on the air (even though he wasn't the one who did the initial report), saying the network "reported on a blog item that compared a phrase used by the Romney campaign to one used by the KKK way back in the 1920s. It was irresponsible and incendiary of us to do this, and it showed an appalling lack of judgment. We apologize, we really do, to the Romney campaign."
What's odd about this is that MSNBC didn't say anything that was false, and the fact that Mitt Romney's xenophobic slogan was previously used by not only the KKK but also other groups like the Know-Nothings is obviously interesting and newsworthy. So it's unclear exactly what MSNBC was apologizing for, although their statement seems to suggest that they now believe that when they heard that Mitt Romney was using an old KKK slogan, they should have just not said anything about it. That's some courageous media for you right there.
I'm quite sure that if Romney himself or his campaign had known that "Keep America American" was used by the KKK, they would never have used it themselves. And MSNBC didn't suggest otherwise. But it's nevertheless revealing—not because it means Romney is going to burn a cross on anyone's lawn but because it shows how certain streams of resentment and fear have coursed through American politics throughout our history, and find expression in similar ways even though the people expressing them stand for very different things.
Of course you'd want any news organization to handle the story responsibly, making sure they're not implying anything they wouldn't be willing to say explicitly. But there seems to be little evidence that MSNBC actually did anything wrong. In their apology, they said it was "irresponsible and incendiary" of them, and it showed "an appalling lack of judgment,=" to report "on a blog item that compared a phrase used by the Romney campaign to one used by the KKK way back in the 1920s." But the blog item didn't "compare" Romney's slogan to the KKK one, it pointed out that they were one and the same. No one has alleged that this observation was inaccurate. So why exactly was it wrong of them to discuss it?
While it's often said that MSNBC has moved to become the left's version of Fox News, try for a moment to imagine Fox apologizing to a Democratic candidate for some incendiary rhetoric that found its way onto their air. Ha! Far worse things are said about Barack Obama every day on Fox—hell, every hour—and if you were to charge them with conservative bias, their response would essentially be to tell you where you can cram it. The point isn't that MSNBC isn't trying to appeal to a liberal audience, because they are. Nevertheless, they still obviously live in fear: fear of being criticized, fear of being called biased, fear of having their professionalism called into question. They may have a bunch of liberal on-air personalities, but they still plainly believe in the idea of objective journalism, even if that belief can manifest itself in things like craven apologies to Republican campaigns when they didn't actually do anything wrong.