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Friday, March 15, 2013

MSNBC host Alex Wagner: Fear of anti-Semitism charge inhibits 'robust discussion' about Israel


MSNBC midday host Alex Wagner believes that there is an element of “trepidation” that inhibits a “robust discussion” about Israel in the American media.

“Look at our secretary of defense’s nomination process – that was hugely incendiary and complicated in large part because of comments that he made about Israel and the power of the Jewish vote in America,” Wagner said. “To be honest, I think it’s difficult for some people to figure out how to talk about that and if they are critical, how to do so in a respectful fashion and in way that doesn’t end up being a conversation about anti-Semitism.”

Wagner, an up-and-coming star of the left-leaning news network and the host of the daily “NOW with Alex Wagner” program, said Israel is a “very important and potent subject that people are genuinely curious about, but are perhaps not educated enough about it or are trepidatious about tackling it.”

“I think it’s incredibly tricky to talk about this unless you are incredibly fluent on the issue and you have a nuanced and comprehensive grasp of what’s going on,” she said.

Wagner spoke to Haaretz at MSNBC headquarters in Manhattan’s Rockefeller Center as part of a PR effort by NBC news network in advance of President Obama’s upcoming visit to Israel. The network, whose ratings have risen significantly over the past year – it trails Fox but has led CNN for the past four years – has been broadcast in Israel by the HOT cable company since December 2011.

To cover the President’s visit, the network is sending its chief foreign affairs correspondent, Andrea Mitchell, who will be joined by NBC anchor Brian Mitchell and political commentator Chuck Todd. The network’s daily anchors – including its prime time stars Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews and Lawrence O’Donnell - are expected to devote significant air time to the President’s visit next week, because, as Wagner says, U.S.-Israeli relations are “very important and hotly contested. It ignites a lot of passions and is relevant to our audience.”

Wagner, whose show was described last year by Dylan Byers in Politico as “beginning to wield a subtle but notable influence on the political discussion” believes that “whatever happens with Israel has a cascade effect in terms of American policy in the region. Whether it’s strengthening or fraying, the relationship obviously has an echo effect on what else we can or cannot do in the Middle East.”

While admitting that “a lot of us here at MSNBC would like to be able to do more foreign policy coverage,” Wagner said that the network’s focus on domestic and political issues is completely warranted “because we are coming out of an election cycle, there are a lot of legislative issues that could change American society.”

And the domestic agenda, she adds, “informs foreign policy, because there is a sense that because of our economic situation we don’t have the resources and to some degree we don’t have the interest in foreign policy that perhaps we should.” In any case, she said, “We are talking about ideology, and I think that has a resonance and importance to any community, whether they are Israeli, or French, or Egyptian or Mexican.”

The 35-year-old Wagner, who has been editor in chief of Fader, a music magazine, and executive editor of Not on our Watch, George Clooney’s anti-genocide advocacy group, came to MSNBC in 2010 as a political analyst and has anchored the noontime NOW show since 2011. The show, which features guest journalists and experts on political issues of the day, is known for its genial style and “youthful energy” attracting a significant audience among the most coveted of demographics – 25-54 years old.

“As host, she sees herself as the moderator, and there is a near unanimous feeling among guests that her ability to facilitate – rather than dominate – the conversation is what makes it feel genuine and organic,” Byers wrote.

One Republican strategist told Politico, however, that “the thrust of Wagner’s show is snide Democratic elites speaking condescendingly to viewers,” but Wagner rejects the hyper-partisan label that people try to affix to her and to her network as well as the parallel lines that people draw between MSNBC and Fox.

“I think MSNBC is unfairly painted as being intolerant of the other side – and there may be incredulity here – but I don’t think that you see the misinformation and falsities spread about the other side here on MSNBC the way that you do on some other networks, (that will remain nameless). There are a variety of viewpoints on MSNBC from morning to evening, including programs that are hosted by conservatives that are robust and are driven by the conservative point of view.”

“There is a progressive sentiment that informs this channel,” she adds, “but that is by no means handed down to us from on high. I have Republicans on my show, there have been conservatives: they may get challenged, but they do not get vilified.”

"I have a genuine interest in the Republican party reforming itself to become a more modern party, I think it’s very important and I think there is an argument to be made for conservatism. But I also think it is important to point out disingenuous political gimmickry where it exists, and I think that that is what is happening today. That said, when the president finally began talking about his drone program, you saw a very even-handed, if not very critical, assessment of what he is doing, on our show.”

Now that MSNBC is broadcast in over 30 countries worldwide, I asked Wagner if she has foreign audiences in mind in her programs. “Sure,” Wagner replies, “I am a first-general American on my mother’s side. She lives in Europe, and she loves MSNBC (and not just my show).”

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