aNewDomain commentary — MSNBC, the 24-hour news channel that competes with CNN and FOXNews, is in trouble, says our Ted Rall. Here’s why.
Signature evening shows led by Rachel Maddow at 9 PM Eastern are fading. Newly launched programs such as Ronan Farrow are “duds,” reports the New York Times.
Even critically acclaimed favorites followed closely by Beltway denizens in Washington and media mavens in New York alike, like ex-Congressman Joe Scarborough’s chatfest, are losing viewers: “‘Morning Joe’ has been hurt because no one is tuning in to watch the channel now; they go right by,” an anonymous network executive told the newspaper. “The show took its eye off the ball, but you can’t discount the fact that nobody is watching the channel.”
“MSNBC has seen its ratings hit one of the deepest skids in its history, with the recently completed third quarter of 2014 generating some record lows,” reports The Times.
What went wrong serves as a cautionary tale, not only for media in general and broadcast media in particular, but for anyone who runs a business reliant on brand identity. No matter how smart you are, insularity and arrogance will yank defeat from the jaws of victory.
[Disclosure: I have written columns for MSNBC.com, and appeared on the network as an unpaid guest. Our editor, Gina Smith, has anchored shows for MSNBC and also appeared as a guest on its shows ]
MSNBC began promisingly, as a long overdue, smarter, left-wing counterbalance to FOXNews, which pretty much had served as the house organ of the Bush administration throughout the war on terror. MSNBC benefited from Bush fatigue, the rightward move of NPR as well as the collapse of the Air America radio network in 2010, which had left progressives starved for a mix of news and punditry.
Particularly since the election of Barack Obama in 2008, the network has committed ratings suicide. Why? There are a number of factors. But any list has to begin with how MSNBC devolved into an inward-looking, bland organ for the release of Democratic Party talking points.
Leftie bloggers deride it as “MSDNC.”
I have watched MSNBC hours a day since its inception and have been mystified at this steady move into boring sycophancy. Day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, millions of Americans have watched, and tuned away from a network that did a few things right – then stopped doing those – and a lot of things wrong – which it doubled down upon. Why didn’t all those highly paid professional executives notice? That we will likely never know, but we do know that what went on the air became increasingly predictable. In an industry that becomes more competitive with the launch of every blog, ratings death was inevitable.
First and foremost, MSNBC failed to learn from Fox. Before 2000, Fox was a fast rising, freewheeling roller coaster of an infotainment juggernaut, nearly as likely to invite a socialist to discuss the day’s events as to defend the Republican Party. Back then, Fox was not a Republican network, but a conservative one – a formula that Rush Limbaugh used to build his own radio empire.
This is no small distinction.
Espousing an ideology – conservatism or liberalism – rather than toeing a party line – Republican or Democratic – appeals to hardline idealists, people who view themselves as members of a movement rather than mere fans of a team. To true believers, the movement keeps going. There are always new worlds to conquer, even after a victorious election. Politicians must be kept honest. Party officials must be forced to adhere to doctrine. More seats must be won. Before 9/11, FOXNews’ conservative hosts didn’t hesitate to criticize Republicans from the right — and the ratings kept growing.
After 9/11, however, Fox began defending Bush even when he veered away from conservative orthodoxy by running up the deficit, starting wars of choice and so on. Republicans were happy. But conservative viewers drifted away. After a time, so did Republicans – there wasn’t much drama in a world with a right wing Republican president, a Republican House of Representatives and an impotent, nominally Democratic Senate.
On the air, liberals were invited less frequently. Alan Colmes, the clownish sidekick of Sean Hannity, left the show. When lefties were invited, they were screamed at. Fox became an echo chamber, not a very entertaining place. Numbers kept slipping.
MSNBC might have learned from Fox; instead, the chance to form a cozy relationship with the Obama administration took precedence over the entertainment imperative – remember, this is television.
Granted, lefties are less loyal to their news sources than their right-wing counterparts. But that’s why a left-oriented news/politics mix needs to work harder.
The network’s credibility with lefties suffered soon after its launch when it fired veteran host Phil Donahue, then the highest rated talker on MSNBC, because he opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In 2010, the then highest rated host, liberal firebrand Keith Olbermann, was jettisoned following the revelation that he had made two small campaign contributions to Democratic Congressmen. But the journey of Rachel Maddow, who began her broadcast career on Air America and had been a protégé of Olbermann, is perhaps the most symptomatic example of how MSNBC lost its way.
An openly gay woman, Maddow was a smart, out of the box host who maintained such quirks as her unapologetically butch appearance and intellectual long-windedness in her prime time program. But it rapidly became clear that Maddow was operating on a leash that was getting shorter by the minute when it came to criticizing the Democratic Party, or President Obama, from the left.
In punditry, honesty and credibility are your number one assets. Without them, you’ve got nothing. But night after night, MSNBC hobbled Maddow by curtailing her ability to call out an Obama administration that was moving further and further to the right, on issues like drones, Guantánamo Bay, extrajudicial assassinations, illegal NSA surveillance of the American public, increased troop deployments against Afghanistan and Iraq, the administration’s role in destabilizing Libya and Syria, its unconscionable decision to dole out trillions of dollars to the banks but not to Main Street homeowners or to the unemployed.
Now such criticisms almost never happen on MSNBC, whether on Maddow’s show, or even on programs hosted by people who used to represent the “mainstream” of American radicalism, such as the Rev. Al Sharpton. Anyone to the left of the Democratic Party – socialists, communists, left libertarians, Occupy Wall Street types, etc. is censored.
On May 19, 2011, Sharpton even publicly promised to never criticize Pres. Obama about anything. For the most part, he has kept that vow.
“In terms of Rachel, everybody knows every night what she’s going to say,” the unnamed executive explained. “The network just doesn’t surprise you.”
Of course not. Because if you are a news junkie, you’ve already heard the Democratic Party talking points over and over and over again. Who needs to hear them again on MSNBC?
Based in New York, Ted Rall is a journalist, commentator, cartoonist, war correspondent and a Pulitzer Prize finalist. He is senior commentator here at aNewDomain and on our sister site, BreakingModern. Follow him @tedrall on Twitter and at his page on Google+ …