Ted Rall: Why MSNBC Is In Trouble

MSNBC is in trouble, says our senior commentator Ted Rall. Here’s why.

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?

ted-rall-msnbcFor aNewDomain, I’m Ted Rall.

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+ …


  • Like you I watched MSNBC diligently for a long time, and boy did they ruin a pretty good thing. Here’s my summation:

    Craven sucking up to the Obama administration – driving out most all leftist critics (Olberman, Uygur, Ratigan, and almost… Schultz), and energetically boosting the 2012 campaign, then following up with a commercial tying the network’s “Moving Forwards” logo with a montage of ecstatic election night “diverse” Obama voters.

    Thinking that “politics” was more important than civics.

    Watered down international coverage.

    Treating Al Sharpton like a savvy analyst. When he pronounced the name of a famous Italian astronomer “Guh-LAY-oh”, it was like fingernails on a chalkboard.

    Bending over backwards to be hip, diverse, and young.

    Too many Obama kissups from the Grio crowd, who wouldn’t criticize Obama if he ate his children on the White House lawn.

    Ignoring the Gaza war completely for two weeks during the tense launch of the first attacks, and then having top executives move in to micromanage the “coverage” to slant it in Israel’s favor. Immediately firing a commentator who criticized this, and ingratiating Chris Hayes to the Israel lobby that evening. That was the end of my regular viewership.

    Joe Scarboorish.

  • Basically stopped watching after MSNBC canned Olbermann. Mathews is intolerable. Shapton unwatchable. Maddow, for all her investigative chops, as Rall points out, is on a short leash, and Lawrence, while incisive, can become tiresome. The execs at MSNBC are oblivious to what Rall point out as the true fault, which is that the network has become a party/partisan mouthpiece. And as an Independent, I could care less about party taking points.

  • FOX News is the dominate cable channel and just burns the MSM’s butt. CNN & MSNBC are predictable and redundant. Maybe when only one left leaning network is still standing, that will take on FOX head-to-head. Now, it’s two little kids throwing temper tantrums and not very interesting to watch. BTW, Olbermann is better on ESPN. His political act grew tiresome and ridiculous. His ego got out of control.

  • Thank you, thank you. That we have a 2-party system is obvious, even tho’ the two parties are more alike than different. Must we have a 2-party media that cannot think outside the box as well? That said, I do have a fondness for Chris Hayes, and I still enjoy Rachel/Lawrence. But the leash, as stated, is taking the punch out of the better skills of these hosts. It seems that EVERYONE is caving, right along with Obama. And with that weakness from the media and the admin, my hopes for America are tanking. Nothing is certain in America anymore except the next election, the endless cycle and the sellout of our politicians and our media. Money and profits rule, the people lose. And the failing networks will lose in the end as well, along with our sellout politicians.

  • MSNBC is still an active and good source for many things. As a Democratic Party activist, it seems like a good place for some reasonable news compared to the Beltway press. Even though Chris Matthews is the spokesperson for inside the beltway and conventional news speak, Rachel , Chris and Lawrence offer a counterpoint to this. If you are outside that circle, gutting the content of any alternative viewpoint farther left of them does seem it was ill advised.

    But the ratings slide is part and parcel of a general slide in Broadcast TV viewers; it’s not as if everyone went to another channel. The more progressive audience that is MSNBC’s is merely the vanguard of shifting viewing habits. Barely half of the golden demographic 18- 30’s even have cable.

  • First, we will talk about this article TONIGHT on our show, Independent Underground Radio LIVE. Second, thank you for writing it. Third, we are going to share it widely.

    Next, this analysis is right on point about the conjoined mess of a network MSNBC has become. Just before Dish Network ended hopefully temporarily — its association with all things Time – Warner and along with such CNN, we were just beginning to watch more of the network we formerly would skip on the regular for a daily dose of MSNBC.

    However, over the past year plus — skipping MSNBC has been first and foremost in our mind. Why? For one, nearly EVERYONE on the network sounds like a parrot. Seriously — no joke — parodist syndrome effect has infected the studios of MSNBC.

    Rachel — Stop it. Either take the leech off of this Woman OR end the program. Having Rachel go on and on for nearly 30 minutes on a topic not that interesting in the least because she can’t get a guest on her show for a valid perception the program being “too far left” is downright sad. The Rachel talking to the point of ad nauseum, to fill program time is getting REAL DARN OLD.

    Lawrence – If there ever was a bigger cheerleader for all things DNC. Either he needs to provide CRITICAL analysis of topics, ideas and/or discussions, or if he cannot or will not do so — end his show. It’s BORING with a capital B.

    Chris — He is not sure what he wants his show to be — Hayes. Chris has potential however, the Executives at MSDNC will not either let Hayes use his potential OR Hayes is so “Pro-Anything Democrat is 150% Right” that he does not have the proper filter required as a show host, otherwise. Yet, he has invited supporters of the Occupy Movement onto his show in the past, although NOT LATELY. Ironically, the other day he interviewed a musical group who produce retro 1980’s like music videos on his show. Hello is it MSNBC or MTV? Confusing.

    Chris Tweety Matthews – Heck we like Chris SOMETIMES however, the shouting over his guests, trying to appear Republican light SOMETIMES and coming up with the wildest things off the top of his head without filter or fact skit — has become a bit old. Maybe Tweety needs to retire.

    Al Sharpton – Can you say what is the Rev’s focus? Is he a Reverend, a civil rights activist, a newscasters(questionable at best on that one), the figure head of a non-profit, a radio host (he still has a weekly call in program), a on-call negotiator for any questionable yet POPULAR (or else he is not going) Black on Police Officer related shootings or beatings (which must result in death), a cheerleader for all things Obama or what exactly? This Man has TOO MANY hats on and frankly is not a valid show host on a “News” network, in the least. A talking head occasional pundit, yes. Hosting a show on a “so-called” “news” network, no! The same applies to Melissa Harris Perry on the weekends.

    Ed Schultz – Well, the unions (whom we like by the way) must have pulled back money from Ed because he is not either allowed or can’t be the firebrand “tell them as he see them” host has been in the past. Poor Ed….as his show MUST BE losing ratings, BIG TIME as a result.

    The rest of MSDNC: Ridicious!

    That Jose’ guy — seriously? What a tool.

    Ronan Farrow: Umm…what again is his newscaster qualifications?

    Tamron Hall was the best thing MSDNC had and they keep moving around her show OR she does not show up to host her show so much — that no one cares anymore.

    We could go on however the point is — MSDNC deserve to fall HARD.

    Hopefully another truly independent left network willing to provide critical analysis of political, economic, finance and business discussions will fall in its’ place. More African-Americans who are NOT cheerleaders for all things DNC will be able to appear on the network or better yet — host a program.

    Until then…..we will tune in, elsewhere……