MSNBC, the left-leaning cable-news network, has settled on one solution to its recent problems. It now has an executive reviewing scripts before they go on the air. The role, which has fallen to Rich Stockwell, a former executive producer of The Ed Show and Countdown with Keith Olbermann who now oversees special projects at the network, was created as several of the network’s hosts have, to the embarrassment of network brass, conducted a master class in political incorrectness. In recent months, Alec Baldwin, Martin Bashir, and, most recently, Melissa Harris-Perry have awkwardly crashed into the trinity of sexual orientation, gender, and race, leading many to wonder if there are any adults in charge at MSNBC.
There is one such adult, actually, and her name is Rachel Maddow. Though she provides the network’s ideological vision — MSNBC president Phil Griffin has called her “our quarterback” — she’s neither an executive nor a manager. Griffin, who wears both hats, is, from all appearances, letting the inmates run the asylum. Meanwhile, the network that Griffin has labeled “the place for progressives” is experiencing a free fall in its ratings, which are down 29 percent from 2012. A decline was expected after a presidential-election year, but MSNBC’s competitors did not suffer as acutely. Fox News was down only 5 percent in total viewers (it suffered far more in the coveted 25–54 demographic, where the network has persistently struggled); CNN’s numbers, under the stewardship of newly installed president Jeff Zucker, remained flat.
Apologies are rare in the world of television, but they have come from MSNBC at a regular clip in recent months. “Anti-gay slurs are wrong,” Baldwin said in late November. Days before, he had accosted a photographer who was following his family and allegedly hurled an anti-gay slur in his direction. The same day Baldwin issued his apology, Martin Bashir took to the air with a clumsy pontification about Sarah Palin, slavery, and human excrement. By early December, both Baldwin and Bashir had announced that they were leaving the network.
The dust had hardly settled before Tulane professor cum MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry was tearfully apologizing to “families formed through transracial adoption.” She had led a holiday humor segment on December 30 that used as its jumping-off point a Romney-family photo. Harris-Perry said the segment took an “unexpected” turn as her guests poked fun at Mitt Romney’s adopted African-American grandson.
Few, though, suspect that Harris-Perry will suffer the same fate as her less fortunate colleagues, and MSNBC declined to comment on the matter. That’s because Harris-Perry is part of Maddow’s in-crowd, the liberal, wonkish elite now ascendant at MSNBC.
Sources say it is Maddow rather than Phil Griffin who provides MSNBC’s editorial direction, and that she also holds considerable sway over personnel decisions. “I know I’m never going to get freakin’ talking points from Phil,” Maddow told The New Yorker last year. “Can you imagine? Like, what would they be?”
Behind her back, colleagues call her “the queen,” a not so subtle suggestion that Maddow gets what Maddow wants. And what she wants is a network filled with young wonks such as Chris Hayes, Ezra Klein, Alex Wagner, and Harris-Perry, whose highbrow intellectualism can, she hopes, push the Democratic party, and the country, to the left. On Twitter, Harris-Perry’s show proudly uses the hashtag #nerdland. Alex Wagner’s move to the 4 p.m. hour, where Bashir’s show once aired, has Maddow’s fingerprints on it.
Griffin, who came of age as a sports producer at CNN and then as a booker on the Today show, is, according to a former colleague, “utterly non-ideological.” “He makes decisions,” says the former colleague, “based on 30-day trailing numbers” and lacks a strategic vision. Maddow, who came aboard in 2008, has filled the ideological void. “Alec Baldwin and Martin were outliers; they weren’t part of her inner circle,” says a television insider. “Bashir’s contract was up, he was twisting in the wind when this happened, and he was out of sync with Rachel’s ideology.”
As Maddow’s foes have suffered, her acolytes have prospered — chief among them, 34-year-old Brown University graduate Chris Hayes, who last April replaced Ed Schultz, the warrior progressive from the Plains. “You did it,” Maddow announced as Hayes wrapped up his inaugural show. “We did it,” Hayes replied, as he turned the reins over to Maddow for her 9 p.m. show. It was April 1, 2013, Maddow’s 40th birthday, and the pair celebrated accordingly. “This was a very, very nice birthday present for you to give me, doing such an awesome show,” she said. “So great that you’re here, Chris. I could not be more excited.” As Hayes and Maddow patted each other on the back, Schultz was toiling away in a weekend timeslot. (MSNBC has since reinstalled Schultz in the weekday lineup, after viewers made it clear that they missed his loudmouthed advocacy for the working man.)