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.)
Maddow herself is the highest-paid and highest-rated talent at MSNBC, but beyond her own program, her quest to fill the network with her protégés may be dragging down ratings. Being an intellectual and a true believer is not, it seems, a good thing if you’re in the ratings business. Though Maddow looks askance at populist showmen such as Chris Matthews, Ed Schultz, and Al Sharpton, their shows regularly outperform those of Maddow’s wonky acolytes. In fact, Hayes’s show has created a drag on Maddow’s own ratings as his anemic numbers provide her with a weak lead-in.
“I liked Rachel because she is totally sincere, she is what she seems to be, she’s smart, she loves to debate for its own sake,” says Tucker Carlson, a former MSNBC host. After watching a tape her agent sent along, Carlson (who is also co-founder of the Daily Caller) championed Maddow in the face of Griffin’s initial objections. She was, at the time, a radio host at the now-defunct Air America network. “I always got along with Rachel. She’s a hard worker, she’s not a bullshitter,” he says. Maddow appeared regularly on Carlson’s show and began substituting for former MSNBC host Keith Olbermann. Then she got her own show in the summer of 2008, when Griffin decided to make the network, which had once employed conservatives such as Carlson, Pat Buchanan, and Michael Savage, a refuge for liberals and an answer to Fox News. It was a business calculation, not an ideological move.
Maddow, by contrast, is motivated by ideology. “If you debate for a living, you’re going to lose sometimes. Sometimes your preconceptions are wrong — that has never happened to her one time,” says a former colleague. “She is actually not that interested in reality; she is the most ideological person I’ve ever met. That is not somebody you want in charge of your programming, because she might put on a great show, but she cannot make rational decisions — her agenda is changing America. . . . She really thinks she is changing America for the better. You can’t have somebody like that in charge of your programming.”
Like the Democratic party itself, MSNBC is in transition. The party is no longer a coalition encompassing big labor, Hollywood, white ethnics, teachers’ unions, and minorities. Under President Obama, it has shed much of its blue-collar constituency while consolidating its gains among minorities, college-educated whites (women in particular), gays, and members of public-sector unions. A former MSNBC employee describes MSNBC’s transition this way: “When I worked there, it was axiomatic that all of our viewers were white — that’s what Phil Griffin said point blank. Rachel has decided to make a play for black viewers.” The New Yorker reported last year that MSNBC’s audience is now 30 percent African American.
MSNBC’s wonks, nonetheless, are seeing weak ratings because the cable-television audience does not mirror the American, or Democratic, electorate. It’s older: A 2012 Pew Research Center study found that 57 percent of Maddow’s audience is past 50, compared with 43 percent of all Americans. It’s also slightly less educated: According to the same study, 26 percent of MSNBC viewers have a college degree, compared with 29 percent of all Americans. Of course, the numbers can be parsed in many ways, but it’s difficult to imagine there’s a large appetite among MSNBC’s core audience for the graduate-level punditry served up by Maddow’s protégés. Nielsen data — which showed the network last year posting its lowest prime-time ratings since 2007 both in the coveted 25–54 demographic and in total viewers — reflect that mismatch.
“They’re just not going to get those people watching cable news,” says a longtime cable-news insider. “That’s why their numbers suck. If they were going to go populist, I think they could challenge Fox. What if you took that brand of ‘Hey, middle-class America, you’re getting screwed by the banks and by the educated class, by the environmental movement’? Wow, I think you could beat Fox on that.”
The new step of having Rich Stockwell review scripts before they air is an attempt to impose order on the chaos reigning at the network. “Phil was a producer, trained from the beginning to accommodate hosts — he’s incapable of reining these guys in,” says a former colleague. He points to Olbermann, who left the network after spinning out of control three years ago. Though network executives said the relationship between Olbermann and MSNBC had been deteriorating for a long time, Griffin’s former colleague describes Olbermann, now at ESPN, as a broadcaster who was “talented as hell” and who “could have been an enduring star if Phil had been strong enough to keep him between the lines.” Instead, he says, “Phil let him destroy himself.” Griffin’s current challenge, it appears, is to keep Rachel Maddow from running roughshod over the network in a similar fashion as she seeks to remake it in her image.
NBC’s news group has undergone profound changes in the last year, and Griffin remains the last man standing from the inner circle of Jeff Zucker, the NBC chief fired after Comcast wrested control of the company from General Electric. Many insiders are baffled that Griffin has survived so long, with Comcast aggressively purging mandarins of an old order known for fat expense accounts, long lunches, and resting on their laurels.
“Phil is too close to the old-boy culture at the old NBC to survive a bad spell, especially with this matriarchy in charge now,” an insider said, referring to the overwhelmingly female leadership that has recently taken over NBC News. “One more MSNBC host says something stupid, and that’s it.”
So will this series of embarrassing public incidents induce NBC to make a change at the top at MSNBC and impose more discipline? Or will it allow Maddow’s ideological preferences to continue to define the channel?
“My life is better with every year of living it,” Maddow told Vanity Fair in 2012.
It’s good to be “queen” — to be a liberal paid millions by a publicly traded company to spread the progressive gospel. Rachel Maddow, striding about Rockefeller Plaza in her colored sneakers, may be the luckiest woman in television. For now.
— Eliana Johnson is media editor of National Review Online.