Culture

The Fall of MSNBC

An afternoon-anchor shakeup is just the beginning of reckoning with its failure.

Rarely has a prince so keenly disappointed his trumpeters. It was announced yesterday that MSNBC’s Ronan Farrow, once the sparkle-eyed wunderkind who would lead the network into broad, sunlit uplands, will be stripped of his show. His time there, it turns out, was a waste of everyone’s time.

In 2013, MSNBC chief Phil Griffin had enthused breathlessly that “Ronan has established himself as a provocative, independent journalist, capable of challenging people’s assumptions and empowering audiences. His show will be a game changer for MSNBC.” By February of 2015, he was forced to acknowledge that Farrow had “empowered,” to judge from the ratings, almost nobody at all. It was time, Griffin conceded, for some more “experimenting.”

Also removed from the airwaves was insipid afternoon host Joy Ann Reid, whose particular brand of racially charged progressive orthodoxy apparently appealed to few more viewers than did Farrow. If the Daily Beast is to be believed, this will not be the end of the shake. In addition, the Beast’s Lloyd Grove suggests, Al Sharpton “could eventually be moved from his weeknight 6 p.m. gig” and placed in a weekend graveyard slot, and Chris Hayes may be replaced by Rachel Maddow — who, in turn, would be dislodged by new talent. Thus, Politico’s Dylan Byers proposes, does MSNBC hope to “stem its cataclysmic ratings declines and waning relevance.”

The potential implosion of the nation’s most openly progressive television station will undoubtedly provoke conservatives into cheap, if comprehensible, schadenfreude. But for the Right to cackle quietly would be rather to miss the point. Ten years ago, as the backlash against George W. Bush approached its fevered zenith, MSNBC took steps to ensure that it would crest and float happily upon the coming wave. For a time, Keith Olbermann was transformed into the voix de la résistance — serving not only as the go-to commentator on the collapse of the Republican majority, but as the much-loved narrator of all the Left’s halcyon days. Olbermann was there when the Democratic party recaptured the House and the Senate; he was there when Wall Street crashed and Barack Obama emerged as a savior; and he was there when Obamacare was rushed through in the dead of night. Yesterday, the model that he built started to show its most worrying cracks yet. We may well be marking the end of an era.

In self-professedly “non-partisan” circles, it is common to hear it said that MSNBC is essentially just a leftward-leaning version of Fox News. This appraisal, I think, is wide of the mark. Contrary to its favored claim, Fox is not in fact “Fair and Balanced” but is a rightward-leaning station with an ideologically driven owner, a clear target audience, and an obvious and pronounced set of political biases. Or, as one wag has put it, Fox is designed to appeal to “a niche market called half the country.” This being so the problem is less that Fox is “extreme” or that it is “out of touch,” and more  that it is geared rather unsubtly toward serving one of America’s two philosophical poles. As one can open the New York Times and still easily recognize the country one is discussing, to dive into Fox’s world is to be exposed to a familiar but slanted impression of America and its people. Should viewers seek out a second opinion? Absolutely. Should they automatically discount the one they heard on Fox? No, of course not. 

In this regard Fox is a little different from MSNBC, which, by unlovely contrast, does not aim at a broad swath of the United States at all, but is instead focused on a fascinating alternative universe to which few would-be viewers have ever been. Its handful of rather ordinary news anchors to one side, MSNBC’s hosts do not so much exist to represent a popular viewpoint as they are put on air to play a set of dramatic roles in what has become a vast and monomaniacal piece of conspiratorial performance art, of the sort that one might see composed by the theater department at Oberlin. When Deadline Hollywood’s Lisa de Moraes records that “today’s buzz word at MSNBC is ‘news-focused,’” she is not suggesting that the channel hopes slightly to tweak its balance between the straight-up reporting of facts and the offering of unabashed opinion; she is conceding that the station’s long experiment with esoteric faculty-lounge silliness is coming, at long last, to a crashing and ignominious end. “The goal,” an anonymous source told the Daily Beast yesterday, “is to move away from left-wing TV” and to give up on the hope of a return to the “glory days during George W. Bush’s administration.” Thus did Air America’s visual counterpart meet its own inevitable end.

Popular as it is as a theory, the contention that explicitly left-wing media fails because left-wingers are “too smart” is brutally over-simplistic and invariably self-serving. Open them up on the subject and left-leaning types will explain smugly that, being bombastic and rudimentary and Manichean in nature, conservatism lends itself especially keenly to talk radio and to cable news. The problem for the Joy Reids and Ronan Farrows of the world, this assessment concludes, is that the subtlety and honesty of left-leaning figures renders their offerings lifeless and makes for dull — even bad — television. Disappointed that Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly rake in the cash while Chris Hayes and Current TV are reduced to mere punch lines? Don’t be, say the apologists. One is for the mass market; the other is for the discerning shopper, like you.

Undoubtedly, there are indeed structural differences at play. Unlike Rush Limbaugh and Fox News — whose audiences flock in droves to hear a point of view that they will not hear anywhere else — MSNBC has found itself in direct competition with more subtly left-leaning outlets such as NPR, CNN, HLN, and the majority of the country’s national newspapers. This has naturally put it at a disadvantage from which the handful of conservative channels are immune. But that MSNBC has also been so sorely lacking in both talent and sanity has been the real fatal blow. It really is no accident that the channel has been at its most popular when its main attractions were likable and competent and when its output was tolerable to viewers who have more than politics in their lives. At present, it is the winsome Rachel Maddow who dominates the ratings. Back in the day, it was the talented and surprisingly likable Keith Olbermann who brought in the eyeballs. The rest of the charisma-free cast, however, viewers can clearly take or leave. This is no accident.

Similarly, too, it should not come as a surprise that MSNBC “regularly attracted a million viewers” during the period in which its hosts aimed their fire at people who actually held power, or that this audience disappeared when they consciously retreated into advocacy. During the Bush years, a significant number of Americans became desperate to hear views that differed sharply from the prevailing political wisdom of the age, and they turned to Olbermann and Co. to find them. Since that time, however, the government has changed, and with it the center of political gravity. Unfortunately for its architects, MSNBC’s business model was built upon the presumption that transient anti-Bush sentiment would translate neatly into viable amounts of permanent anti-conservative outrage, and that the same people who disliked the previous administration on the merits would be keenly interested in watching a bunch of nearsighted know-nothings rail against invisible bogeymen, abstract nouns, and the omnipotent, omnipresent Koch brothers. As we are beginning to see, this simply did not happen. Nor, I would venture, is it going to. That MSNBC is beginning earnestly to inspect the lifeboats indicates that its higher-ups are aware of the problem. But, unless they are resolved to turn their ship around rather dramatically, they will soon be joining Farrow in the water.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.

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