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What's Wrong with MSNBC: The Mainstream Drift of Cable's Failed Progressive Experiment

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On the night of the New York primaries, not long after interrupting Donald Trump’s victory speech to announce the network’s projection in the Democratic contest, disgraced former Nightly News anchor and now MSNBC paterfamilias Brian Williams slipped, perhaps inadvertently, into the idiom of regret. Though it was his penchant for embellishment, his unquenchable thirst for approval, that landed Williams in hot water in the first place, his strained sense of humor has only blossomed since his transition to the cable news channel, particularly during the long, slack stretches of election night—as if the excesses of the current campaign were simply another cameo on 30 Rock, another late-night yarn to spin.

That Williams, of all people, should allude to the sense of disappointment that follows when the music finally stops is almost too fitting, for he is the folksy, avuncular figurehead of MSNBC’s abandonment of the left-leaning experiment that began with Keith Olbermann’s Countdown in 2003. “There’s that expression,” he told the panel, referring to Hillary Clinton’s insurgent challenger, Bernie Sanders: ”’Staying too long at the fair.’”

More than a year after anemic ratings first compelled the network to reconsider its progressive complexion, MSNBC is no longer the liberal counterweight to FOX News. In fact, with the exception of the primetime bloc of Chris Hayes, Rachel Maddow, and Lawrence O’Donnell, which increasingly resembles a vestigial tail of its recent evolution, the network is scarcely distinguishable from CNN—and that’s the central problem. Gone are The Ed Show, with its uncommon focus on organized labor; The Reid Report, with its sustained coverage of race, racism, and police brutality; and Melissa Harris-Perry, the incisiveness and inclusiveness of which so thoroughly eclipsed the Sunday morning shows that its namesake’s abrupt departure from the network, in February, became a minor political firestorm of its own.

(MSNBC announced last week that Joy Reid will take over Harris-Perry’s weekend-morning timeslot as of May 7, though few details about the format of the program have been made public.)

Even in its least impeachable firing, of the defiantly uncharismatic Ronan Farrow, MSNBC relinquished an hour that often drew attention to LGBT issues more controversial, and to some more pressing, than equal marriage. Left in their wake: A shifting ensemble of forgettable daytime anchors, a trio of analysts (Chuck Todd and Bloomberg’s Mark Halperin and John Heilemann), and Chris Matthews, a desiccated foghorn of vanishingly little political acumen and even less tact. If you listen hard enough during the sturdy, foreign affairs-centric hour she hosts in the middle of this maelstrom, you can almost hear Andrea Mitchell scream.

Audiences are culpable in these changes, of course: Had MSNBC’s progressive slant been a ratings smash, the liberal brio that continues to mark All In with Chris Hayes and The Rachel Maddow Show would have remained the house style. Nor is coverage of their ideological tenor prima facie more astute or informative than the alternatives. But in the course of a campaign that has tested the mettle of the major broadcast outlets, and ultimately found each wanting, it’s worth asking what the transformation of MSNBC—which once covered stories its 24-hour brethren would have never deigned to touch—means for the future of TV news.

Of the most recent presidential election, in 2012, I remember most forcefully not Clint Eastwood’s empty chair or Barack Obama’s poor performance in the first debate, but Maddow’s post-mortem, which acknowledged the cocktail-hour glow of the Democratic triumph in order to cast the events of that year in appropriate perspective. Her A-block that night, extending more than 16 minutes, was Maddow, and the old MSNBC, par excellence—progressive, certainly, but fastidious about the facts, annotating the consequences of political posturing as a professor might a densely allusive text:

“Ohio really did go to President Obama last night. And he really did win. And he really was born in Hawaii. And he really is, legitimately, President of the United States, again. And the Bureau of Labor Statistics did not make up a fake unemployment rate last month. And the Congressional Research Service really can find no evidence that cutting taxes on rich people grows the economy. And the polls were not skewed to oversample Democrats. And Nate Silver was not making up fake projections about the election to make conservatives feel bad. Nate Silver was doing math. And climate change is real. And rape really does cause pregnancy sometimes. And evolution is a thing. And Benghazi was a attack on us. It was not a scandal by us. And nobody is taking away anyone’s guns. And taxes have not gone up. And the deficit is dropping, actually. And Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction. And the moon landing was real. And FEMA is not building concentration camps. And U.N. election observers are not taking over Texas. And moderate reforms of regulations on the insurance industry and the financial services industry in this country are not the same thing as communism. Listen. Last night was a good night for liberals and for Democrats, for very obvious reasons. But it was also, possibly, a good night for this country as a whole.”

Where Olbermann was pugnacious and arrogant, aping the style of conservative rivals Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh, Maddow is mostly self-effacing. (Eight years after The Rachel Maddow Show’s debut, she still opens most interviews by asking guests what she missed, or misconstrued, in the introduction.) Her approach is that of the newspaper columnist, or indeed of the Oxford-trained debater, marshaling information—historical context, recent reporting, polling data, the occasional wry anecdote—into argument. Even in tackling one of her pet subjects, Maine’s shambolic Republican governor, Paul LePage, she evinces little interest in inside-the-Beltway shorthand: A recent segment on LePage’s inhumane approach to his state’s opioid addiction epidemic featured an in-depth assessment of the growing use of Narcan to combat overdoses nationwide, and of state-level steps to make it available without a prescription.

Liberal “bias” aside, if the goal of broadcast journalism is to leave viewers more knowledgeable about current events than when they turned on their televisions, Maddow, Mitchell, and Hayes—whose All In is the most reliably substantive hour on the MSNBC schedule—are the last of the network’s hosts still attempting to clear the bar. Three days after the New York primaries and two days after the death of Prince, their coverage offered refuge: Mitchell interviewing a Financial Times editor on the economic consequences of the Brexit; Hayes discussing Trump advisor Paul Manafort’s work for “the torturer’s lobby” and the consequences of anti-transgender laws in North Carolina and Mississippi; Maddow setting the table for the two-year anniversary of the implementation of the policy that poisoned Flint.

By contrast, when analyst Al Hunt brought up Manafort’s unsavory support for dictators and strongmen on the new, Bloomberg-branded “With All Due Respect,” Halperin, with breathtaking speed, absorbed it into the pre-existing “narrative” of the campaign: “I agree with you about that, Al,” he said, before moving on to a question about the GOP’s culture. “I’m surprised it hasn’t become an issue already.”

That it might fall to MSNBC to make it an issue—by, say, elaborating the point, or by asking a follow-up question…in other words, by performing journalistic tasks so rudimentary a reasonably intelligent 9-year-old can do them—seems not to have crossed anyone’s mind. Mitchell, Hayes, and Maddow excluded, on the day in question, the closest the network came to discussing an “issue” was reprinting, in a chyron splashed across the screen, Ted Cruz’s dishonest, transphobic defense of the aforementioned North Carolina law (“CRUZ: I DON’T THINK WE SHOULD HAVE GROWN MEN IN BATHROOMS WITH LITTLE GIRLS”), with no accompanying mention of the corporate sector’s opposition, much less the consequences for the state’s transgender residents.

Instead, “process” reigns, and even if we grant that Pennsylvania’s unbound Republican delegates are an important element of the nominating process, returning again and again to two unenlightening minutes of pre-recorded tape from “delegate hunter” Jacob Soboroff suggests that this focus is less a considered editorial decision than an admission of defeat. “The Place for Politics,” as MSNBC’s tagline proclaims, turns out to be a glass house, the perfect membrane through which candidates, surrogates, and “analysts” pass calorie-free messages to a dead-eyed public. It’s the journalistic equivalent of aspartame: sweet but slightly “off” tasting, and in the long run likely cancerous.

MSNBC is not alone in the adoption of this strategy, of course. This is, as former CNN and NBC anchor Campbell Brown recently lamented in Politico, how broadcast news works now, the product of a decades-long unwinding—declining ratings, competition from digital outlets, the fracturing of the media landscape into a million little warring fiefdoms, each fighting over smaller and smaller slices of the ad-revenue pie. But coming as it does after a period of relatively rich (if progressive-minded) engagement with the “real problems” facing the country, as Maddow had it in 2012, MSNBC’s rapid metamorphosis into a 24-hour delegate math calculator truly stings, sounding the death knell of the medium to which most Americans still turn when news, real news, actually breaks.

When the cable networks are no longer willing to muster the resources to cover effectively the sexiest, most dramatic, and most consequential story of the year—the presidential election—what can we expect when terror strikes or war is waged or markets crash, when information not so ready-made for television demands to be discovered, presented, explained? It’s naive, I know, but I remain a firm believer in the idea that news organizations bear an obligation to the facts that transcends their obligation to shareholders, and MSNBC’s descent into the worst aspects of the latter amounts to a breaking of faith. For a time, to steal Maddow’s phrase, the network’s promise to counteract the conservatism of FOX News and the salaciousness of CNN seemed not only good for liberals and Democrats, but also, possibly, good for the country as a whole, though I see now that I was hearing music that had already begun to stop.

“If all you want is headlines, check your Twitter feeds,” an MSNBC promotion promised viewers one recent Friday. “We go beyond the sound bites. We seek different perspectives. Connect the dots. Approach the story from all the angles.”

That this is demonstrably not the network’s actual manner of gathering and reporting the news on air is yet another facet of MSNBC’s transformation that seems not to have crossed anyone’s mind, and this, more than the lack of a clear ideological bent, is at the crux of the organization’s decline. The disingenuous crack at Twitter’s expense suggests to me a fundamental misunderstanding of the not-so-distant future, an assumption that the only way to succeed in a fractured media landscape is to double down on the lowest common denominator.

For now, admittedly, ratings are rising, as they do at every network during major news events, most especially presidential elections; for now, NBC News chief Andrew Lack, who has been the driving force behind the changes at MSNBC, can congratulate himself on a job well done. But if the network’s long-term strategy for winning back audiences is to offer the same studiously information-free “breaking news” and “analysis” that has helped push even reporters into the waiting arms of social media, it is, at best, a feeble one. The pool of potential viewers is shrinking, not growing, and mimicking one’s competitors strikes me as a curious way of trying to peel off those that are left.

On the night of the New York primaries we were talking, it’s worth noting, about a Republican race in which the most virulent xenophobe to compete seriously for the presidency since George Wallace shellacked his nearest competitor in the delegate count, Ted Cruz—himself an anti-immigrant descendant of Cuban immigrants—by nearly 50 points. We were talking about a Democratic race pitting a former First Lady, U.S. Senator, and Secretary of State with an opportunity to become the nation’s first woman president against a Jewish democratic-socialist in the heart of global capitalism. We were talking about an election with no lack of sharp ideological differences, whether across or within the two parties—each facing a near-unprecedented challenge to their respective political orthodoxies—and yet, for the two hours and 20 minutes I watched before finally relenting and heading to bed, the network that inaugurated the motto “Lean Forward” as recently as 2010 could speak only of what Brian Williams, throwing to the panel at 11:21 p.m. ET, called “the optics of what we’ve witnessed tonight.”

Confronting a digital landscape that presents us with limitless options for finding and consuming news, MSNBC thus seems strangely content to embrace sameness, and the likeliest result, there and across the entire broadcast sector, is the opposite of the aforementioned promo: fewer perspectives, fewer angles, and fewer connections; journalism reduced to a headline, a sound bite, and no more. As I came to see after watching “The Place for Politics” in recent days, more than 36 grueling hours in all, “politics” as defined by MSNBC no longer includes even the keystone of the “process” with which the network is now so obsessed: From the discussions of the New York primaries, unbound Pennsylvania delegates, contested conventions, and victory speeches, voters (remember them?) were functionally absent.

“I wanted my friends to be thrilling and witty / I wanted somebody to care,” as Barbra Streisand once sang, the hope for another outcome fading fast, and in tuning into the new, unimproved MSNBC, I came to understand her meaning. She framed her reprise as a question, but as I might have recognized when I set out to write this, the answer was in the asking:

There is nothing to win
And there’s no one to want me
Have I stayed too long at the fair?

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