MSNBC: Too Much Opinion and Not Enough News?

Chris Matthews

Focus on commentary and advocacy may be dampening viewership

Has MSNBC leaned too hard on “Lean Forward”?

The NBCUniversal outlet has used that slogan since 2010 to portray itself not as the buttoned-down news source it was when it was a joint venture of NBCU and Microsoft, but as a community for progressive discussion that trumps humdrum reportage with advocacy.

Say what you will about the ongoing collapse of the Fourth Estate, but the partisan approach, in which Al Sharpton and others actively push for change, has worked, bringing ratings increases and celebrity status for primetime personalities like Rachel Maddow.

In recent weeks, however, MSNBC ratings have slipped, and leaning forward may be a cause. MSNBC markets itself as a place for discussion and community. Yet when bombs explode at the Boston Marathon or unrest shatters Egypt, viewers want information first, and analysis — even solutions — later, if at all.

For the week ended July 7, MSNBC’s primetime programming captured 14% to 15% fewer viewers between the ages of 25 and 54 — the demographic coveted by sponsors of news programming — than a year earlier, according to Nielsen. In May, MSNBC , which usually plays second only to Fox News, saw its ratings fall behind those of CNN and HLN, too.

MSNBC’s top executive, Phil Griffin, thinks the shift is short-lived. “There has been an inordinate amount of big, breaking news, and that is, honestly, when CNN does well. It’s pure muscle memory,” he said. MSNBC’s performance is bound to suffer in comparison with that of 2012, he added, when a presidential election drew political junkies and casual viewers alike.

Sounds plausible, but could MSNBC’s recent ebb suggest something more seriously amiss? Je rey McCall, author of “Viewer Discretion Advised: Taking Control of Mass Media Infl uence,” believes so, saying that the newsie generated its initial momentum by riding the optimism of President Obama’s rise to prominence.

“MSNBC’s problems might be more than just a hiccup,” McCall maintained. “Now that the Obama administration’s fortunes have apparently declined with various challenges like NSA, IRS and Benghazi, previously (enthusiastic) news consumers on the left might find it hard to keep tuned in.”

To be sure, there’s nothing wrong with opinion-making. But MSNBC offers an awful lot of it. An analysis by Pew Research of 108 hours of cable-news programming during three days in November and December found opinion and commentary overwhelmed straight news on MSNBC by 85% to 15%. Fox News content included 55% opinion and commentary and 45% factual reporting, Pew said, while CNN content consisted of 46% opinion and commentary and 54% factual reporting.

No matter what their mix, both Fox News and CNN have for years pitched themselves as places to go when viewers need details, not discussion, an angle MSNBC does not take.

MSNBC made a strategic decision to essentially rebrand itself as the policy yin to Fox News’ yang, explained Mark Jurkowitz, associate director at the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. “So far this year, (it has) probably seen some of the pitfalls of that rebranding.”

Griffin remains steadfast in the transparency of MSNBC’s mission, and believes there’s little reason to change. The cabler will focus on getting past political malaise, he said. “There is a sense that America doesn’t do big things. We do, in some ways as much as ever. We have to find it.” Look for the network to dabble in digital community-building with a new website in the fall.

Dispensing “just the facts” is no longer enough for most people. Just ask your local newspaper publisher. Still, when big stories do arise, you need newsgathering muscle, not gum flapping. Activist Sharpton can’t do what Brian Williams does, and the more Maddow and Chris Matthews pontifi cate, the farther they get from being able to present news events in an objective fashion. Who is the face of MSNBC should terrorism cripple a major American city?

MSNBC has woven a grand tapestry. But it should never forget that there are times when a news network simply has to stick to its knitting.

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  1. Isn’t there all black awards? Isn’t there all black beauty contests? Isn’t there all black channels on t.v.? We don’t protest. We don’t riot. We don’t care. Why do you ?

  2. Great Caesar's Ghost says:

    Wow. What a display of diversity on those MSNBC discussion panels: They always range from left-liberal to left-liberal!

  3. Royallynn says:

    Please provide the streaming of full shows (non-live). I would be willing to pay for a subscription to msnbc to view the full content (minis commercials) for the shows that I enjoy.

  4. NAAWP says simply REPORT the NEWS, without the LIBERAL SPIN or the POLITICALLY CORRECT TWIST!



    STOP LYING to U.S.!

    … and QUIT telling U.S. stupid stuff like, “Only WHITE PEOPLE can be RACISTS”!

    … and STOP ignoring BLACK on WHITE HATE CRIMES, which have reached an all-time record high under PRESIDENT OBAMA!

    … OBAMA the RACIST BLACK PRESIDENT that you IDIOTS helped put into the WHITEHOUSE twice!


  6. MichaelSF says:

    I watched MSNBC daily and religiously, for years. I stopped watching when Sharpton, O’Donnell, and others railed against George Zimmerman and slanted discussion/coverage in favor of Trayvon Martin. I was in tune with that case, from the beginning, so I was able to compare the facts and evidence with what MSNBC’s talent was saying OTA.

    It does matter whose side I was on, I made my viewing choice with the remote. (I know exactly when I stopped watching MSNBC because the final broadcast I recorded was in late March 2012.)

    Anyway, MSNBC’s problems are not necessarily related to news versus commentary/opinion. IMO it is that the nightly talent is being so dishonest to viewers. I recall Al addressing critic comments about his not accurately reporting facts interwoven into his one-hour-personal-agenda show (aka Politics Nation). He said words to the effect that he did not have to talk the truth because his is not a news show, so he does not have an obligation to speak accurately.

    He said that his is an entertainment show and he can color the facts any way he wants to get HIS point across.

    Interestingly, Phil Griffin responded to Al’s revelations by saying that he did not hire Al to be a news guy, so as long as he is truthful to Griffin about his on and off the air activities, he can do what he wants.

    OK, that’s fine, Griffin is president of MSNBC. He can put on the payroll whoever he wants. Me, I’ll flip the channel. (I’m pretty disciplined at boycotts. I have not watched MSNBC since April 2012. Yeah, I went from a daily watcher since MSNBC came about to zero, in one day.

  7. Dennis says:

    I can’t wait for next Tuesday, when Al Jazeera America will be launched.
    They promise hard news, unbiased reporting, investigative journalism, less opinion, less yelling, and unrivaled coverage from 70 news bureaus around the world plus 12 in the U.S. Which is exactly what I have been yearning for for years. I really hope they will deliver on their promise!

  8. dre mers says:

    When I feel on top of the world and need to see how ill informed the left is, just to get back to reality, I’ll watch MSNBC and I’m ready to fight for what made my life worthwhile in the first place. I also tune in when I need to slow my enthusiasm about the economy. The logic; If people can be so stupid as to eat the garbage from MSNBC, the future prospects of the economy are quite bleak.

  9. Kate Norris says:

    Truthful, factual news stopped happening roughly ten years ago. Today’s news is nothing but tabloid journalism and I use the word journalism very loosely. How stupid do these people who read the supposed news think we are? There are NO journalist who seem to know how to report FACTS. Those of us who actually care about the country we live in and not what the government can give me will take it from there.

  10. Arminius says:

    “Dear Mr Sharpton:

    I want to thank you for your frequent television appearances on MSNBC. Until recently, I was almost universally regarded as the most intellectually deprived television ‘personality’ in the United States.
    Now, fortunately, I have been relieved of this dubious honor. And for this, you have my deepest appreciation.


    Patrick Starfish
    costar, “SpongeBob Squarepants”

  11. Pam Sundeen says:

    I am getting really tired of some of the shows letting guests just expound on what they want you to believe and the host never questions them when we all know they are lying. Please back to news that
    is the truth, not twisted any way they want, tell the truth or hosts call them on it. Please!!

  12. John Brown says:

    Advocacy? MSNBC doesn’t engage in advocacy it engages in outright Propagada. Obama Propagada comes first, then extreme left wing propagada, and then it usually turns into spewing outright left wing hate. Left wing propagada and hate to the point it doctors video tape and distorts the news. During the entire Zimmerman affair it because the nations’ race batiing network engaging in whipping up a racially motivated lynch mob ignoring the facts and the law. The public knows now that they can tune into MSNBC to get the daily White House talking points, some simpering nauseating love talk about Obama bordering on being outright gay, some race baiting, smearing, and hate. The public knows if they actually want to get some news, and a balance picture of anything, they have to go to CNN or FOX. People are just tired of the hateful smear merchants and MSNBC.

    • Aristotle says:

      “The network of Chris Matthews, where the newsroom is overrun with creepy crawly things on the scout for legs to crawl up, spends less on newsgathering than CNN and Fox, and depends on rants and raves to attract an audience of rant-lovers and rave aficionados. CNN spends twice as much on actual newsgathering than MSNBC, and Fox, reviled on the left as merely a source of gasbaggery, spends about three times as much as MSNBC on reporting and editing actual news.” —Wes Pruden (Editor Emeritus, Washington Times)

  13. AACNY says:

    FoxNews figured out how to avoid looking like fools for only seeing one side by offering the other side’s viewpoint. MSNBC just appears foolish. By providing only one side, it appears to not know the other side’s viewpoints exist. That’s a dumbed down version of partisanship.

    It’s as though they borrowed the FoxNews model but missed the part that gives it any credibility.

  14. Victo Lagina says:

    I watch Morning Joe to just how far Joe Scarborough will sell out for ratings. There are no more RINOS and NEOs….you either fight or get out of the way. Scarborough needs to get out of the way.

  15. For me personally, I have trouble listening to MSNBC. I force myself here and there so I can know what the left is thinking.

    Sharpton is a prime example of what is wrong with MSNBC. He selectively edits clips to make something seem the way he believes it is in his own head, He then has discussions about his false reality. For instance, if you believe what Sharpton says, blacks still cant sit at the counter or ride in the front of the bus. It is 1960 and things are just awful. He continues to fight battles that were won over 50 years ago, and its just boring, If you want to have discussions to solve problems, you have to at least state the problem. its as if Al is trying to make sure he is in the history books as a civil rights leader aka MLK. its just really weird and so not interesting.,

    As for Maddow and the rest of them, I have the same problem. With Romney they were running some show about him dressing up as a cop 50 years ago. A if thats even interesting to anybody that isnt a strict ideologist.

    MSNBC will survive because there are alot of liberals in this country who think this is news worthy and inbterested, but the middle of the roaders will just tune in when they need comic relief

  16. Small Town Hick says:

    Sometimes you can’t see the forest for the trees! Apparently Mr Griffin must need one of those trees to fall on his head! Let’s see… You have an anchor wearing tampon earrings and having a panel discussion on African American hair, saying your children don’t belong to you, and in another panel telling racial jokes, then there is Rachel pontificating on any subject, but mostly LGBT issues, Sgt Schultz saying it was the GOP’s fault that Detroit went bankrupt. Then there is Hissy Chrissy having a fit over every subject he discusses, Reverend Al screaming that everything and everyone is racist, then there is thrill up his leg spitting and speaking over his guests and being downright rude to them. Not to mention the guests, one of which, says that there is a southern racist god, and another saying that right wing anchors are hired assassins. I know I’ve only scratched the surface, but maybe, just maybe this might be a reason that their viewership is dropping like a rock! There already is a honey boo boo show on tv, we don’t need another!

  17. Likely_Suspect says:

    The cable version of Air America – it’s only a matter of time.

  18. ryan says:

    Chris Matthews is a freak.

  19. Rob H. says:

    The problem MSNBC has from a marketing perspective is that they are competing for left-leaning viewers with all of the “mainstream” media like CBS, NBC and ABC. Fox isn’t. If you want news that treats the right fairly, Fox is the only game in town. Honestly another right-leaning news channel would probably do as well as Fox. The country knows bias when it sees it, and it sees it all the time from the “mainstream” media.

  20. Waratah says:

    You might want to look at the most recently released GDP data. They compare growth and economic recoveries from 1929 to the present day. Md they refute everything you just wrote in support of Obama and against supply side economics. Enjoy the reading.

  21. EJM says:

    Is MSNBC still on the air?
    Maybe they would do better if they just went fulltime to prison reality shows like Lockup:Raw.
    Actually Al Sharpton (Al Sharpton!?) could fit right in that new lineup.

  22. DeeBob says:

    It’s not a far stretch from “Lean Forward” to “Bend Over.” Somehow, unwittingly, MSNBC’s Tagline is precursor to BHO’s Administration.

  23. Dave says:

    I used to watch MSNBC alot, but now the network is unwatchable. They have lurched so far to the left that they are playing to such a small base of viewers. EVERY primetime is a diehard talking points liberal that talk about how bad the Republicans are for 60 minutes without an opposite opinion most nights that it frankly makes for boring TV. They have decided to preach to the choir and that has lead to their ratings plunge.

  24. EricStoner says:

    Trickle up poverty isn’t doing to well either.

  25. emoney22 says:

    English was not your best subject in community college, was it North Prarie Fire? Then again, your post suggests a whole host of deficiencies.

    • J S says:

      Morning North Prairie….. always nice to cherry pick what you think are the facts… let me focus on one section of what you mention… Private enterprise (.com companies) with private and angel investors brought the economy in the 90’s to a peak that played a huge part in the surpluses of the 90’s… also you fail to mention that the Clinton administration signed into the law a bill that opened up the flood gates of the financial collapse within the housing industry…the law passed directed the banks to loan money to individuals with no income verification… need I go into detail where we stand today in this area….. could go more into detail but I think and hope you get the picture…..

    • DeeBob says:

      How’s the weather in your Parent’s basement. Please, if you are old enough to vote, STOP. If you are not old enough, then that answers many questions.

  26. Kathy from Austin says:

    They won’t even CONCEDE that there might be an opposing view that has any merit whatsoever. Not even for the sake of thoughtful discussion. It just one view, plow forward. Lean schmean.

  27. carol pierstorff says:

    Morning Joe needs to stop reminding us every day that he used to serve in Congress. We get it, already. Is he using this platform to set up a run for office? Steve Rattner is superb.

  28. Small Town Hick says:

    As a knuckle dragging, small town rural hick, who threw the memo. In the garbage, I’ve got one thing to say to you……….Detroit!

  29. Craig Berlin says:

    I would wager even money my IQ is higher than yours and sorry, agree or disagree, Fox pursues stories that the other outlets don’t cover. And those of us with more intellectual honesty than you have watch Fox because you actually have DEBATE from differing viewpoints, as opposed to MSNBC with five liberal zealots sitting around saying “The GOP sucks!” round the clock.

    I like your ideas for MSNBC though. I might actually start watching again, although Sharpton is pretty damn funny just the way he is.

  30. just say no to msnbc says:

    I stopped watching MSNBC late 2007, I could not take Olbermann’s special comment rants anymore. They are for anything Obama is for, even when they were against it under Bush. I did not like what Bush did and I don’t like it any better now that Obama is doing it on steroids. MSNBC is nothing but a hypocrite station.

  31. Aristotle says:

    Not “lean forward”. During the Trayvon Martin fiasco, I finally realized it was “Race Forward.”

  32. EricStoner says:

    Keep us fighting downstairs while they clean out the safe upstairs.

  33. NSV says:

    I was inclined to think this was a problem with NBC generally: the news division shamelessly edits recordings to present a blatantly false reality; the entertainment division presents shows that are so liberal you’d think they were all produced Norman Lear’s LEFTIST brother.

    Then I remembered CNBC, with its common-sense approach to life and the world and the economy: people I respect like Larry Kudlow and Suzy Orman, people who know that so much of human happiness is concerned with a responsible relationship with money and the wise choices that should be made when people pay a proper concern for money. The network, alas, does SOMETHING right.

  34. Sorry Charlie says:

    The “left vs right” paradigm is little more than the establishment’s method of distracting the public from its failures and its true intent. The political class provide a good-vs-evil professional wrestling match to disguise the real conflict: the State (and its privileged regulators) vs the Individual. And the State has successfully degraded the Public’s ability to reason through its indoctrination program in the public school system. Logic has been subsumed by the desire for gratification.

  35. cleo48 says:

    Nothing wrong with opinion if it’s grounded in something sold. But this organization is a PR firm for the left. Who do they think their audience is? At first glance, you’d have to assume it’s dumpster burning campus Marxists wearing Che Guevera berets.

  36. John Richter says:

    No one watches msnbc, Fox is the most widely watched news channel, but yet we are told to call msnbc main stream media, not Fox… I think the talking points memo should be changed soon. We sound like fools.

  37. view from the realworld says:

    msnbc is nothing more than the Pravda of the White House and the DNC. No wonder no watches them.

  38. stephen rhymer says:

    want news with good analysis. MSNBC continues to fall short of that expectation. The more they pontificate without factual background, the less I watch.

    To me, one of their most egregious errors is having the same talking heads hour after hour, day after day. A good news organization gets a variety of voices so the conversation is new, with fresh ideas and perspectives (something Fox and MSNBC need to pay heed to).

    If I were King of MSNBC I’d replace Matthews, Sharpton, Schultz and Maddow with more news centric shows.

    I’d also stop the incessant blather about pseudo news (anything related to royalty and pop culture) and the wall to wall coverage of pop culture when “breaking news” happens.

    Although poorly executed at present, CNN still has a presence around the globe. It’s were I go when real news breaks.

    NBC has a real news department. it’s time for them to merge with MSNBC and give viewers a real news service like the BBC

    • A. Hick says:

      I don’t disagree with you. IF they did that, and produced a really world class news channel (which CNN used to do, sort of), people might watch it. However, if they want to do transparently biased, it can be tricker to sell that to a “liberal” target audience. Liberal people don’t really respond to the same propagandistic talk radio formula as right wingers, and don’t just want people sitting around telling them what they already know (or think they know) in order to make them feel good. Right wing media thrives on the siege and paranoia mentality, and always will. Liberals can appreciate a satire of a biased news channel, which explains why Comedy Central’s FAUX news shows get such high ratings, and of course liberals watch the actual FOX News (along with the knuckle draggers) to laugh it at too. FOX does NOT get high ratings because it has a little bit of straight news mixed in with its mostly slanted programming. It’s the in your face, train wreck funny slanted programming that puts it up there. If you’re going to be obviously biased, and expect thinking people to watch, you better be able to make them laugh.

  39. Historybuff says:

    Good and timely commentary on msnbc.

    I am a Conservative that desires good opinion writing from the Left (as well as the Right, of course), along with good, unbiased news reporting. I value opinions clearly based on solid, indisputable factual reporting. msnbc does not deliver either of those.

    I used to be a viewer & internet consumer of msnbc… I was hoping that Comcast would shake them up a little… did not happen, actually got worse. So, but dumped them.

  40. There is no need for the question mark in the headline.

  41. Wayne says:

    Unfortunately, the commentary has become shrill, even ridiculous. I used to enjoy Chris Matthews. I think he’s gone nuts. Also, Fox commentators, while extremely partisan, do engage the other side regularly. Most MSNBC commentators seem afraid of that. That makes the commentary less sharp and more inclined to foolishness.

  42. Mikio067 says:

    I used to come home from work back around 1997-1999 looking forward to my evening which included watching Hardball. He was damn good back then; now he’s just nuts.

  43. Stephen says:

    As an MSNBC viewer who has watched significantly less MSNBC this year, the answer for me is essentially that it’s not an election year and with the split Congress there is no likelihood of anything meaningful happening in government policy-making. Because of that, all of the MSNBC shows have had to fill time, and they are doing it by either hammering away at each host’s pet issues or by jumping from tabloid story to tabloid story.

    Given the choice to hear about Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman for the umpty-umpth time or the choice to watch a sitcom, I’ve been watching the sitcom. The programming in 2013 is not compelling, while the programming in 2012 was.

    MSNBC is at a natural disadvantage to Fox because of the nature of their viewership. Fox has the market cornered on conservative rage aimed at Boomer and older viewers. If you are right-leaning and news-interested, the odds are great that Fox has no competition for your attention. MSNBC has a more diverse, tech-savvy viewership. The choice for their viewers might be between watching MSNBC, watching a Breaking Bad marathon on Netflix, or cruising the internet.

    • countmahdrof says:

      “MSNBC has a more diverse, tech-savvy viewership.”

      Point us to a study confirming this, please, else I conclude you’re just making stuff up. Rating indicate more 18-30 yr olds watch Fox than MSNBC.

    • Sherry says:

      “If you are right-leaning and news-interested, the odds are great that Fox has no competition for your attention. MSNBC has a more diverse, tech-savvy viewership. The choice for their viewers might be between watching MSNBC, watching a Breaking Bad marathon on Netflix, or cruising the internet.”

      Believe it or not, those of us on the right do watch other things on TV, including movies, but more often, other informative cable stations. We also cruise the internet and READ! The lefties I know rarely ever read, and most aren’t really very bright, but continue to flatter themselves.

      You need to do something MSNBC is incapable of doing, looking objectively at the country and quit the political games. If you would, you’d see what a disaster left-wing politicies are.

  44. SandMan00 says:

    There is a difference between getting the straight scoop from someone who shares a similar ideological perspective, and getting propagandized by people trying to rationalize the actions of others who might share a similar ideological perspective.

    There is a difference between presenting the facts from a particular perspective and massaging the facts to fit a particular perspective.

    MSNBC doesn’t get it, but apparently their viewers are beginning to.

  45. Lee Groulx says:

    Tsk, tsk, tsk…
    Look at you, turning conversation into a hateful diatribe.
    I rest my case.

  46. Arminius says:

    Wow, Lee: no sweeping generalizations for YOU, eh? First you dump on Chris M, and then you vociferously defend him: what’s he, your Dad?
    You conveniently illustrate exactly my point about the distinguished Mr Matthews. Thanks for that. Let someone—mon Dieu!–identify themselves as conservative, and immediately you ‘know’ exactly what they think. Omniscience must be SUCH a burden: does it give you headaches sometimes?

    Unlike you and the other fellow travelers with a visceral hatred for conservative thought, and conservative individuals, I’ve no animus toward people that happen to hold liberal positions. I just think they’re wrong, that’s all.

    As for Arminius: He led the Germanians against the Roman XVIIIth Legion when they crossed the Rhine for a punitive expedition against the ‘barbarian’ tribes. They left a single Roman alive, to straggle back to Rome and tell of the Legion’s utter extermination in the Teutoburg Forest.

    Yes, me ‘n my two common law wives and inbred children read all about it here in our trailer, while home-schoolin’ and baking’ us up some meth to sell down at the truck stop. Or, so you and yours would have each other believe about the typical flyover denizen, that holds anything other than the True and Accepted Liberal Position on all things.

  47. Absolutely, shut up and just give us the straight story, the real news! In case you are not a aware a fair share of us who get the entire story without the ruffles, who are able to make intelligent decisions about what should be done regardless on which side of the aisle! I am tired of talking heads with opinions, do your job, give us the news.

  48. Lee Groulx says:

    You are precisely what I find disturbing about “conservatives” in general. It’s always all-or-nothing in your opinions. Can you ever say anything that isn’t blanket vitriol or something you’re parroting from the Fox/Rush vacuum?? Have you no opinions of your own that aren’t a complete disparagement of anything that is not “conservative”?
    And your screen name; Arminius, was the code name for the German plan for the invasion of the United States…Are you one of those militia people who want to overthrow the government? Or a skinhead?

  49. G. Jardoness says:

    The first two things to consider, (Before even addressing any format, style, or outlook), are; Has MSNBC and its parent company unnecessarily spread itself too thin, and, has the genesis of its creation become irrelevant? With NBC, CNBC, MSNBC, they’re seemingly competing with themselves, having sub-divided its own audience, and diluted its identity, before even going into battle with the rest of the news outlets, which, say what you will, have established and maintained an audience by being singular, identifiable brands. Secondly, the alliance with Microsoft, at the time, was thought to be innovative and service-added. But how has that manifested itself, or distinguished itself from the rest of the industry, either in content, format, access, or features? Unless NBC Comcast can develop distinct identities for these networks, which can complement one another, they should seriously consider consolidating and regrouping, in a bold and definitive way.

  50. I was a viewer for morn Joe,I stopped looking at msnbc because he always had something negative about our president Obama and I dont like it ,I know hes a rep,but he is to negative about my president so I will not be looking at his show any longer,thank you.

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