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. Maxie says:

    Why would you voluntarily choose to polarize half your audience? This strategy is not only killing MSNBC’s ratings, it is also hurting the Today Show, Nightly News and NBC primetime. An historically bad decision.

  2. Scott M. says:

    The farther you lean forward the more ass-backwards you become.

  3. Arminius says:

    Your comparison of Mr Sharpton to Fred Sanford insults a perfectly good, unshaven junkyard owner. Please apologize! No doubt Mr Sanford would have nothing to do with riffraff like the egregious Mr Sharpton.

  4. toetagger says:

    I did the same with TiVo and removed them from the Program Guide as well. I refuse to give them even a fraction of a second of acknowledgement. I’d have to enter the numbers manually/intentionally to access their channel and that isn’t going to happen even if I’m drunk.

  5. Manrice says:

    Couldn’t happen to a nicer bunch! Admittedly, Sean Hannity is hard core on the right, and Fox & Friends skewers Obama regularly. But a great deal of their programming, while leaning right, presents a fairly even-handed political viewpoint. And when a political topic is debated, Fox News has Alan Colmes, Kirsten Powers, Bob Beckel, Juan Williams and others to vehemently and reliably argue the liberal side. Not MSNBC- they hand pick turncoat Republicans who are glad to bash their own party.

  6. Rusty says:

    The problem with MSNBC isn’t that it leans left (I appreciate a Fox counter), but that it’s so unbelievably shrill. Also, maybe Fox viewers don’t mind being fed straw men arguments, but it annoys the heck out of me on MSNBC. For example, you’d think that no liberals have raised questions about the senate’s immigration reform bill and the effect that it would have on the poor, or might feel the way Don Lemon does about problems in the black community and disagree with Al Sharpton. It all makes you want to cheer for CNN to take back some of its thunder.

  7. Cheerleading for today’s politicians on either side is pathetic drivel.

  8. Jim Goldie says:

    It seems like the on air personalities and guests are getting more shrill and more unreasonable than other outlets. It’s a fine line between opinion and propaganda!!!

  9. zaglossus says:

    MSNBC’s target audience (young, non-white, or leftwing) is not a type that typically watches much cable news. But other than their opinionated slant, frankly they are just dull. Sometimes they sound like policy wonks.

  10. Marty says:

    Seems like MSNBC is always blaming someone, truth is not part of the solution.

  11. Butch says:

    Just another Air America! Most are turned off by the radical left!

  12. Rich Rich says:

    Well, that did it! Now I’m going to need Windex to clean off the coffee spew.

  13. yzhenry says:

    this is GREAT!! Could not happen to a better network

  14. borninkenya says:

    “News” ? oh that’s funny . :}

  15. Sparky2 says:

    I think MSNBC/NBC carried the ‘in the tank for Obama’ just too far. Everyone knows they were pro-Obama but it just got over the top. Americans want some balance at least. They don’t have a true conservative on any of their programs..even as guests on MTP. They have RINO’s okay (Scarborough), but viewers know they are liberals and look foolish to educated conservatives. I just can’t stand to watch them anymore.

  16. Mike Parrish says:

    It doesn’t matter if it is MSNBC, Fox, CNN, ABC,NBC or CBS, we don’t believe them anymore.

  17. MLJ4591 says:

    One of their biggest problems is that most of the talking heads are afraid to have more than one guest on their shows that disagree with them. I like to hear both sides of the story and when Maddow or Mathews or O’Donnell only have guests that agree with them, there is nothing to hear. I want you to make an argument for your side with a counter-argument from the other side. When you have 2, 3, or 4 guests on your show and they all agree with you, then your argument is all one-sided. Stories are taken out of context and lies and falsehoods are spread. If you want to lean forward then be brave and have the courage to confront the other side.

  18. govskeptic says:

    I couldn’t agree more, and can’t understand why the owners (Comcast Cable) is still leaving such
    a lineup in place since they took over. Gives me reason to push for Ala La Carte pricing on channels
    for my cable bill.

  19. JRL says:

    The article says MSNBC has brought “Star Status” to the likes of Maddow and Sharpton – who are they kidding? Those fools have star status amongst the viewership of MSNBC but zero – none – nauda outside that tiny audience.

  20. govskeptic says:

    I hope they still to their knitting just like I once did with a stock from $25.00 down to it going
    bankrupt and zero in value. MSNBC is not Discussion it’s disgusting preaching to a small choir.

  21. Edward Louis says:

    I quit watching it when Al Sharpton showed up. I can’t seem to be able to change the channel fast enough when I see him.

  22. They're Watching says:

    Cenk Uygur was actually beating Fox in his time slot, but MSNBC couldn’t stop him from asking democrat politicians real questions, so they fired him.

  23. Pete Bergamo says:

    Let’s face it: many of MSNBC’s on air personalities are just plain boring! Well intended but boring! And why Sharpton was ever given the dignity of his own show is beyond me. I’m a liberal and need an outlet like MSNBC but, not in its present form!

  24. William says:

    Yes, the facts are missing and covered over with redundant “opinion.” The opinions are often the same, and I don’t need to hear them repeated, or parroted. Chris Matthews, Rachel Maddow, Joe & Mika, etc. are to some degree interesting, but not as much as they are given time.

  25. Ed Uktr says:

    MSNBC fails because it gives viewers the same liberal opinions already found across the mainstream media.

  26. They're Watching says:

    They do. That’s why the media is shifting its focus to Hillary ’16 even though Obama just won re-election.

  27. They're Watching says:

    Actually, Nielsen gives boxes to a sample of viewers and compile ratings based on what the sample watches. Just turning on a tv doesn’t affect the ratings.

  28. They're Watching says:

    It’s Melitha Harrith-Perry. FTFY.

  29. Maven says:

    FTA: “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.”
    What an idiot. No wonder PMSNBC viewership is in the toilet with a broken flush handle. They stink.
    Fox News has an audience equivalent to the sum of PMSNBC + CNN +CNBC + HLN.
    So, the FNC is doing it right. Maybe the losers should adapt a winning strategy? NO, they are too ideological.
    Check the rankings for yourself:

  30. nosuchluck says:

    The answer to your question can be found in any of the books written by Sal Alinsky.

  31. Obozosux says:

    MSNBC is nothing more than a left wing echo chamber without even the pretense of balance. Their potential audience, the low information crowd, are preoccupied with more important programming, like “Real Housewives” and “American Idol”.

  32. NClaw441 says:

    MSNBC’s problem is not so much that it consists almost entirely of discussion, but that the discussion is so one-sided that there is no real value to it. The worst of these discussions are when a bank of liberal commentators tries to discuss the reasons for problems in the Republican party. No one is ever brought in from the GOP itself (unless you count Joe Scarborough, which most do NOT). So the panel discussions have one speaker providing his/her analysis, and everyone else says, “Yeah, you’re right!”

  33. Elsewhere says:

    The programming of opinion on MSNBC sounds much like constant whine and complain.

  34. Bill says:

    This is a TREMENDOUS assessment… except for the bobble head guest comment. Occasionally they have a center-right guest on, but usually that guest is someone who can’t articulate a conservative argument and laments about the “far-right” takeover of the republican party.

    A truly conservative guest would obliterate the arguments and positions of any of the hosts. Which would be fun to watch and probably triple the ratings.

  35. BKMart says:

    “Focus on commentary and advocacy may be dampening viewership”

    Nice to see a journalist with such a firm grasp of the obvious…

  36. gigs says:

    It is unwatchable if you are the least bit conservative. It is nauseating. The hatred for America and Americans permeates the shows along with anger. Who wants to watch that? The folks at MSNBC are in a state of constant upheaval and agitation. Life is too short. You can tell that every guest is not really giving his opinion, but rather what they think will ingratiate them to the anchor and the other people on their panels. What is the point?

  37. As an avid viewer who isn’t watching as much this year….

    Quite simply, it’s not a fascinating election year. And I watch a lot of the content on DVR and Maddow on podcast version at my leisure.

  38. Mathews has fallen into irrelevancy.

  39. vrieling says:

    As the only Liberal on this blog I want to thank you all for a very entertaining evening. I have heard about the “echo chamber” but I have never actually experienced it before? I still don’t get why you like doing this but I hope you are having fun.

  40. Jay Hodge says:

    I’m interested in news not commentary. I can make up my own mind and opinion on facts. Opinions are biased, facts are absolute.

  41. Bart says:

    Leftist propaganda doesn’t sell? Who knew? And any “news” network that provides a platform for bottom-feeding hustlers like Al Sharpton deserves what it gets.

  42. RobX says:

    They have become a parody of themselves. I tune in sometimes just for comic relief.

  43. the Oracle says:

    The blatant falsehoods and pejoratives they daily use to create lunch mobs and to infect the critical thinking of their viewers is to blame.

  44. MollyMorrish says:

    Well of course. Rachel Maddow is a liar! MSNBC is a joke. Stop listening to them spew garbage and lies. Look up the info for yourself and you’ll find they are full of it.

  45. Richard says:

    I try to watch all of the various news sources if only to make sure my perspectives are as balanced as is possible in the country today, however, MSNBC is by far the most obviously in the tank for one particular ideology of all the networks. Certainly, FOX is pandering to the right, but between the two, FOX definitely tends to at least make the appearance of presenting the opposing view. MSNBC makes no attempt and is simply interested in advancing the agenda of the political left. (To be fair, both require some degree of will on my part to endure…)

    Most of America is not left leaning though. This is clearly evidenced in the poor ratings MSNBC consistently generates. Further, the hosts and pundits on MSNBC can often just appear plain mean and nasty. It is uncomfortable to watch anyone get attacked/beat-up on these “news” shows, but the talent on MSNBC takes it to a whole new level. They openly scoff at their political opponents and often personally insult them and somehow manage to get away with it while generating little outrage that would erupt were the situation reversed.

    A good comparison is perhaps Bill Maher vs. Bill O’Reilly. Mr. Maher (not an MSNBC host I know, but he definitely embodies the same world view), consistently denigrates republican or right leaning opposition in very personal ways. O’Reilly will opine on the failures of the left, but rarely if ever is he guilty of calling someone on the left out in a personal derogatory attack. For further evidence see the explosion following Rush Limbaugh’s calling Sandra Fluke a “slut”… Pundits on MSNBC and other left supporting media outlets use comparisons like this daily and no one bats an eyelid…

    My advice to MSNBC (and any news outlet really) would be to try and actually support your positions with facts and analysis rather than emotional diatribes that tend to make your less partisan viewers uncomfortable.

    • iodiner says:

      Well said. Me, I just don’t watch them. And frankly, I don’t trust most of the “MSM” because, like you said, they’re pushing a leftist agenda, and are unable to be objective. That goes for all the networks, cable news outlets, major newspapers, and almost all news magazines. Obbama’s been on the cover of Time magazine like 3 dozen times….all glowing adoration pieces. Disgusting.
      Don’t believe the liberal media.
      Thank God for the internet, and radio.

  46. Larry Gevirtz says:

    “Forward-leaning” is hardly the right adjective. “Extremist-left-wing-leaning” is much more apt.

    • Kathy from Austin says:

      I am a Nelson panelist and I watch a combination of CNN and mostly Fox. MSNBC doesn’t even make my radar. That station is horrible!

  47. John720 says:

    People want to be able to trust a news network. That is nearly impossible with Sharpton, Maddow and the rest of the left wing bunch at MSNBC. They’ll lie or tell half truths to promote their agenda and America has had enough. It’s like listening to Pravda in English. They have become the propaganda machine of the president.They’ve never drawn half the ratings of Fox News and never will.

  48. Laurie says:

    Its problem is that it has become a joke.

  49. Human League says:

    MSNBC needs to be turned into a soccer channel. It will get higher ratings in the key demographics. NBC Sports isn’t enough.

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