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. bnchy says:

    PMSNBC is a left wing hack political channel of hate against anyone who disagrees with the leftist mantra

  2. Ronald the Uniter says:

    Why doesn’t Comcast understand that the crap MSNBC spews, divides the country-not help it. The people on the station are not qualified and have no believability when they pontificate. They are one issue hucksters. No more and no less. After awhile, people want it balanced…

  3. Frank C Marlton says:

    Chris Matthews is a know it all. Anyone not a liberal gets instructions from Mr Know It All Matthews. I really enjoyed him trying to tell the 2000 year old Catholic Chuch what it has to do to get current. Chris will get fired or moved out tp pasture to sire with some farm animals some day. The Catholic Church will still be around.

    I think the leg tingle regarding Obama has homosexual overtones. Maybe the 2 of them should get a room.

  4. Andrew Logar says:

    MSNBC doctors the news: I was watching Andrea Mitchell one day months ago – she ran a short video clip of Republican covering a subject that made him sound absolutely out of touch (I forget the subject). However, I had just heard the full unedited clip on FOX and realized MSNBC had edited out the last portion which contained a perfectly valid explanation of the Republican’s views. That is not delivering news to the people – as per 1st Amendment – it’s delivering rank propaganda – shame on MSNBC which blatantly, in-your-face pro Administration. That is not a free press – it is a captive press.

  5. templeknight says:

    Are they still on the air? Who sponsors these losers?

  6. Testicules says:

    Its not commentary, it is certainly not news.

    It is hate, slander and lies.

  7. Nope says:

    Well if they weren’t on there they’d still be be the asylum wouldn’t they??

  8. rickz77 says:

    When will MSNBC be sold to al Jazeera, (like Albert Gore’s Current TV was)?

  9. AlHBundy says:

    It isn’t the opinion aspect of it. It’s the sheer hatred they embody. When you have a host (Chris Matthews) telling a senate candidate (Elizabeth Warren)) “As a journalist I’ll do everything I can to help you.” Rush and Hannity are primarily opinion shows but they don’t have the hatred that MSDNC has. Also Rush and Hannity don’t say they’re journalists.

  10. Lillian says:

    Honestly, I think they know their viewership is small and they are satisfied with that…but for the life of me, I can’t figure out why. Chris Matthews is bad enough, but then he’s followed by Al Sharpton…come on….

  11. Lillian says:

    Used to watch them more often…now I may turn them on, but quickly switch to CNN, FOX or FOX Business–there I hear the news, MSNBC is just too political and negative….they depress me.

  12. Brian Steinberg doesn’t do a very good job of giving us a plausible analysis on MSNBC’s plummeting ratings, because he himself injects his views too much into what should be an unbiased, factual report.

    Journalists are now held in close to the same regard as used car salesmen.

  13. Scott says:

    It is not that there is too much opinion. It is that too much of the opinion is idiotic.

  14. EFC says:

    Glad to see the “propaganda machine” going down the tube.

  15. Rico says:

    It’s either because of Bush or Global Warming.

  16. Doug says:

    Where are the stockholders in this train wreck?

  17. Bruno Billings says:

    Simple, old school math…works every time! Takes an intellectual to screw it up…

  18. John says:

    The day MSNBC puts on conservative anchors is when I will start watching them. I don’t understand how a station can allow Fox News dominate the ratings and not change. You will think they would want to increase viewership to get higher advertising revenue. CNN is another station that thinks they are in the middle in regards to reporting but they tilt to the left as well. Both of those stations deserve what they get in regards to ratings. Stupid is what stupid does

  19. Vrie says:

    Boy you sure seem to attract the right wingers on this thread!? I am quite liberal and I love MSNBC! I think they are getting better and better as time goes by. However, like most of my liberal friends, I would no more go to just MSNBC for the news as we would look to just Fox for the news. I watch ABC for day to day reporting, and I go to CNN for crisis reporting. MSNBC keeps me up to date on the specific issues that are important to Liberals. I think you would find that a pretty average response from a liberal. One of the big differences I see in members of the two parties is that Republicans seem to like being in lockstep with their brotheran, where Democrats value having their own view on things and discussing differences with each other. As Mark Twain once said “I don’t belong to an organised party, I’m a Democrat.”
    One thing I really don’t understand about the conservative approach is the name calling the apparent hatred for people who think differently? I see it even in these posts? I enjoy a good debate and do not think less of a person for having a different opinion. Why is there so much nastiness and hate from conservatives on even a topic as inconsequential as this one?

    • William Thomas says:

      Republicans in lockstep? When was the last time ALL Republicans unanimously voted for something in Congress? I can’t remember. I remember that every single democrat voted for Obamacare (there may have been one who didn’t.) And what about the congressional districts in Philadelphia that voted 100% for Obama for President. And the 94% African-American vote for Barack Obama in the presidential election? Twice, at that. Republicans, the party of Lincoln, see color much less than Democrats.

      • Scotty G. says:

        “One thing I really don’t understand about the conservative approach is the name calling the apparent hatred for people who think differently?” LOL! That’s exactly what MSNBC does! That’s exactly why their ratings are down. That’s exactly the point being made here… “conservative approach”? Seriously.

      • John720 says:

        All I can say is compare Sean Hannity, Michael Medved, Dennis Praeger…to anyone on Msnbc. While the conservatives are respectful, the hosts at Msnbc are hate-filled. I think the anger you’re reading here is a response to the abuse dished out by Sharpton, Maddow…when it comes to reader comments, I see cruel language on both sides but reasonable arguments without rancor only on the right.

  20. Jack Reeves says:

    MSNBC smells as bad as Rachel Maddow’s crotch!

  21. EricStoner says:

    Perhaps,, because like Haley Joel Osment in the Sixth Sense seeing dead people, they see racist, 24/7.

  22. Dennis Smith says:

    Madcow,”Tingle” Matthews, “Joeidiot in the morning” and you’re trying to figure out why MSNBC’s ratings are in the toilet-haha

  23. At any given time, more people are watching sonograms, than MESSNBC.

  24. Harry Pairatestes says:

    Translation: Liberals love listening to the sound of their own belching and wheezing. Independents have tuned out.

  25. Kevin Fodor says:

    MSNBC’s strategy of counter-programming Fox News by being the “Anti-Fox” was effective. However, unlike Fox News, when major stories break, Fox goes to wall-to-wall news coverage, sometimes without commercials, until the story has solidified or the urgency has passed, MSNBC has the resources to do this with parent NBC News, but they seem stuck (or instructed) on continuing with commentary on the issues of the day. They may go to some coverage eventually, but not on the level the others provide. And I agree with the writer, Al Sharpton and Rachel Maddow and some of the others are just not credible as journalists or news deliverers, Pundits, maybe. But not news people. Someone there needs to rethink this.

  26. suibne says:

    they are a joke. the whole network is a joke. their ownership is a joke. their leadership is a JOKE.

  27. Mike says:

    The biggest problem I find with MSNBC is that most of their “stories” are just points of contention they have with Fox News personalities. It’s almost like sitting at the mean girls table and listening to them talk smack about the other kids. Way too much of their time is devoted to covering their own outrage over what Bill O’reiily said, or how Sean Hannity characterized something, and why hes wrong. If Fox went off the air, MSNBC would have very little to report on or talk about. No wonder people turn to CNN.

  28. Chicago860 says:

    Apparently these guys didn’t study Air America and its miserable failure. Libs feel. Conservatives think. No one wants a 24×7 diet of feeling.

    • Kevin Fodor says:

      While I agree totally with your comments about Air America, MSNBC is not programming to conservatives and, in fact, is trying to drive them away thinking that they can make a living by being a trumpet for liberalism. Counter programming like this can work, (face it: they overtook CNN for a while) but it needs to be part of a total package that includes top notch, unbiased, news coverage. They’ve missed, or forgotten the part about the fact that they are a cable NEWS channel. It’s also true that with what I think is the public beginning to feel “Obama Fatigue” (same disease that was called “Bush Fatigue” in his second term), also could well be contributing to the slide.

      • mary says:

        This is a sign that Obama’s constant repackaging of himself as the eternal Opposition Candidate isn’t working anymore. MSNBC has to spend much of its time attacking Fox to make themselves appear to be fighting the powers that be. But if their viewership is waning it means that the Liberals have accepted that their guys ARE the powers that be. No Liberal is going to feel comfortable with that.

  29. Not a 3rd Grader says:

    Their on air geeks with their childish nerdy eyewear, are just arrogant little dorks who talk down to their audience like little 3rd graders. They think everyone is a moron while spouting their PC garbage. They are trapped in a little liberal bubble they crawled into while in college and never crawled out. Clueless to the real workings of the real world.

  30. Bramps says:

    MSNBC hasn’t portrayed any negative situation against any liberal politician or talking head with any truth since the day they plugged in. They not only don’t present the news, their opinions are always lacking facts and truth.

  31. Sam says:

    I seldom watch MSNBC. When I do, the lies are so flagrant, they are more left than Hannity is right. At least Hannity is just one show of many on Fox. It seems as though all MSMBC knows is, “How can we make up bad stuff about anyone who takes a jab at Obama, Holder, Hillary, Sharpton, Jackson?”

  32. Jamie says:

    Enjoy MSNBC and their absolute commitment to their point of view. What I find problematic is the lack of “News”. Too often there are three shows in a row with not only the same opinion but the same word for word references. If Rachel says it, you can be sure you will hear it again from three or more network copy cats. It wouldn’t hurt to intersperse all that opinion with some sort of “news of the world” coverage of events without polemic. Just the facts. No balance required. You remember “news”, they used to do it at 6:00 PM every evening on network TV.

  33. Peter Duffy says:

    MSNBC’s policy of no news and full liberal lean will continue to move them to the shadows. Face it, when your primary viewers even think your news is slanted you’re not going to stay in biz for long.

  34. stoney says:

    MSNBC is so opinionated and racially slanted that low ratings are to be expected.

  35. Percy Dovetonsils says:

    Mr. Sternberg, your antennae need adjusting: the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who are neutral in times of crisis. Neutrality is over-rated. Thank God for MSNBC. If Edmund Burke or Jonathan Swift were alive that is the network they’s be watching.

    • Kevin Fodor says:

      Percy: MSNBC does not survive on opinion. They survive on ratings, and the revenue it brings. The surest way to bring a radio station, a TV station or a TV Network down is to stop listening/watching. And people are tuning away from MSNBC. That must be addressed, or they will next be a 24/7 infomercial channel as they once, pretty much, were.

    • Conservative Guy says:

      I justed peed myself…You do you realize that MSNBC is the advertising arm of the WH? Don’t believe me….

      Former MSNBC host David Shuster spoke to National Journal on Thursday about the liberal network’s falling ratings and observed: “When you’re too predictably a mouthpiece for the administration and you cast your lot with the president’s performance, there’s a risk.”

      And he goes on and on..

  36. Norm says:

    This is the kiss you know whose what network. They are a complete joke. How can they even attach the word news to anything they do.

  37. That’s “Racist aliens…”

  38. Paul Revere says:

    When you put Al Sharpton on the air and pretend that he has any shred of legitimacy or intellectual honesty in anything he spouts, that is a real insult to any potential viewer with half a brain.

  39. Joseph says:

    Chris Matthews – that’s all you have to say to understand why MSNBC’s ratings are in a continual nosedive. Matthews has kissed the ring of the King too too often to suit most Americans. You know the plot before you even tune in.

  40. ironchuck says:

    The failure of MSNBC is easy to understand. It seeks to satisfy an ideological niche that is already well served by NBC, CBS, ABC, CNN, The New York Times, the Washington Post, etc. etc.

    • Kevin Fodor says:

      Also, Chuck is the fact that those who will identify themselves as liberals tend to make up about 20% of the country, while those who identify as conservatives make up about twice that number. The other 40 percent are independents. Now divide that 20 percent by MSNBC and the others, and what you have left is not a big universe to claim big ratings numbers.

  41. Titaniumman says:

    The cartoon channel beats CNN and MSNBC ratings combined on a daily basis

  42. Titaniumman says:

    They need to get rid of the blathering idiot Chris Mathews and that other guy Randy Maddow

  43. badnews says:

    Believe or not, people really can think for themselves.

  44. Aldo Bender says:

    How many times can you listen to a bunch of effete liberals beat a subject to death with emotion based wackiness?

  45. carlb says:

    you can’t get any nuttier than al sharpton. google his name and see his history.it’s especially funny in the 90’s and shows why he shpuld be commited as a nut job racist!

  46. Gary says:

    MSNBC is nothing more then a sad joke….. No one other then hard core wacko liberals even watch that garbage anymore.

  47. Ben Dover says:

    “Second only to Fox”. HAHAHAHAHAHAH!!!! A VERY DISTANT SECOND!!!! Add PMSNBC an CNN TOGETHER and they don’t match Fox. And what does Variety say? They are just too intellectual! LOL

  48. bill walsh says:

    to say MSNBC is the opposite of FOX is idiocy

  49. L says:

    This article stinks. The second paragraph says that ratings are up then the third says that they’re down. Either way no one’s watching.

  50. MrFlippy says:

    I have three words to explain MSNBC’s decline: Melissa Harris-Perry.

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