On most days at MSNBC, Nicolle Wallace faces cameras with a large, live shot of the White House looming in the background. At a different point in her career, she knew how all the operations of that famous structure fit together. Now she must describe for her viewers how they seem to be falling apart.
Wallace thinks that mission could keep her occupied for a while. “I think the presidency is forever changed after Trump. You don’t just obliterate norms and put them back together again. It’s like a glass. It’s been shattered,” she says recently while holding forth in her office at MSNBC’s New York headquarters. She had just told former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie via smartphone she’d have to call him back so she could focus on the conversation.
“Even if there’s someone else in there, putting the pieces back together will still be historic. I think hosting a show about the White House – I’m surprised there wasn’t something like that already on the menu here.”
The network’s decision to add Wallace to the lineup about a year ago has brought something distinct to the often overheated political coverage that figures so prominently in the modern cable-news swirl. Her “Deadline: White House” has sparked a viewership surge for MSNBC at the crucial 4 p.m. hour, which many of the news outlets see as a tool to funnel audiences to primetime. Season to date as of April 22, her program is getting an average of 233,000 viewers among people between 25 and 54, according to Nielsen, the audience most desired by advertisers. During the same period in the 2015-2016 TV season, MSNBC’s hour drew an average of just 88,000. That’s an increase of more than 164% (and more than 52% over the same period last season).
The anchor, a former senior communications staffer for the George W. Bush White House, attributes the interest to the salon-like atmosphere of her program. She gathers reporters from NBC News, The New York Times and The Washington Post and mixes them with various analysts and political experts, then sets the burner to ‘simmer.’ “We just try to bring together unique combinations of people,” she says, “and let them talk the way in this time of Trump people are actually talking to each other.”
Part of the appeal, however, is her unique insight into the goings-on at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue – and her ability to get information from others with similar knowledge. “She has more sources than just about anybody, and they talk to her,” says Phil Griffin, president of MSNBC. “There is a powerful interest in what’s going on right now, and a lot of people trust her with information.”
If there’s a lesson for the news networks in her success, it is this: At a time when many of the TV-news outlets have sought new contributors and talent to accommodate what their executives see as a rightward shift in viewers’ political attitudes, conservative bona fides don’t always win the day. Greta van Susteren was given less than six months to make her mark at MSNBC when she joined the network after a nearly 15-year stint at Fox News Channel. And Megyn Kelly, a Fox News star, has faced headwinds while launching programs on the NBC broadcast network. Over at CNN, conservative analysts like Jeffrey Lord and Ed Martin have seemed less knowledgeable about cultural attitudes and geopolitics and more like the cable-news equivalent of a professional-wrestling villain. Neither is currently with the Time Warner network.
In the post-Trump news cycle, many anchors and hosts have veered noticeably away from straight reportage. Viewers gravitate toward some the drama, but mostly want facts, says Paul Niwa, assistant dean of the school of communication at Emerson College in Boston. “We are getting back to a normal where journalists are advocates,” he says. “They are seekers of the truth.”
Wallace is that. She says she starts her workday by working her phone. By 8:30 a.m. most mornings, she’s reaching out to sources to find out the latest developments. Those conversations often help her kick off an hour with a unique headline or insight others don’t have. On Wednesday, it was news that attorney Emmet Flood, who was just named to President Trump’s legal team, was viewed as a potential successor to White House counsel Don McGahn (the scoop helped her win in the ratings for the day against her rivals on Fox News and CNN). On another day, it was an insight about what the absence of Hope Hicks meant for Trump’s behavior.
The job isn’t that complex. “We spend the day trying to figure out what the heck’s going on at the White House,” says Wallace.
She doesn’t think her time spent working there helps her get access to the people who walk in the shoes she once wore. “It’s not an edge. I just know what it’s supposed to be like. One senior White House official called a friend of mine and asked, ‘What’s wrong with Nicolle? Why is she so mean to us?’ And he said, ‘She’s not mean to you. She just knows what it’s supposed to be like, and she’s galled by what he’s doing to the office.’ And this very senior White House official said, ‘Me too.’”
MSNBC needs to do more to monetize her hour, despite its recent gains. Both “White House” time slot rivals, Fox News’ “Your World with Neil Cavuto” and CNN’s “The Lead with Jake Tapper” won more viewers between 25 and 54 in the first quarter of 2018 as well as in the month of April. “White House” has shown signs of strength, however, beating both programs in total viewers in March.
This wasn’t what she had planned when she arrived at NBC News. Wallace had parted ways with ABC’s “The View” after a short tenure during a tumultuous period for that daytime show. She found a soft landing: offering analysis to NBC News and its “Today” show during the run-up to the 2016 election. That led to a stint early in the launch of Brian Williams “The 11th Hour” offering analysis and sometimes filling in, noted Pat Burkey, the producer who oversees “Deadline.” Executives and producers saw someone who could lead her own program.
She doesn’t hide her Republican leanings, but she says she’s not peering through a political lens when she examines the Trump administration. Rather, she’s just trying to tell people what the norm is and what deviates from it. “I have always been the same person. I was a pro-choice anti-gun Bush loyalist and my politics haven’t changed,” she says. “I think the party has changed.”
She’s probably reaching out to her contacts right now to figure out how to tell viewers what’s working in Washington and what’s not. Wallace doesn’t think she’s going to be hurting for material any time soon. “I watch the Trump White House and I’m like, ‘It’s not supposed to be like that.’ You’re not supposed to, as the President, be the one who leaks the Pompeo trip to North Korea,” she says. “Every day. Every hour!” She has sixty minutes of her own coming up soon.