You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

MSNBC’s Program Lineup Needs a Liberal Makeover


For several years now your liberal bastion, MSNBC, has been assuring us that it’s resolutely “leaning forward,” but slogans can be dangerous — especially for a news operation that appears to be listing backward.

These are exciting times in the news business, with headlines popping around the world, elections looming in the U.S. and most news organizations shuffling staffs and schedules. Yet NBC News president Deborah Turness, fresh from the U.K.’s ITV, suggested the other day that some segments of the news business had “gone to sleep.”

I don’t know which operation she was referring to, but here’s some wake-up news, Phil. Your ratings are lousy, and your pundits seem bored by their own pontification. Two of your most dynamic newsies, Chuck Todd and Joe Scarborough, apparently are taking refuge at your parent network.

The bottom line, Phil, is that you’re making the Fox news-and-propaganda network look young and agile, which is remarkable given its aging demos. Fox still delivers news, not just tirades. To be sure, viewers have to decode the polemics, but Fox’s polemics are more entertaining than Rachel Maddow’s pedantics.

It was almost 10 years ago that NBC bought a controlling interest in MSNBC, and made moves to become a liberal beacon. The steadfastly combative Keith Olbermann had already been installed in his “Countdown” post. But there have been periodic casualties:  Don Imus in 2007, Tucker Carlson in ’08, Olbermann himself three years later. In 2013, Martin Bashir and Alec Baldwin were dismissed, the latter after having been hired only six weeks earlier. MSNBC didn’t seem to be able to define the role of anchor, or to decide whether it wanted to offer news or just rants.

During this period, CNN, too, has been having a bumpy ride, but while you, Phil, craftily avoided the limelight, CNN topper Jeff Zucker took a pounding for his efforts to reinvent network news. At least he’s trying.

Your parent company, Comcast, has declared NBC News a top priority, bringing in Turness from ITV in August 2013, and anointing Todd as the new host for “Meet the Press.” Media attention has focused on that and NBC’s frantic (and sometimes inept) efforts to bolster “Today.”

If MSNBC seemed ignored in the shuffle, that served you well, Phil, since your network had quietly settled into third place in total-day ratings behind Fox and CNN, with primetime ratings at a 10-year low. I don’t want to wallow in numbers, Phil, because whenever ratings are introduced, someone produces an arcane chart to prove the opposite. As I analyze the data, however, stalwarts like Maddow have lost momentum, while Chris Hayes never had any. I’ve always liked “Morning Joe,” but that show, too, is sagging in the 25-54 demo. And Ronan Farrow from the start seemed like a press release in search of a news anchor.

What sets MSNBC apart, of course, is its political posture, which serves an important counterweight given Rupert Murdoch’s clout with Fox and the Wall Street Journal, and the dominance of talk radio by Tea Party propagandists. Coverage of the Ferguson, Mo., racial tension provided a fascinating focus for all this. Fox coverage was fervidly pro-police, while CNN agonized for the protestors and MSNBC gave us Al Sharpton, posing as both journalistic observer and social provocateur. The only balanced coverage was from the BBC and Al Jazeera.

It seems to me the ball is now in your court, Phil, to re-energize your network. The big stories are there. The coming elections will bring new personalities and issues to the fore. While the political system continues in a stalemate, with voters polarized, there should certainly be a place for a passionately informative force on the left. Or even in the middle.

More Voices

  • Hollywood Has Come Far With Diversity

    An Insider's Look at Hollywood's Diversity Efforts and How Far It Still Needs to Go

    I am a white man working in Hollywood. I grew up in Beverlywood, an all-white, predominantly Jewish, Los Angeles neighborhood sandwiched between 20th Century Fox Studios and MGM, where my elementary school had only one black student. I am compelled to write about diversity in Hollywood because “diversity” — in front of and behind the camera [...]

  • Venice Film Festival A Star is

    How Venice, Toronto and Telluride Festivals Stole Cannes' Luster (Column)

    In all the years I’ve been attending film festivals, I have never seen a lineup that looked as good on paper as Venice’s did this fall, boasting new films by Alfonso Cuarón (“Roma”), Damien Chazelle (“First Man”), Paul Greengrass (“22 July”), Mike Leigh (“Peterloo”) and the Coen brothers (“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”) in competition, [...]

  • Black Women in Medicine BTS

    Hollywood Needs to Include People With Disabilities on Both Sides of the Camera (Guest Column)

    In five years, nothing has changed. Despite open calls for greater diversity and inclusion, recent research shows that there was little change in the number of characters with disabilities in popular films in 2017. A study conducted by the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism found that [...]

  • Seven Seconds

    Fighting the Racial Bias at the Core of Hollywood’s Cop Shows (Guest Column)

    If fiction is the lie that tells a deeper truth, the TV crime genre has been, for the most part, the lie that simply tells a lie. As a storyteller (Veena) and an advocate for racial justice (Rashad), we collaborated for the past two-and-a-half years in an attempt to reimagine the roles of cops, victims, [...]

  • Harvey Weinstein Trial

    Column: Documentarian Barry Avrich Ponders Whether Harvey Weinstein Will Be Convicted

    Will Harvey Weinstein go to jail? That’s perhaps the most debated topic in Hollywood. It’s a question that makes me miss my friend Dominick Dunne, the controversial Vanity Fair columnist who would have already succeeded in interview-ing the chambermaids at Harvey’s sex-addiction clinic. Dunne once prophetically told me there would be a massive reckoning in Hollywood. He [...]

  • Janet Mock Pose

    'Pose' Writer Janet Mock on Making History With Trans Storytelling (Guest Column)

    I first met Ryan Murphy on location in Hollywood in July. The set was a nightclub, filled with background actors staged as glistening go-go dancers, shirtless revelers, and twirling drag queens. They were all basking under the glow of a spinning disco ball — a fitting setting for my first Hollywood job interview. I was [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content