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MSNBC’s Program Lineup Needs a Liberal Makeover

MEMO TO PHIL GRIFFIN:

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.

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