WHAT’S WRONG WITH MSNBC: The New York Times asks!


Part 2—And largely fails to answer: Is it fair to criticize MSNBC because Fox clobbers it in the ratings?

Basically, no—it isn’t. For one thing, Fox has been at its mission much longer, ever since it went on the air in 1996. By way of contrast, MSNBC has only become a liberal channel in the past few years.

(Rachel Maddow got her own show in September 2008. That meant that MSNBC now had two hours of liberal programming each night.)

Beyond that, quality can’t be measured by ratings. A very good political channel might well lose the ratings war to a political clown show. You can’t measure the quality of MSNBC’s work by its ratings.

That said, MSNBC’s ratings have been slipping, and people have begun to ask why. Last week, Salon’s Alex Pareene examined the ratings slide under this headline: “What’s Wrong with MSNBC?”

Yesterday, in the New York Times, TV writer Bill Carter pretended to ask the same question. We say “pretended” because of the strangeness of much of Carter’s analysis.

Carter started with some of the basic facts and some basic points of fairness.

“At a time of intensely high interest in news, MSNBC’s ratings declined from the same period a year ago by about 20 percent,” Carter wrote. As he did, he recorded the channel’s explanation for the ratings decline:
CARTER (6/3/13): At a time of intensely high interest in news, MSNBC’s ratings declined from the same period a year ago by about 20 percent. The explanation, in the network’s own analysis, comes down to this: breaking news is not really what MSNBC does.

“We’re not the place for that,” said Phil Griffin, the channel’s president, in reference to covering breaking events as CNN does. “Our brand is not that.”

The brand, one MSNBC has cultivated with success, is defined by its tagline, “The Place for Politics,” and a skew toward left-wing, progressive political talk, the opposite of the conservative-based approach that has worked well for Fox News.
In one respect, Griffin’s explanation is surely correct. MSNBC isn’t mainly about “breaking news,” and “breaking news” has ben a big deal in the past few months, as Carter explains early on.

Of course, Fox isn’t mainly about “breaking news” either. And Fox has been gaining viewers in recent months. In prime time, Fox is 17 percent higher as compared to this same time last year.

Carter spends a lot of time explaining why CNN has done well in recent months, and the answer seems to be obvious. CNN now spends all its time ostentatiously comforting victims of various tragedies, including bombings and bad weather. If your house gets blown down by a storm, CNN will be there for weeks to emote, pretending that it’s covering news in the process.

As Carter notes, this may explain why CNN has edged past MSNBC in the past few months. But why is Fox kicking MSNBC’s keister in the egregious ways you can survey at links like this?

Before we suggest one possibility, let’s see how Carter explains the drop in MSNBC’s numbers as compared to this time last year.

How bad is New York Times journalism? When Carter tries to explain the ratings sag, he frames his discussion like this:
CARTER: Mr. Griffin pointed out that CNN has surged ahead of MSNBC (and occasionally even Fox News) when enormous news was breaking, like the tsunami in Japan in 2011—but fell back once the news cooled. And on three nights last week, MSNBC edged back ahead of CNN in the prime-time hours, though CNN maintained a lead over the full day.

But there is speculation that something different may be happening this time, that a combination of a more aggressive approach from CNN, dimming interest in political news in general, and a sense that MSNBC has less to offer in hard news coverage, may be eroding the advantage that the channel has enjoyed.
There is speculation! Speculations have been advanced! Carter never quite identifies the source of these speculations. Later, he starts quoting anonymous TV producers. They seem to be the source.

According to Carter, “there is speculation” that MSNBC is losing audience because of “dimming interest in political news in general.” Again, that alleged dimming interest doesn’t seem to be bothering Fox, which has been gaining audience and is hammering MSNBC at every hour, including all prime-time slots.

Does “dimming interest in political news” explain the ratings decline? At this point, Carter quotes Griffin, the MENBC network exec, as he offers his view of this matter.
CARTER: “People are just sick of politics,” said one former senior network news producer, who asked not to be identified because of current dealings with another news organization. Mr. Griffin agreed that “dysfunction in Washington” has been a factor in MSNBC’s recent struggles.

MSNBC’s viewers may have especially grown tired of politics because the news has been mostly negative recently toward President Obama, whom MSNBC’s hosts have championed. As another senior producer for news programs at multiple networks put it, “People will watch MSG when the Knicks are hot, and not watch when they aren’t.”

Even Ms. Maddow’s ratings tumbled sharply in May, at least partly because the network’s new host at 8 p.m., Chris Hayes, has lost more than 30 percent of the audience in the hour before Ms. Maddow’s show. (Mr. Griffin, who defended the decision to bring in Mr. Hayes, said the show had been hurt by the discord in Washington, and vowed to stick with it after “some tweaking.”)
In fairness, we have no transcript of Griffin’s remarks. We can’t examine or assess his complete statement. But why exactly would “dysfunction in Washington” (or even the paraphrased “discord in Washington”) damage a channel which is designed to examine what happens in Washington? And why wouldn’t that “dysfunction in Washington” be harming the ratings at Fox?

One obvious possible answer is found in that passage. As Carter correctly notes, the political news from Washington “has been mostly negative recently toward President Obama.” Almost surely, this helps explain the ratings decline at the channel which exists to support Obama except when support of that type might damage its hosts’ career interests.

What has been happening on cable TV as that negative news continues? This:

Each night, conservative viewers flock to Fox to hear this negative news invented and embellished by very aggressive conservative hosts. But uh-oh! When liberal viewers tune to MSNBC, they see a bunch of liberal hosts sticking their heads in the sand.

Last Wednesday night provided the ultimate god-awful example. On Fox, the hosts were cranking the scandal machine all night. They embellished freely about a trio of alleged scandals, including the Benghazi scandal which they have been inventing, without opposition from Griffin's gang, since September of last year.

On Fox, the hosts were embellishing freely. But over on MSNBC, their counterparts showed no sign of knowing about the burgeoning Scandal Framework. Instead of addressing the negative news to which Carter referred, they fed their viewers comfort food about how dumb Michele Bachmann is. In one instance, they even managed to bungle that easy assignment!

Griffin might as well have furloughed his hosts for the evening. He might as well have aired reruns from the fall of 2011.

Traditionally, people like to watch a good fight. Last Wednesday night, the stars were fighting very hard and rather unfairly at Fox. But over at The One True Channel, the hosts weren’t fighting at all.

Does this explain why MSNBC has been losing viewers this year? We have no way to answer that question. We can’t say what the ratings would be if the channel had taken a different approach to the ongoing Scandal Wars, starting (let’s say) last September.

But as the week proceeds, we will continue to ask two questions: Why are this channel’s overpaid hosts so goddamned unwilling to fight? And could this abject refusal to fight help explain their ongoing loss of viewers?

Tomorrow: Pareene’s view of the problem


  1. I find I am switching much more often to "Ellen" than I have in the past.

  2. The comments for the NYT article are much more interesting than the article itself. There were quite a few Fox viewers commenting, for a NYT site. There was much criticism of MSNBC because they didn't debate the topics. They were tuning in to see a good fight! And MSNBC wasn't giving it to them. They were bored with all of the agreement. Fox's use of humans to take the role of animate strawmen really seems to work.

    1. There's nothing as scintillating as watching progressives smugly tell each other how right they are about everything.

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