By Spencer Snyder, FAIR.org
August 28, 2021
To mark its 25th anniversary, MSNBC promised “25 days of forward-looking essays on important issues” from MSNBC personalities like Rachel Maddow.
On July 12, 2021, a photo of Rachel Maddow was posted to the “Community” tab of MSNBC’s YouTube account. The accompanying text read:
To mark MSNBC’s 25th anniversary, MSNBC Daily will feature 25 days of forward-looking essays on important issues from MSNBC anchors, hosts and correspondents. Today, Rachel Maddow writes about the future of election integrity.
Unlike Democracy Now!, which also just celebrated 25 years, or Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting, which just reached 35 years, MSNBC isn’t commemorating with any looks back to its founding, or to its history as an outlet for journalism.
This choice might be because for much of its history, MSNBC wasn’t branded as the liberal answer to Fox News. It was instead the ratings-seeking, superfluous product of two mega corporations endeavoring to expand their respective news businesses. To do a full retrospective of the network, one would have to include its record of platforming conservatives, silencing antiwar voices and being early adopters of round-the-clock scandal coverage.
When General Electric–owned NBC and Microsoft (providing the MS) joined forces in 1996 to create a news network, MSNBC hadn’t quite pinned down its plan for ratings success. In addition to simulcasting the radio host Don Imus, known for his homophobic, racist and sexist remarks (FAIR.org, 4/11/07), MSNBC was seeking to cultivate a younger, tech-savvy audience with programming that exploited a nascent World Wide Web.
The Site, hosted by Soledad O’Brien and featuring a purple-haired, animated “AI” named Dev Null, was one of the first original programs. This failed to bring in an audience, and was cancelled in 1997. The channel would soon abandon its tech-focused strategy for more sensational fodder.
MSNBC‘s fixation on Monica Lewinsky helped solidify the saturation coverage model for cable news.
It started getting warmer in 1998. Once the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke, revolving around Bill Clinton lying about having a sexual relationship with a former White House intern, MSNBC saturated its programming with the story. The Big Show, hosted by Keith Olbermann, was to become White House in Crisis. (FAIR founder Jeff Cohen—Extra!, 3–4/98—suggested it instead be renamed News Media in Heat for its sex obsession.) Olbermann eventually apologized to Bill Clinton for contributing to what John Carman of the San Francisco Chronicle (Santa Cruz Sentinel, 12/31/98) referred to as “MSNBC‘s virtually nonstop cacophony of presidential and congressional shame.”
This saturation coverage model—perhaps pioneered by CNN during the OJ Simpson case in 1994—would become the rule for cable news: pick a story of sensation (usually at the expense of substance) and drill it into the ground 24/7, with no angle too stupid to be explored and repeated. The fact that this approach might condition millions of viewers to see trivial things as important, while downplaying or completely ignoring more meaningful topics, would be of little consequence to the company.
After stepping down as FAIR’s executive director, Cohen worked for a time as a producer at MSNBC, and later (in his book Cable News Confidential) described his first day at the network’s Secaucus, New Jersey, headquarters:
I ventured through the building’s central corridor, where ten framed posters celebrated the highlights of MSNBC‘s early history. The first one I saw: “The Funeral of Princess Diana, September 6, 1997.” Then: “Death of JFK Jr.” On the opposite wall, I saw “Columbine Shootings, Live Coverage” and “Elián González, Live Coverage” and “The Concorde Crash.”… If these were MSNBC‘s highlights, what were its lowlights?
Moving toward a lineup
Tucker Carlson is one of several right-wing personalities whose TV careers were launched or boosted by MSNBC (5/31/05).
In 1999 a show called Equal Time sought to bring a little balance to the Clinton coverage. It was co-anchored by Cynthia Alksne, a former federal prosecutor, who was to be a pro-Clinton voice on the new program. Who was the other co-host? Iran/Contra operative Oliver North. Also added to their 1999 lineup was Watch It! With Laura Ingraham (FAIR.org, 2/5/99); it was MSNBC that gave the former Clarence Thomas clerk her first cable platform.
It was around that time that MSNBC began to develop its permanent lineup. Chris Matthews joined in 1999, Mika Brzezinski in 2000 and Joe Scarborough in 2003.
Not all of its hires were so enduring. Alan Keyes, who ran three times to be the Republican presidential nominee, and would eventually go on to sue Barack Obama to provide proof he was born in the US, was the host of Alan Keyes Is Making Sense. It was short-lived.
Then there was Michael Savage, who was offered a platform—the Savage Nation—that he would quickly lose for making viciously homophobic remarks (FAIR.org, 7/7/03) of the sort he was notorious for before MSNBC gave him a show (FAIR.org, 2/12/03).
There was also an entire show devoted to crime news, an overrepresented genre with a formula that drowns out examination of other pressing social ailments. That was called the Abrams Report, hosted by Dan Abrams. The show would end when Abrams became general manager of MSNBC. Abrams failed upwards into the GM position after embarrassingly embracing lies in support of the Iraq invasion—declaring (12/12/02) that “within the past few weeks, Iraq may have sold or given a chemical weapon, possibly nerve gas, to Islamic extremists affiliated with Al Qaeda”—sourcing this claim to “knowledgeable officials speaking without permission who describe it as a credible report, but not backed up by definitive evidence.”
Casualty of the Iraq War
Another host destined for cancellation was Phil Donahue. Except in Donahue’s case, cancellation wouldn’t be the result of saying something bigoted or manifestly false on air, or not being able to maintain ratings—his were the highest on the network. For Donahue, it would come from being an inconvenient antiwar voice in the lead-up to the Iraq War.
MSNBC (Extra! Update, 4/03) worried that Phil Donahue’s show would be “a home for the liberal anti-war agenda at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity.”
When Donahue was brought on in 2002, MSNBC was excited for the ratings that he was expected to bring. However, the network quickly began to worry that Donahue would be a “difficult public face for NBC in a time of war”—especially considering that NBC was owned by General Electric (which, among other things, was a weapons manufacturer; Extra! Update, 4/03).
Apparently to compensate for his position, Donahue was told to “balance” every antiwar guest with two pro-war guests (FAIR.org, 12/22/04; CounterSpin, 8/13/21). Except in the case of filmmaker activist Michael Moore, for whom three pro-war voices would be required. Donahue was canceled soon before the invasion of Iraq; its lead-in show, Countdown: Iraq, hosted by Keith Olbermann, was expanded to fill the timeslot.
This stance on Iraq could be felt permeating the network all the way down to its lower thirds. In March 2003, George W. Bush gave Saddam Hussein an ultimatum that either he and his sons leave Iraq within 48 hours or face war. MSNBC ran a countdown clock at the bottom of the screen (FAIR.org, 3/19/03). This, of course, added to the lie that war was not a choice, but a consequence of a defiant Saddam.
As the war progressed, perhaps to make Joe Scarborough and Chris Matthews seem liberal by comparison, MSNBC hired Tucker Carlson (FAIR.org, 12/22/04). He held a primetime spot from 2005 until 2008, during which time it was in the channel’s interest to build his brand and make him as well-known as possible. Doubtless they bear some culpability for Carlson’s ascendancy.
Leftish—but not too left
Keith Olbermann won high ratings for criticizing George W. Bush, but that didn’t save him from getting fired (cc photo: afagen).
2008 is when MSNBC became the network we think of today, with the hiring of Air America host Rachel Maddow to head a new show in primetime. This would complement Keith Olbermann, whose ratings had almost doubled since 2006 “when he started delivering ‘special comments’ criticizing the Bush administration” (New York Times, 8/21/08). Countdown With Keith Olbermann would air at 8 p.m. and replay at 10 p.m., because the repeat garnered sufficient ratings to justify the redundancy.
This began an era when it was possible to find people like Amy Goodman or Jeremy Scahill on one of MSNBC‘s panel shows. Chris Hayes, Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell, for all their faults, were far cries from the days of Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham.
However, the new hosts’ leftism seldom extended beyond standard mainstream discourse, particularly when it came to US foreign policy. “I’m a national security liberal, which I tell people because it’s meant to sound absurd,” Maddow told the New York Times (7/17/08). “I’m all about counterterrorism. I’m all about the GI Bill.”
In 2009, when the president of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, was ousted by a military coup, the coverage was characteristically scant. Maddow framed the coup as more of a curiosity than a crisis. While some of her coverage focused on the Republicans who planned trips to Honduras in order to support the coup government, other of her segments poked fun at Zelaya’s attempts to re-enter the country. The fact that the Honduran military opened fire on supporters of Zelaya awaiting his return at the airport, killing a teenage boy, was not part of Maddow’s look at the lighter side of overthrowing an elected government.
When the US was set to initiate war with Libya in 2011, as opposed to reporting critically on the burgeoning conflict, MSNBC served partly as a cover to the Obama administration. “Maddow observed that Obama, like Bush, was invading a Middle Eastern nation,” Michael Corcoran and Stephen Maher wrote in Truthout (6/3/11):
But by initiating the attack without so much as a press conference to the American people, she argued, he was avoiding the “chest thumping” of previous administrations in an effort to “change the narrative” of US foreign policy.
Also in 2011, Keith Olbermann was fired, despite healthy ratings; denials were issued that this had anything to do with the purchase of MSNBC and NBC by the cable giant Comcast (Guardian, 1/21/11). The Atlantic (5/26/11) speculated that Olbermann might have been ousted for arguing after a mass shooting in Tucson that former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin needed to be “repudiated” for “amplifying violence.”
Cenk Uygur of the Young Turks was given the 6 p.m. slot that same year. His ratings were good. However, sometime after being told to tone it down and invite on more Republicans, it became clear that despite his ratings haul, there was no upward mobility for his brand of vigorous criticism. He soon left MSNBC (Extra!, 11/11).
Ed Schultz was also part of the progressive wave that came to characterize the network post-2008, on air from 2009 to 2015. His end came when he was about to cover Bernie Sanders’ 2015 presidential primary launch. At the launch event, Schultz was contacted by network president Phil Griffin, who told him to pack up and leave. The network was not interested in covering the Sanders campaign launch. Schultz was gone from the network soon after (Intercept, 2/22/16).
While MSNBC failed to give equal time to progressive candidates, it found inordinate bandwidth to devote to presidential candidate Donald Trump, contributing to the $2 billion in “earned media” Trump received during his 2016 campaign. During the 2016 election cycle, MSNBC mentioned him more than all other presidential candidates, Republican or Democratic, combined.
An episode in May 2016 typified MSNBC‘s obsession with Trump, while also displaying how truly similar they are to the other cable news networks. While Hillary Clinton was giving a talk to union workers in Las Vegas, MSNBC (as well as Fox News and CNN) chose instead to air footage of an empty podium where Trump was scheduled to speak.
A comparison of yearly screentime MSNBC gave to Barack Obama vs. Donald Trump, from the Stanford Cable TV Analyzer. Note that in 2015, MSNBC gave slightly more coverage to a real estate developer who was planning to run for president the following year than it did to the sitting president of the United States.
After the 2016 election, Trump continued to dominate MSNBC; the Stanford Cable News Analyzer indicates that the network gave President Trump roughly two and a half times as much screentime from 2017–20 as it gave Barack Obama from 2013–16. As CJR (9/8/20) noted in 2020, “The network that consistently gives Trump the most airtime is not Fox News, but MSNBC.”
And this attention paid to Trump was highly selective, with vast amounts of news hours devoted to connections he may or may not have had with Russia. “Between Election Day  and April 19, 2019…MSNBC devoted 32 percent of all coverage” to the “Trump/Russia collusion scandal,” CJR (10/18/19) reported.
This obsessive focus invariably crowded out countless other stories that may have been more important to voters, but with less utility to the network as drivers of views and watch-hours. The passage of Trump’s massive tax cut for the wealthy, for example, was virtually eclipsed by MSNBC‘s exhaustive examination of the minutiae of the Mueller report and the “Russia Dossier” (FAIR.org, 12/13/17).
A large portion of MSNBC’s existence is characterized by a lust for ratings, endless coverage of trivialities and a craven echoing of officialdom. It may occasionally have a good take, segment or even host, but it will always be operating in service to profit—and corporate power (FAIR.org, 10/4/10).