How do you solve a problem like MSNBC?

How do you solve a problem like MSNBC?

Sharpton-ToureIt might come as a shock to you, but there’s actually a television news network solely devoted to the liberal point of view. No, I’m not talking about CBS. Or ABC. Or even the broadcast division of NBC. Those outlets try to hide their liberal slant. I’m taking about a very small, hardly watched enterprise that actually promotes its liberal viewpoint. That would be MSNBC, whose ratings have never been stellar and have recently fallen to their lowest
point in six years.

It’s not that the network is without stars: Andrea Mitchell, Mika Brzezinski, Joe Scarborough, Al Sharpton, Chris Matthews all appear in their daily lineup. And Rachel Maddow and Ed Schultz, while not household names, have followings and cachet, as well. So, what’s the reason for trip to the ratings Dumpster?

The National Journal attempts to solve this puzzle with an article by Matthew Cooper titled “What’s behind MSNBC’s ratings decline?”

Before getting to the possible answers to this pressing question, though, the article points out how MSNBC has been broadcasting the George Zimmerman trial, suggesting this is a tactic to try to emulate the success of CNN’s Headline News (HLN) network that does gavel-to-gavel coverage of attention-grabbing trials.

I suggest this is not a ratings gambit at all, but rather, just more of the same liberal approach the network uses throughout its schedule (except, as I discuss below, this approach may have backfired on them).

One of MSNBC’s marquee hosts, Rev. Al Sharpton, participated in rallies to pressure police and prosecutors to charge George Zimmerman, a white man, with murdering Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, after investigators failed at first to find any evidence Zimmerman had committed murder (they believed he acted in self-defense). So MSNBC has a dog in this hunt or a gun in this fight, whatever metaphor you want to use. To my mind, they’ve been covering the trial relentlessly because they probably thought it would validate their host’s point of view: Zimmerman is a murderous racist allowed to get away with his crime because of racism in the Sanford, Florida police department. For anyone watching the trial, however, particularly the state’s case, this Sharpton-endorsed claim is dubious at best.

(As an aside, MSNBC’s decision to air the trial almost gavel-to-gavel resulted in a long promo for its competitor Fox News when the prosecution allowed jurors to watch an interview of George Zimmerman done by Fox’s Sean Hannity. For the length of this interview, the Fox logo appeared in the clip….airing on MSNBC.)

After a discussion of this trial coverage gambit, the National Journal noted this explanation for the MSNBC ratings dive from David Shuster, formerly of MSNBC and now of Current TV:

(Shuster) pointed to Fox’s higher production values as one of the reasons for the conservative network’s ongoing ratings dominance lead and the high-brow nature of MSNBC’s prime time lineup as one of the reasons for its most recent decline.

“High-brow?” Has Shuster watched Chris Matthews or Ed Schultz? Their raging (and often barely informed) populism is the antithesis of “high-brow.”

But this is often a liberal excuse for failure, isn’t it? We’re too sophisticated. People don’t understand our ideas. If they did, they’d be with us.

The sophistication argument comes in later in the article, in fact:

Critics also suggest that MSNBC no longer has much diversity in the evenings. It’s not that MSNBC needs a conservative host. It’s that the nighttime hours from 8:00 PM to 11:00 PM are too erudite, too sophisticated and too earnest to hook a wide swath of viewers.

Pardon me while I laugh into my Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blanc 2002.

Let’s review for a moment just what sophistication is. According to Webster’s, it means:

“…having a refined knowledge of the ways of the world cultivated especially through wide experience”

Wide experience? Does anyone believe for one second that the MSNBC hosts have any experience–let alone “wide” experience–with conservative worldviews?

No, the MSNBC folks aren’t failing because their hosts are too sophisticated or erudite. They’re failing because their hosts aren’t talking about issues people are interested in, for one, or they’re talking about them in a way that doesn’t attract viewers. That “way” is the liberal point of view. They’re selling it as best they can. Viewers aren’t buying it.

Libby Sternberg is a novelist. Her latest novel, After the War, is available in print and digitally.


Libby Sternberg

Libby Sternberg

Libby Sternberg is an Edgar-nominated novelist whose works include humorous women’s fiction, young adult fiction, and historical fiction. Her political writings have appeared at Hot Air, the Weekly Standard, Insight, the Wall Street Journal, and Christian Science Monitor.


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