MSNBC and Its Discontents

MSNBC and Its Discontents

Are Alec Baldwin and Bill Maher right about the network?


Lately, MSNBC seems to be waking up every few mornings to find a celebrity rattlesnake in its boot. First, Bill Maher said MSNBC was obsessed with Chris Christie and that Bridgegate had become its Benghazi. Then Alec Baldwin took to the cover of New York magazine to denounce his former network for running “the same shit all day long.” “The only difference” between shows, Baldwin wrote, “was who was actually pulling off whatever act they had come up with.”

MSNBC killed Baldwin’s Friday night talk show after only five weeks when the actor made a homophobic remark, which he contends in New York wasn’t homophobic at all. He also calls Rachel Maddow, whom he suspects was behind his ouster, a “phony.” But such Hollywood hairballs, coming on the heels of a series of apologies, anchor defenestrations and schedule rejiggering, could make a casual viewer wonder, Buried in Baldwin’s bruised ego is there a critique of the network worth listening to? And is Maher right that MSNBC is in danger of becoming the Fox News of the left?

First, Baldwin: he’s right about one thing. With exceptions like Morning Joe with its center-right tilt, the wildly erratic Chris Matthews, and Steve Kornacki’s and Melissa Harris-Perry’s two-hour, in-depth weekend shows, there is a sameness to MSNBC’s roster. The daily, hour-long format, often featuring hosts from other MSNBC shows and a familiar rotation of guest pundits can be mind-numbing—just as it can be on Fox News and CNN. (I’m tempted to say, just as it’d be on any cable news network with twenty-four hours to fill. But Al Jazeera, by emphasizing granular reporting across the world, is disproving that old saw.)

Ronan Farrow’s new show may evolve, but when I flipped it on Monday and saw him chatting it up with MSNBC’s favorite Republican, former RNC chair Michael Steele, and MSNBC host Alex Wagner, it could have been any one of the network’s shows—this one just had a young semi-celeb at the glossy desk. MSNBC should at least give him some fresh material—and running a daily segment called “Heroes and Zeros” doesn’t cut it.

I admit, most of my frustration with MSNBC is my own fault: I watch it too damn much! It pulls me in. I still marvel that a TV network can be so unabashedly left-liberal and survive in the corporate media—much as I marveled during the several years of Air America radio (where Maddow began). MSNBC is light years ahead of its rivals in its racial diversity; most of its hosts are super-smart (unfortunately, producers keep trying to leaven the wonk with whimsy, like the ironic music accompanying Chris Hayes’s pre-taped pieces or Maddow’s too-cute re-enactments); and the network delves regularly into under-covered subjects, like the environment (which, by the way, Hayes and Maddow excel at).

Of course, you don’t hear a peep from MSNBC about its corporate parent Comcast and its controversial proposed purchase of Time Warner Cable. And it doesn’t often venture off the Democratic Party ranch. But until Keith Olbermann—who not surprisingly endorses Baldwin’s rant—fitted MSNBC with a left foot, Fox seemed to have snuffed out any hope that “the liberal media” might actually live up to its name.

Saying things on national TV once relegated to The Village Voice or The Nation understandably lends MSNBCers a confidence, almost a sense of triumphalism, which sometimes trips them up into merely nyah-nyah-nyahing the right. Fox does this with far more gusto at the left, but it doesn’t serve MSNBC well. A friend of mine says she can’t watch MSNBC anymore, because “they’re smug. Anyone who doesn’t agree with them, they treat like they’re stupid.”

The flip side of smug is a sense of insecurity. Hosts are coming (the estimable Joy Reid, as well as Farrow, debuted a show this week) and going (Baldwin, Olbermann, Martin Bashir, Dylan Ratigan). Clearly they’re under constant pressure to rack up ratings, something the Chris Christie scandals have indeed helped them do.

Which brings us to Bill Maher’s critique. Unlike Baldwin, Maher “loves” MSNBC. But in a Valentine’s Day post he decided to break up with the network because it’s preoccupied with another man, the New Jersey governor.

Maddow defended the heavy coverage on Maher’s HBO show the next week. “I am totally obsessed with the Christie story, unapologetically,” she said, “and will continue to be obsessed with it while amazing things in that story continue to happen.” Maher conceded that Benghazi isn’t a real scandal while Bridgegate most definitely is—though, he added, “It’s just that it’s not Watergate.” And he softened that too-easy trope that MSNBC is the Fox News of the left, saying, “I hate false equivalency. MSNBC, one of the great things about it is that they are scrupulous fact-checkers whereas Fox News are scrupulous fact-maker-uppers.”

If the non-Fox media have been hard on Chris Christie lately, it’s in direct proportion to how hard they fell for him before. For years, the media—and this includes MSNBC stars like Scarborough, Matthews and, on occasion, Al Sharpton—loved the blunt-talking, fuggedaboutit Jersey guy who had the guts to “work across the aisle.” When Bridgegate revealed that in fact he had been intimidating and threatening Democratic office-holders all along, it unleashed a torrent of pent-up, actual reporting.

So, yes, as Bill Maher says, MSNBC has been obsessed with Christie, but no, they’re not covering him too much. And yes, as Alec Baldwin says, in stronger words, the shows have fallen into a sameness.

It’s a problem, however, that can be remedied, sometimes as simply as having a host light out for the territory. Ed Schultz, for instance, is running a weeklong series on the Keystone XL Pipeline, reporting from Nebraska and listening to the citizens TransCanada is trampling over. Ed, who began as a (surprising) supporter of the pipeline, now appears to be leaning against it. It’s a change of heart and venue that’s making his show, and at least one hour of MSNBC, suddenly suspenseful and dynamic.


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