At the beginning of December, liberal TV hosts Chris Hayes and Rachel Maddow — the anchors of MSNBC's primetime schedule — were confronted with ever-escalating breaking news. In the span of a week, from December 1 through December 7, President Donald Trump shrank two national monuments, recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, saw his travel ban upheld by the Supreme Court and possibly began to create his own spy network. Meanwhile, the Senate passed a tax “reform” bill that would radically restructure the U.S. economy at the expense of poor and middle-class Americans, and climate change-fueled wildfires devastated Southern California.
Yet on the weekdays their shows aired during those seven days — December 1 and 4-7 — both Hayes and Maddow bypassed all these stories to lead with minutiae from the ongoing Russia investigation that has consumed MSNBC's coverage like no other news event since the beginning of the Trump presidency. Topical news of the day, whether on legislation or natural disasters, took a backseat. The Comcast-owned network’s two most popular personalities used their position to focus endlessly on speculative coverage of Russia’s role in the 2016 election — devoting the bulk of each show’s 15-minute opening segment to the story, at a minimum.
The streak was broken on December 8, when Hayes’ "All In" show led with the sexual harassment scandals roiling the nation, though he still devoted substantial time to Russia later in the broadcast: “The plot to stop Mueller is growing,” Hayes ominously intoned during the introduction, letting viewers know the story was coming.
While Hayes devoted his December 8 show to the allegations of sexual assault and harassment surrounding the president and Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, Maddow devoted her full Friday hour to her much-hyped special on “The Dossier” — a full hour devoted to a year-old document, as if it contained fresh news, complete with a graphic misusing Russian typography.
“We’re going to step back and look at the 35-page Trump Russia dossier,” Maddow said in the opening of the special. “And depending on which way the news is blowing, the allegations contained in this document can sound outlandish, or they can sound freakishly spot on.”
If this focus on Le Carré-style foreign machinations at the expense of all other news seems like a wild departure from the network’s nominal liberalism, then you’ve not been paying attention to FAIR’s reporting on MSNBC from the last two decades. There’s always been an air of discomfort around MSNBC at the way the cable news channel has in the last decade become — almost by default — a go-to spot for liberals seeking news and analysis. It took on this role only after repeated failures to share the conservative media market with Fox News.
When disgraced Reagan official Oliver North was hired by MSNBC in early 1999, along with John McLaughlin and Laura Ingraham, FAIR (2/5/99) called it “a familiar format to viewers grown accustomed to the pairing of rabid right-wingers with tepid centrists supposedly representing the left.” Two years later, after the 9/11 attacks, NBC chief Robert Wright instructed his subordinates to tilt right: “We have to be more conservative than they are,” Wright said of Fox.
This hope was frustrated by Phil Donahue’s progressive talk show becoming the network’s highest-rated show — though that experiment was cut short by the coming of the Iraq War, when Donahue was fired after one executive expressed fears that the show could become “a home for the liberal anti-war agenda at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity.” This was followed by the short-lived cash grab of giving a show to virulent right-wing radio host Michael Savage in 2003 (FAIR.org, 1/12/03), just when the far right seemed to be ascendant in American politics. As Democracy Now!'s Amy Goodman said at the time:
Five months ago, MSNBC overhauled their schedule. The network’s most progressive voice Phil Donahue was out. A team of well-known conservatives were quickly hired.
While Savage’s inability to rein in his hate-filled rants soon cost him his TV show, another of those “well-known conservatives” — former Republican Rep. Joe Scarborough, who had a 95 percent lifetime approval rating from the American Conservative Union — is still with MSNBC, co-hosting the crucial morning slot that sets the tone for a cable network’s news day.
After unsuccessfully attempting to sell audiences on Tucker Carlson in 2005, the channel grudgingly turned to the left — giving Maddow a show in 2008 and hiring Hayes in 2011. Yet even as the network has promoted nominal progressives to anchor the lineup over the past decade, the nagging feeling that MSNBC would rather be pursuing a different agenda has never gone away.
That’s allowed the Russia story to fill an important role: It’s both a way for liberals to blow off steam and grumble at the sinister plots of the Trump administration, and for MSNBC executives to obfuscate policy in favor of tabloid-style reporting.
Though a personality like Hayes has substantial pull and influence in liberal circles, he didn’t use that influence to push his audience to pay attention to the tax bill making its way through the Senate. Rather, on Friday, December 1, as the GOP-led Congress was voting for legislation that would rewrite the code of the American economy, lay waste to the healthcare system and effect one of the greatest transfers of wealth from the 99 Percent to the 1 Percent in U.S. history, the tax plan merited only a brief mention, 45 minutes into the show, when Hayes got the thoughts of right-wing Utah independent Evan McMullin on the bill.
It’s not as if Hayes didn’t know that the news was breaking, important, and that the Republican-led chamber was making law on the fly. “The Senate GOP is in such a massive rush to give benefits to corporations and the wealthy,” Hayes said during his December 1 segment, “it is literally rewriting the American tax code at this hour by hand.” This was not as urgent, though, as covering the latest turn in Robert Mueller’s investigation of Trump’s Russia ties.
Things were better, though not much, for the next week. Hayes did make his way to telling the stories of the day, which ranged from Trump’s prodding of international tinderboxes and desecration of domestic resources, though these stories were frequently overshadowed by ever-growing and ever more ethereal visions of Russian machinations.
But Hayes was positively devoted to broad coverage of the news compared to his counterpart in the 9 p.m. hour. The channel’s crown jewel of liberalism for a decade, Rachel Maddow, has been Russia 24/7 for months. (It took Maddow 45 minutes to get to the tax bill on December 1, too.)
As FAIR reported over the summer (6/29/17), the Russia obsession is not unique to Maddow, or even to MSNBC — after all, it was CNN president Jeff Zucker who allegedly said his network’s prime news goal should be “let’s get back to Russia.”
Yet even in corporate media, Maddow stands alone in her devotion to the Russia story at the expense of all else. That was made clear on December 4, when Maddow told her audience that the news of the day was almost overwhelming: The Supreme Court had upheld the president’s ban on Muslims entering the country, the tax bill had been passed and a potential government shutdown, the shrinking of natural resources in the West by presidential fiat, the Olympics banning Russia, and the Alabama Senate race were all topical, important and worthy of coverage.
But for Maddow, they were a subordinate distraction to the only story worth covering.
“All those stories happened today,” Maddow told her audience:
Any one of these stories might reasonably have been expected to start the world spinning backwards on its axis at any other time, right? In any other administration, at any other time in modern life. But in this administration, all this stuff is happening at once, and it’s all happening in the context of the most serious criminal and counterintelligence investigation that any US president has ever faced.
After 11 months in office, the Trump administration is covered on the nation’s nominally liberal cable news channel in a way that makes clear that the priority isn’t to explain the reality of the administration and the human cost of the things that it does — but rather to blame the existence of Trump on a foreign conspiracy and offer hope that a white knight in the form of a special prosecutor will come to our rescue. Along with that concentration on Russia comes the deprioritization of the real-world effects of the Trump presidency and active political efforts to oppose them — and that tells us all we need to know about the priorities at Rockefeller Center. MSNBC is a hopped-up Cold War cover band, and its two lead singers are Maddow and Hayes.
Originally published at FAIR.org.