In the wake of Donald Trump’s election in 2016, MSNBC had at least two clear options: It could respond to a swelling progressive viewer base by moving left, or it could keep playing the Beltway game and move right, loading up with #NeverTrump Republicans and dumping actual progressives. In choosing the latter — albeit with a head-fake — the news channel has significantly skewed its coverage, to the detriment of progressive politics and its own viewers.
Oh, there’s plenty of Trump-bashing to please MSNBC's booming viewer base. But it’s often a cheap thrill, giving scant or no attention to what made Trump's presidency possible in the first place, let alone the challenge of building a coherent alternative. The channel is currently enjoying a ratings high, despite its leadership’s centrist intentions, but that's no formula for the long haul, either for MSNBC or America.
“Without doubt, it’s Trump and his antics that have provided MSNBC’s ratings boom,” said Jeff Cohen, author of "Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media." “A President Hillary Clinton would have continued our country’s unequal and militaristic status quo, and all the apologizing for her on MSNBC would have led to boring TV and lousy ratings."
Cohen founded the media watch group FAIR in 1986 (I was an early FAIR volunteer) and later worked on-air at CNN and Fox and as a producer for Phil Donahue at MSNBC, before Donahue's show was axed for political reasons on the brink of the Iraq war (more on that below). Currently director at the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College, Cohen belongs to the long but sparse tradition of independent progressives who’ve spent time in the innermost bowels of the media establishment and lived to talk about it.
“There are two big problems facing our country, and they have for decades -- right-wing extremism and Democratic corporatism," Cohen said. "MSNBC gives you exactly one-half of that story. It reminds me of the old George Carlin joke: ‘Here's a partial score in from the West Coast: Los Angeles 7.’"
Bernie Sanders’ 2016 candidacy threw a harsh light on the other half of the story, which helps explain why his supporters get so little MSNBC airtime, in contrast to other venues Cohen cited.
Overtly left-oriented outlets like Democracy Now!, The Young Turks and Common Dreams continue to cover both problems, Cohen observed.
If MSNBC wasn't devoid of strong, public Sanders supporters and other genuine progressives, you'd hear about both problems. Look at who MSNBC's heroes seem to be lately: war hawks and perjurers formerly with U.S. intelligence and the Pentagon. Their parade of ex-military analysts have a track record of getting the facts wrong or dissembling, but that's ancient history not to be discussed as long as they're willing to even tepidly criticize Trump. I hope [Robert] Mueller puts together a strong case, but he's no hero of the left. Nor is [James] Comey. Nor is Gen. Barry McCaffrey.
Sanders’ supporters weren’t the only ones squeezed out, however. Even a staunch Hillary Clinton supporter like former Salon editor Joan Walsh was recently dumped by MSNBC — and rapidly hired by CNN — as the ranks of NeverTrumper contributors continued to swell. There’s room for George Will, Bill Kristol and David Frum, and even for dogged Trump apologist Hugh Hewitt, although the logic of listening to these people is virtually nonexistent.
It’s not just that these conservatives or conservative-adjacent commentators are associated with so many past political disasters. It's also unfair to present them as representing any significant slice of pubic opinion. In his post-election analysis published in June 2017, Lee Drutman created 12 indices to analyze voters' views, which he also condensed down into two broader ones:
- An economic liberalism-conservatism index (which combines views on the social safety net, trade, inequality and active government)
- A social/identity liberalism-conservatism politics index (which combines the moral issues index plus views toward African-Americans, immigrants and Muslims).
He then produced the following scatterplot graph:
The large, and nearly empty, lower right quadrant represents libertarianism, broadly speaking, which is the home turf of most MSNBC-style Republicans. The dense cluster of blue dots in the lower-left quadrant represent the Democratic base, which is clearly MSNBC’s core audience. But there are also many more blue dots (as well as red ones) in the upper-left quadrant than in the lower right. These are, more or less, socially conservative but economically progressive voters to whom the Democrats lost much more ground to than expected in the 2016 election — exactly the folks who cost Hillary Clinton the election in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. They are being effectively ignored by MSNBC’s programing at the same time that the channel's core viewers are being underserved, and treated to a diet that is oversaturated with lower-right NeverTrump Republicans.
A healthy political dialogue, free of corporate dictates, would allow the dominant voices in the lower-left liberal-progressive quadrant to be fully heard in their own terms, rather than constantly being "balanced" with Republicans who do not represent a significant base, even within the Republican and/or conservative coalition. Instead, it would allow liberals and progressives to engage with thoughtful representatives of the upper-left quadrant, who, believe it or not, actually exist.
What’s more, that would involve a much richer, more diverse mix of progressive voices, who are now virtually invisible on MSNBC: rural progressives like Nebraska Democratic Party chair Jane Kleeb, for example, or leftist women of color like Current Affairs contributing editor Briahna Joy Gray.
A striking example of what’s missing at MSNBC can be seen in how the network virtually ignored the wave of red-state teachers' strikes. On March 2, FAIR published an article noting that except for "one two-minute throwaway report" on a daytime show, MSNBC had not dedicated a single segment to the West Virginia teachers' strike, including on the programs of supposed progressive stalwarts Chris Hayes, Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O'Donnell. Hayes did a short segment later, after the FAIR story posted, but MSNBC returned to generally ignoring the issue since then.
To say that's underselling the importance of these strikes is to put it mildly. A month later, as teachers’ strikes had spread to Kentucky, Oklahoma and Arizona, political scientist Corey Robin called them “the real midterms” and described them as epochal. Looking back to the watershed year of 1978, Robin noted that national voters re-elected "a Democratic House and a Democratic Senate by wide margins," despite "two years of a historically unpopular Democratic president" (Jimmy Carter) with tanking approval ratings.
But those weren't the midterms that mattered most, in Robin's account. What really mattered in 1978 was "the passage of Proposition 13 in California, which radically gutted property taxes ... and made it extremely difficult to raise taxes in the future," launching a nationwide right-wing rebellion against taxes that fueled the landslide election of Ronald Reagan two years later. Now, in 2018, the wave of teachers' strikes signals the beginning of a movement, Robin argued, "to confront the real governing order of the past 40 years: the Prop 13 order."
You could see the reality of this unfolding on social media, but you couldn’t hear anything close to that analysis on any MSNBC program. Indeed, you couldn’t hear any sustained discussion at all, from any side of the issue. Robin’s arguments are exactly the sort of thing that belongs on the network, given the reality of voters' views in Drutman’s chart.
I asked Robin what other issues he thought MSNBC ought to explore. “I've been fascinated by how Trump and the GOP got completely rolled on the budget, forced to adopt a budget with a lot of the spending that they hate,” he said — a subject that’s been noted in the media, but hardly explored in any depth. “I'd also love to get a lot more coverage on all these Democratic primaries: Who are these people running for office? What are their positions, their ideologies, etc.?” That, too, is largely terra incognita, with a few scattered exceptions, which is surprising given the record activity levels of campaign activity. “Last, I'd love to see good reporting on millennials,” Robin concluded — a particularly important subject, given that generation's strong progressive tilt and its obvious near-term electoral importance.
Returning to the teachers' strikes, Elizabeth Catte is an on-the-ground expert who could further enrich the discussion. She’s the author of "What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia," which, as she puts it, “uses radical history to challenge perceptions of the region as a hub of white, working-class woe.” Catte has appeared on MSNBC, but not as the regular contributor she should be. “The lessons of the West Virginia teachers' strike are complex,” she told me. “But one takeaway for Democrats, or anyone interested in understanding our current moment, should be that people are desperate for a better range of political options,” precisely what MSNBC ought to provide.
“West Virginians have witnessed a remarkable indifference among their elected leaders to the common good, and have instead seen their futures traded away for incentives aimed at fickle corporations and their investors,” Catte continued. “Democrats who have seen their fortunes fall in so-called Trump country should prioritize righting this imbalance or face squandering any political momentum these recent collective actions might offer.”
A better range of political options necessarily calls for different perspectives on economics — another way in which MSNBC falls short. Ali Velshi and Stephanie Ruhle, hosts of the daytime business show that bears their names, are well-intentioned but highly conventional economic reporters. To their credit, they enthusiastically debunk a lot of right-wing garbage. But there are plenty of dubious dogmas they simply accept, such as the supposed virtues of balanced budgets, or blaming the federal budget deficit on Social Security and Medicare. MSNBC hardly ever offers time to economists who dispute such claims, such as Dean Baker (defender of Social Security and Medicare and early predictor of the housing bubble crash) or Stephanie Kelton (proponent of Modern Monetary Theory and the universal job guarantee), for example.
In addition, when President Trump recently announced his steel and aluminum tariffs, Velshi and Ruhle pointed out some typical and obvious Trump lies and misdirections, but offered no hint that there are legitimate arguments for protectionism that have a long history. In contrast, Democracy Now! featured a debate between two progressives — Lori Wallach, author of "The Rise and Fall of Fast Track Trade Authority," and Michael Hudson, author of "America’s Protectionist Takeoff 1815-1914" -- which cast both sides of the argument in a very different light.
Numerous other examples could be offered. As indicated above, Drutman analyzed voter views in terms of 12 different issue indices. There are progressive viewpoints that never get aired on MSNBC for virtually every one of those, and of course there is never any sustained dialogue about linking those different progressive viewpoints together.
There are a great many progressive ideas with substantial public support that rarely even get mentioned. The Progressive Change Institute's Big Ideas poll in early 2015 identified 16 ideas with 70 percent support or more, plus dozens more with majority support, that are rarely if ever mentioned on MSNBC. I wrote about it that July, in a story about Bernie Sanders' alignment with popular issues. These included:
- Allowing the government to negotiate drug prices (supported by 79 percent)
- Offering students the same interest rates as big banks (78 percent)
- Universal pre-kindergarten (77 percent)
- Fair trade that protects workers, the environment and jobs (75 percent)
- Ending tax loopholes for corporations that ship jobs overseas (74 percent)
- Ending gerrymandering (73 percent)
- Letting homeowners pay down mortgages with 401k funds (72 percent)
- Debt-free college at public universities (71 percent)
- A $400 billion infrastructure jobs program (71 percent)
- Requiring the NSA to get warrants before collecting our data (71 percent)
- Disclosing corporate spending on politics and lobbying (71 percent)
- Medicare buy-in, available to all (71 percent)
- Closing offshore corporate tax loopholes (70 percent)
- A "Green New Deal," creating millions of clean energy jobs (70 percent)
- A Full Employment Act (70 percent)
- Expanding Social Security benefits (70 percent)
PCI and allied groups like the Democratic Socialists of America have identified a solid core of popular progressive ideas that certainly deserve a hearing under any reasonable theory of democracy. Instead of seeing their representatives in policy discussions at MSNBC, we get the same old tired mix of views that failed to excite voters enough to elect Hillary Clinton in 2016.
There’s a simple explanation for this: corporate control and the conceptually narrow mindset that accompanies it, especially on matters of foreign policy. This was not immediately obvious when MSNBC cancelled "The Phil Donahue show," as Cohen recalls:
We were terminated by MSNBC because our skeptical questioning about whether it would be wise to invade Iraq and whether cause existed was so totally out of tune with the rest of the channel’s programming, which offered little debate on those questions. Internal NBC documents that leaked show that the termination was political and censorial. While we were terminated for asking the right journalistic questions, those who got it so totally wrong saw their careers at MSNBC and elsewhere flourish.
Keith Olbermann, then one of the network's stars, "started asking good questions in 2006,” Cohen acknowledged, “but three years is a long time before independence was exhibited.” That was three long years during which lies were exposed and opposition grew on the ground among the anti-war movement and the progressive public, with little or no cable news encouragement.
What really happened at MSNBC is much clearer in retrospect, Cohen said: “We now realize that in 2002 and 2003, lobbyists for GE/NBC and other media conglomerates were working hand-in-glove with George W. Bush's FCC -- chaired by Colin Powell’s son Michael Powell -- toward deregulation allowing these companies to get even fatter. Questioning or irritating Team Bush in any way at that juncture interfered with corporate objectives.”
In fact, the idea that MSNBC is a “liberal Fox News” fundamentally misunderstands both the media environment and recent network history. Fox News is a deliberately ideological propaganda station, conceived as such by Roger Ailes long before it ever went live. MSNBC is a commercial enterprise that stumbled into a center-left position simply because that was the available audience, given Fox News' and CNN’s prior positioning. But no one master-planned it that way.
In fact, the network has at times lurched more to the right than the left. In 1999, for example, MSNBC paired Oliver North -- yes, he of the Reagan administration and the Iran-contra scandal -- with former federal prosecutor Cynthia Alksne as co-anchors of "Equal Time." This is of course a familiar format to cable news viewers: Rabid right-wingers coupled with tepid centrists who supposedly represent the left.
That was no fluke: At the tail end of the Bill Clinton era, MSNBC was clearly experimenting with a sharp right turn. The network also added shows in 1999 that featured reactionary dinosaur John McLaughlin and the now-infamous Laura Ingraham, then a young conservative bomb-thrower.
Compared to that, today's MSNBC might not look so bad. But compared to what America both wants and needs in terms of new ideas and a new direction, the so-called liberal network is still staggering around in the dark instead of lighting the way. In all the ways touched on above, MSNBC's corporate culture is sharply at odds with the most pressing concerns of its primary audience, not to mention the whole nation. By ignoring the voices of those who are exploring bold solutions and challenging worn-out political orthodoxy, MSNBC is only reproducing the insular outlook that led the Democrats to political disaster over the course of the last decade, culminating in the debacle of 2016. We can't afford that.