The news that two opinionizers, Rachel Maddow and Chris Matthews, will be co-anchoring MSNBC’s “hard news” coverage of the inauguration along with a diminished Brian Williams seems to have been greeted by media watchers as it always is: with a yawn. Like the increasing use of opinion people in reportorial roles it’s all but ignored as “media reporters” write eyewash about MSNBC’s newfound commitment to hard news and straight reporting.
Similarly, writers like Gabriel Sherman call Tucker Carlson’s ascension to FNC prime time “Trump TV.” Silly to anyone who actually follows Carlson’s career and libertarian instincts, even sillier when it’s used to characterize the entire channel. But when was the last time you heard Gabriel Sherman refer to MSNBC as “DNC TV?” Your Cable Gamer took a closer look at MSNBC prime time, using the last day where full posted transcripts were available: January 16. Who were the hosts, who were the guests, and how did they align? How many were left? Right? Pro- or anti-Trump? Let’s go to the transcripts:
- Ted Lieu (D)
- Hakeem Jeffries (D)
- Debbie Stabenow (D)
- Jonathan Chait: Pro-Obama
- Ilan Goldenberg: Anti-Trump
- Cedric Richmond (D)
- April Ryan: Ostensibly impartial but praises Obama
- Jonathan Capehart: Anti-Trump
- Mark Thompson: Anti-Trump
- Wesley Clark (D)
- Richard Stengel: Obama appointee
- Howard Dean (D)
- Steven Brill: Pro Obamacare, anti-repeal/replace
In three hours of prime time there was quite a spectrum of opinion: from pro-Obama to anti-Trump. But if you hoped to hear even one person with a viewpoint in favor of Trump or his proposals, you were watching the wrong channel, because there were none at all. Zero. It was as close to DNC-TV as you could get without just putting Donna Brazile in charge of leaking the questions.
In contrast, that night’s opinion programs on Fox News, while reflecting a right-of-center perspective, included people from the left like Mary Anne Marsh (D) and Jehmu Greene (D). Bill O’Reilly goes out of his way to include opposing views on his top-rated hour. Tucker Carlson Tonight, the show that so alarmed Sherman, has made its bones with the lively, often-riveting exchanges between Carlson and people who vehemently disagree with him. Only Hannity had no dissenting voices on January 16 (though usually he has at least one Democrat on).
Your Cable Gamer just made up the moniker “DNC-TV” for MSNBC prime time. Yet it’s far more truthful and on-point than the “Trump-TV” taunts from anti-Fox partisans like Gabe. Meanwhile, tomorrow MSNBC will reduce the discredited Brian Williams to the role of sidekick for two partisan co-anchors: a political hack, and a far-left talk show host. And call it “news coverage.”
The Cable Gamer didn’t see it coming, but was pleased that one of the great names of cable news found an outlet for her work. Greta van Susteren has a reputation for being scrupulously fair, and her independence (“NO ONE tells me what to say”) is legendary. For its part, MSNBC knew it had a sales job on its hands: a fair and balanced program host was to be part of the lead-in for what isn’t far removed from a prime time block of DNC infomercials. Rachel Maddow was enlisted to pretend she respected Greta (unconvincingly according to some analysts) and starred in promos for the new hire. But there were people who weren’t so happy to see the former CNN and Fox host on MSNBC’s air: the viewers.
From Monday through Thursday For the Record with Greta finished in third place (25-54) behind FNC and CNN. Viewership crept up for a few days only to crater on January 12–her worst number yet, and MSNBC’s lowest-rated hour from 5pm to midnight. Greta’s 157,000 demo viewers represents a pale fraction of the 329,000 who tuned in on January 12, 2016–when she was still on Fox.
Her MSNBC program is almost a carbon copy of the hour she did on FNC. Aside from the opening preposition, they are identically named. And Greta’s non-partisan modus operandi is the same on MSNBC as it was on CNN and Fox:
New channel, same Greta—in her first show since departing Fox News for MSNBC, Van Susteren brought back her patented ideology-free approach…
So what’s different? The audience. MSNBC viewers just aren’t that interested in fair and balanced reporting. In the top 20 cable news programs of 2016 there are five Fox News newscasts–not opinion hours or chat shows, but news programs with journalists at the anchor desk. MSNBC has one: a half-hour show at 11pm (when Fox is airing a repeat), with a discredited anchor whose journalistic bona fides are in tatters. You have to scroll all the way down to #39 to find a second example, and both are far below the lefty prime time block that’s MSNBC’s bread and butter. Simply put the MS viewership is far less interested in news than in party line agit-prop.
For that matter, even the Brian Williams experiment isn’t working out as planned. The show has gradually become less news and more a late-night edition of “The Place for Politics,” where multi-headed panels chew over click-bait topics in a low-rent attempt to imitate the CNN style of news analysis. In fact when BriWi isn’t there, they don’t even bother to keep up the “news” pretense. They just let one of their opinionizers sit in his chair and anchor the “newscast,” pretty much positioning the whole show as a continuation of the previous four hours of political talk. (Dissenting opinions are a little more welcome on The 11th Hour, so there is some differentiation from the string of partisan hosts that precedes it.)
On a network where even the “hard news” is compromised to hang on to every possible viewer in their niche audience, how can Greta van Susteren possibly succeed? One week isn’t enough to answer that question, but at this point one of the most successful hosts in cable news history finds herself in unfamiliar ratings terrain: at the bottom.
There’s a new report out from the folks at Gender Avenger, the site that tracks how many women get invited to panels, cable news shows, and the like. Whatever you think of the validity of this exercise The Cable Gamer thinks it’s a good thing to have straight, impartial statistical data of this sort. But is everything what it seems?
The announcement for the month of May is described as follows:
Who Talks? monitors the highest-rated morning and evening shows on three major television news networks: CNN, FOX, and MSNBC. Any guest who is not the host (or substitute host) and is asked to comment substantively on the 2016 presidential election is counted as an analyst. We count the total number of election analyst of each gender in each show and then compare aggregate numbers and proportional representation. Data is published monthly.
Sounds pretty straightforward. Here are their May stats on the percentages of female pundits:
- New Day: 31%
- Fox & Friends: 22%
- Morning Joe: 24%
- Anderson Cooper: 48%
- The Kelly File: 15%
- Rachel Maddow: 33%
You’ll note CNN shows win in both morning and evening categories. In fact several times Anderson Cooper has been singled out for “hall of fame” status. In one odd case he made the “hall of fame” for a 43% week, even though Rachel Maddow scored 50% (sorry Rachel, no “hall of fame” for you!).
These scorecards get a lot of play from friendly media sites, some of them quite knowledgeable, so The Cable Gamer is mildly surprised that none of them spotted a disconnect in the methodology. The criteria state they monitor the “highest-rated” evening shows on the three cable news nets—so where is Bill O’Reilly? O’Reilly has had the #1 program on cable news for “15 years and counting” (as viewers are reminded every evening). Yet The Factor has never been rated by Gender Avenger.
The Cable Gamer recently asked GA how it is that they skipped over the undisputed “highest-rated” evening cable news program, and got this response:
We too noticed the error in describing all the targeted shows as “highest rated” and have since amended our references to “popular” to encompass all. The reason we picked Megyn Kelley [sic] is that we wanted to follow all the 9 o’clock hour shows in the evening.
Yeah, well, we aren’t sure exactly where “highest-rated” as been amended to “popular.” The Cable Gamer couldn’t find it on the GA website, where “highest-rated” still appears in the criteria. And if the intention is to cover the 9 o’clock shows, why not just say that? Mind you, CNN doesn’t always run Anderson Cooper at 9 o’clock; sometimes they have documentaries and series like The Eighties in that time slot. What effect does that have on the stats?
This seems like a lot of finagling in what would otherwise be a straightforward contest among highest-rated shows. But what if it was as advertised: a contest among the most-watched programs? The results would be mostly as they are, except The O’Reilly Factor would replace The Kelly File. We started too late to capture the first part of May, but other than that we made a count, sticking to the criteria, and got these results for the last three weeks of the month:
- The O’Reilly Factor: 40%
In fact for the week of May 16th O’Reilly scored an impressive 46%—that’s higher than the measly 43% Anderson Cooper scored in his “hall of fame” week. This shouldn’t be a surprise. Mr. O’Reilly has a repertory company of female guests who appear regularly: Katie Pavlich, Eboni Williams, Kimberly Guilfoyle, Lis Wiehl, Martha MacCallum, Monica Crowley, Mary Anne Marsh, Dana Perino, Kirsten Powers, etc.
One would think Gender Avenger would want to throw a little “hall of fame” action O’Reilly’s way, as an encouragement to people who do provide the diversity GA calls for. But the rules have been quietly bent just enough to exclude Bill O’Reilly from contention. Funny that.
Your Cable Gamer has been a voice in the wilderness regarding the purported “revamping” of MSNBC into an operation that does “hard news.” Their cadre of leftist opinionizers is still there, only now some of them have been rebranded as “reporters” or “correspondents.” Brian Williams was brought in to lend a facade of fairness to election coverage, but he’s not allowed to be the anchor. Instead he ends up sidekick to MSNBC’s biggest opinionizer, Rachel Maddow. (And guess whose name comes first in the press release.)
The lines have certainly been blurred, but now the mixing of news and opinion is going in another, even more disturbing, direction. This tweet was issued yesterday:
It’s a tweet from NBC News’ official twitter account. It includes an NBC News link, with their #Decision2016 hashtag. It goes to a page on the NBC News website. But it’s not written by an NBC newsman. The article credits Alex Seitz-Wald who, as Cable Gamer readers know, is an MSNBC opinionizer who was magically rechristened as a “political reporter” (part of the “revamping” of MSNBC). NBC just gives his name, without stating what his role at NBC is. So most readers would conclude he’s an impartial NBC News journalist. And that’s the furthest thing from the truth.
Besides writing for for the dishonest Salon website (not to mention articles at Truthout and Alternet), Alex Seitz-Wald wrote prolifically for Think Progress, where he also served as an editor. That site’s goal, by the way, is to “advance progressive values,” just in case you think the notion of parading Alex Seitz-Wald as any kind of neutral reporter hasn’t already been shown to be an utter absurdity. How much of this does NBC News tell you when you follow their link and read his report? None. You can’t even click on his name to get a bio or curriculum vitae. It’s almost like NBC News doesn’t want readers to know what Alex Seitz-Wald’s line really is.
And the “report” itself? It’s a real gem, with Seitz-Wald barely able to control his admiration for how efficiently the mob shut down a Trump event. Steve Krakauer of Autonomous calls Seitz-Wald’s piece “absolutely irresponsible” in how it was “celebrating the MoveOn-funded effort to shut down a Trump rally.” And when you read through the piece, it’s stunning how celebratory it is. The most basic issue imaginable—the coordinated effort to suppress someone else’s right to free speech—is never raised, let alone posed to any of the social justice warriors.
By the sheerest of coincidences, progressive media critic Bob Somerby noted someone else who exhibited a similar blind spot:
Do you think players on Our Team should attend campaign events with the intention of “disrupting” those events? Possibly with the hope or intent of shutting the events down?
Good news! If you were a Maddow watcher last night, you didn’t have to consider those questions! Playing a typical service role, Maddow blew right past this statement by Sfondeles, in which our heroic tribemates were portrayed in a way which may not seem moral or wise.
At the start of last night’s show, Maddow blew right past that statement. As usual, her moral concerns would all be directed The Other Way Only last night.
As a full-service tribal guide, Maddow routinely protects us against any concerns about our own team’s behavior.
A “Lean Forward” spin by Rachel Maddow is duplicated in an article by MSNBC “reporter” Alex Seitz-Wald. Nothing new there; on a good day the line between reporting and opinion is barely perceptible at MSNBC. But then that article is presented by NBC News as an impartial piece of reportorial journalism, with no disclosures whatsoever regarding the rampant ideological partisanship of its author. When the NBC News brand, once regarded as trustworthy, foists off MSNBC opinionizing as straight reporting, it’s a sad day. Another line has been erased.
Tonight MSNBC will again install Rachel Maddow in the anchor chair along with Brian Williams to head up their impartial “hard news” coverage of the New Hampshire primaries. Why is a partisan opinionizer anchoring a live news event? For the same reason she hosted a debate: she is MSNBC’s most watched property. But aside from the obvious journalistic issues this raises, there’s another problem—the audience.
We’ve read a lot from people hyping Trump about how brilliantly he’s dividing the Fox audience, beating Ailes at his own game, and so forth. But our elite media journalists have been careful to say nothing about Bernie Sanders, who is proving more adept at dividing audiences than Trump. Case in point: Monday’s Rachel Maddow Show, the closest thing to a 60-minute infomercial for Hillary Clinton you’re likely to see all week. Much of the show was given over to a genteel, cozy interview with Ms. Clinton, one in which snarky Maddow transformed into a sort of political Dr. Phil, tip-toeing over the most contentious issues and avoiding anxiety at all costs.
If you think the Sanders supporters haven’t noticed what Maddow’s been up to, you are wrong. Check out some of these comments from the Democratic Underground:
- Practically the ENTIRE Rachel Maddow Show was spent either discussing, showcasing or… interviewing Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the eve of the New Hampshire Democratic Presidential Primary Election? It was in a word… UNBELIEVABLE!
- She let Hillary lash out at Bernie and did not even have a Bernie surrogate on to respond to those attacks. That’s not journalism. That’s pure crap. The nite before NH no less.
- Why would anyone throw away half of their own audience like that? Bye bye to her and her show.
- Rachel did a one-on -one with HRH right before Iowa too. Their shilling is really doing a lot of good, eh?
- I thought at first that it was a paid political ad. Way to go, Rachel!
Rachel hasn’t been faring much better on twitter:
The Cable Gamer is struck by how little attention this viewer revolt is getting compared to the oohing and ahhhing over Trump, allegedly on the verge of wreaking havoc on Fox News. Of course, the dirty little secret is how little this will matter to ratings. Rabidly partisan viewers get upset during elections, but rarely stay away forever, if at all. Fox News hasn’t been destroyed; it’s as strong as ever. Trump didn’t beat Ailes at his own game: Ailes beat Trump. And those irate MSNBC viewers will eventually forgive Rachel for her apostasy when they’ve calmed down.
What this does underline is MSNBC’s twisted notion that its “hard news” coverage must include opinionizers in the anchor chairs. That is indicative of how spurious this “rebranding” of MSNBC into a channel that does “hard news” really is. No serious news viewer is going to accept someone who has all but joined the Hillary campaign as an impartial news anchor covering her election. And neither will those Bernie supporters.
Appendix: The tweets pictured above:
A debate moderator hugs the candidates—not something you see every day. Hence Rachel Maddow’s dual embraces of Hillary and Bernie became the lead story emerging from MSNBC’s debate. For that reason alone it was a bad move; a good debate should generate headlines about newsworthy content. When the headline is a controversy over your talent crossing the line, nobody benefits, except maybe rival networks who will make hay out of it.
Maddow’s very presence at the debate was controversial—opinionizers don’t usually get to play impartial journalists on TV, though it’s not exactly unheard of at MSNBC. Her questioning, like that of the presumptively impartial Chuck Todd, was satisfactory as far as it went. But there were many issues that went unaddressed. Hillary had just doubled down on the “vast right-wing conspiracy” meme, a phrase that was created to suggest that women were lying about poor misunderstood Bill. Yet this was unmentioned. Ms. Clinton’s biggest electoral liability may be her disastrous “honest and trustworthy” polling, but that issue got extremely short shrift. The Russian reset, Assad the reformer, and several other foreign policy issues dicey for Ms. Clinton did not make the cut.
Questioning on unsecured emails looked the other way regarding the human assets compromised, instead focusing on speculation about what the FBI would do. This is literally unknowable by Hillary Clinton, yet that’s what she was asked. Ms. Maddow raised the Flint water situation and several references to the governor of Michigan (a Republican) were strategically dropped. But the candidates were not asked about the EPA, the one agency involved in this mess a President would have some control over.
To be fair there were also some solid, substantive exchanges; we even found the slightly tedious discourse over who is or isn’t a “progressive” to have merit. But missed opportunities like those outlined above are what people are going to look at when you install an opinionizer friendly to the debaters as co-host. And so it is that, when Rachel Maddow engulfed the two potential Presidents in big, friendly embraces, it was like she was hugging a pair of Vermont Teddy Bears while wearing her favorite Pajamagram.
Friday night Megyn Kelly told Howard Kurtz she didn’t have a problem with opinionizers moderating debates, citing the precedent of Hugh Hewitt on CNN. However the situations are not comparable. MSNBC wanted Maddow to be a moderator because she is their most-watched program host. But Hewitt was foisted on CNN. Republicans had insisted that CNN place a bonafide conservative somewhere on the questioning panel, and the network caved. (The GOP tried that with Fox News, only FNC didn’t capitulate.) So CNN signed a co-sponsorship deal with Salem Broadcasting that made their star Hewitt a questioner—just as questions from youtube are part of the deal when you co-sponsor a debate with Google. As it turned out CNN marginalized Hewitt (who was not a host or a moderator but on a panel off to the side with Dana Bash) to the point where some viewers forgot he was there. Still, even with extremely limited air time, he managed to have a moment analogous to the Maddow hug. Mr. Hewitt was so pleased at the response to one of his questions that he actually applauded the candidate’s answer—on camera!
There’s a way for MSNBC to avoid these sorts of embarrassments. If Maddow must be a moderator, then make the debate a special edition of The Rachel Maddow Show, not a production of MSNBC’s news department. Do something like that any time you want an opinion host to moderate, and no one will care if the host hugs the candidates, applauds their answers, or invites them out for drinks. If MSNBC’s “hard news” division wants to do a debate, then keep the opinion hosts out of it. Leave the journalism to NBC journalists—Chuck Todd, Andrea Mitchell, etc. The Cable Gamer may have issues with some of these people, but at least their job description directs them to be fair and impartial. When you bring opinionizers into a debate, you are expecting them to keep a promise they never made.
Sunday morning, at the tail end of a Reliable Sources hour devoted to talking about Fox News and Donald Trump, Brian Stelter squeezed in an off-topic question to guest David Zurawik regarding MSNBC’s election coverage:
STELTER: One year ago yesterday, Brian Williams embellished a story about Iraq on “The Nightly News.” It was noticed. Then other questions were raised. He left the chair. And tomorrow he is anchoring Iowa caucus coverage on MSNBC. You have been highly critical of Brian Williams. So, I was just curious. Will you give him a chance one year later?
ZURAWIK: Brian, I will absolutely give him a chance…
The issue here was Williams’ history of lies. But nobody so much as raised an eyebrow about the fact that Williams has been assigned a minder, a co-anchor, and it ain’t an NBC News correspondent. Brian will be co-anchoring with erstwhile Air America talk show host, Rachel Maddow. This would be roughly equivalent Bret Baier dispensing with Chris Wallace, only to make Sean Hannity his co-anchor. But you know as well as we do that Roger Ailes would never pollute his coverage of breaking political news by saddling his superb journalists with partisan co-anchors.
As we looked in at MSNBC’s preview show tonight, there was Maddow (who has her own checkered reportorial history) expounding and intro’ing program blocks on an equal footing with Williams. Cut to opinion host Steve Kornacki who’s now paraded as an impartial political expert. Cut to incisive observations from opinion host Lawrence O’Donnell with pal Gene Robinson (quite a panel). Cut to opinionizer Chris Hayes to talk about Sanders. Cut to our man on the scene, opinion host Chris “two Cuban guys” Matthews. MSNBC’s entire prime time line-up, plus Matthews and Kornacki, had their moment in the sun. The Cable Gamer could tell you what all those opinion hosts have in common, but she thinks you’ve already sussed that out.
Long story short, this is Lean Forward news—with Brian Williams propped up to present a facade of “journalism.” Tonight’s coverage had the same relentlessly leftist tone that’s made MSNBC the failure that it is. It seems unlikely that Brian Stelter will ever get around to addressing this fraud, as his cohort Dylan Byers has already bought into the scam hook, line and sinker.
But The Cable Gamer knows better, and so do you.