Monday, February 23, 2015

Mainstreamers So Not Being Credible

MSNBC is in free-fall.
The cable news channel, attempting to be the "liberal" alternative to Fox News, has seen its ratings fall so precipitously that conservatives are openly gloating. The early-afternoon ratings for MSNBC have been so bad that Ronan Farrow's and Joy Reid's commentary shows, broadcast at 1 PM Eastern and 2 PM Eastern, respectively, have been canceled.  The network will cover straight news in the newly created void during that two-hour block, with Thomas Roberts anchoring.  Farrow and Reid will be retained as "correspondents" for other NBC News and MSNBC programs.  
Because MSNBC is known less for reporting than for editorializing, one might think that the network is simply trying to balance its commentary with straight news.  It's actually more than that.  MSNBC's liberal commentators - most of whom are flat-out boring - have mainly become unpopular with many viewers, while Fox News continues to lead in the ratings by a wide margin. Even as MSNBC plays musical chairs with its commentators, with different on-air hosts coming and going,  most of its veterans are either losing their touch ("I'm so glad we had that storm last week" - Chris Matthews on Hurricane Sandy, 2012) or never had much of one for TV (one observer, conservative writer Daniel Greenfield, noted that Al Sharpton still can't master a TelePrompTer).  Even Rachel Maddow is losing viewers, her caustic, urbane wit apparently losing its bite.  And to be honest, I myself am getting tired of some of the political correctness exhibited by commentators like TourĂ© Neblett, who prefers to go by just his first name.  (Well, isn't that special?)  As for Farrow (yes, he's Mia's son), he comes across as somewhat self-absorbed.  Reid, meanwhile, cannot and will not stop pointing out how hugely successful hip-hop is or chiding anyone who has a problem with rap (you can almost tell by the look on her face that she's thinking, "Hip-hop is so much cooler than that silly, indulgent white-boy seventies-style guitar rock that no one listens to any more.  Nyaahh!").  All of this has led to rumors that MSNBC president Phil Griffin is ready to make a major shakeup in the channel's lineup . . . and fast.
Chris Hayes is likely to be the next MSNBC on-air host to get the ax.  A brilliant writer, Hayes is a charismatic dud on the small screen; looking forward to watching Chris Hayes for an hour is like looking forward to a cross-country trip in a Plymouth Acclaim.  But it likely won't stop there; Griffin is likely to have the last word on Lawrence O'Donnell, and that word will undoubtedly be "fired."  Maddow, who is, relatively speaking, the most popular MSNBC host of the lot, will likely move to Hayes' 8 PM Eastern time slot to take on Fox News' Bill O'Reilly directly, even though there's no evidence that she could give Billo a run for his money (at least Keith Olbermann made O'Reilly sweat just a little).  None of these changes, though, are going to help much if the network keeps hiring hosts that live up to the stereotype of liberal commentators as pretentious boors and PC avatars. 
Some wags have suggested that the problem with MSNBC is less with the on-air talent than with Griffin,  who has spent the past few years throwing ideas at the wall to see what sticks without coming up with a durable strategy to make the network relevant enough to justify the large number of now-meaningless initials in its name. (They referred to the partnership between the Microsoft Network and the National Broadcasting Company that led to the channel's founding in 1996, a partnership that has long since ended.) The wags may have a point; right now, Griffin has apparently decided that liberalism is a loser and he is rumored to be thinking of dumping the liberal-slant strategy altogether, which would leave progressives bereft of any mainstream cable news outlet that purports to speak for them.  This strategy is doomed to failure; Griffin's proposed idea of making MSNBC a completely straight news channel would just make it a carbon copy of CNN, and no one can outfox Fox News for right-wing lunacy.  If Griffin is planning to go in this direction and move away from any leftward slant to speak of, that would even put Ed Schultz - the only MSNBC commentator I still watch regularly - in danger of getting the boot, even though he is highly personable, passionately progressive, and has strong, real reporting chops (and his report on the Gulf Coast five years after the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill should validate his credentials).
Having said that, liberals should remember that media moguls like Griffin are not their benefactors or their friends.  MSNBC pushed the liberal-slant gimmick for as long as it made money for NBC Universal and Comcast; now, because of the Republican tsunami in the 2014 midterms and President Obama's perpetually low approval ratings, NBC Universal and Comcast executives may very well have decided that this formula doesn't work anymore. And quite frankly, the idea that MSNBC was a "liberal" news channel was mostly an illusion anyway.  Bear in mind that its morning show is hosted by Joe Scarborough, a dyed-in-the-wool Republican ex-congressman.  Many of its hosts are Democratic Party insiders who are more neo-liberal than flat-out leftists.  And, as former MSNBC host Cenk Ugyur recently noted - and not out of sour grapes - the Democratic Party line that is pushed a good deal on MSNBC is actually kind of moderate, much like the policies of the three most recent Democratic Presidents.  (British journalist Philip Norman once referred to Jimmy Carter as a "wholly liberal" President, an assessment that was as hilarious as when he incorrectly identified East Lansing, Michigan as being in Missouri.)
Conclusion? If liberals want to get their message out, they'd best not rely so heavily on a mainstream media apparatus that ultimately cares only about the bottom line.
And if MSNBC drops Ed Schultz, I won't watch it anymore.

No comments: