MSNBC and the Maturation of Cable News

MSNBC has swung sharply to the left and that's a good thing. For the network itself, for the American left, and for conservatives and centrists too.

The weeks since the Democratic convention have provided the clearest-yet evidence of the maturation of cable news into separate ideological camps. Most visibly, the Sept 8th replacement of Dan Abrams with Rachel Maddow positions MSNBC as the hardcore-liberal alternative to a moderately liberal CNN and a more conservative Fox News.  Rachel Maddow, who will also continue her program on the Air America radio network, is an outspoken leftist, a significant departure from the conventional, lukewarm liberalism Abrams brought to the table.

Contrary to popular belief on the right, MSNBC's surge left is an example of market forces at play rather than of a liberal conspiracy to manipulate the American electorate. MSNBC was baffled at first by the ratings success of Keith Olbermann's show "The Countdown", an hour-long harangue that combines all of the monotony, vanity and pontification of a Fidel Castro speech with the clean lines, bright lights and prescription-strength hair gel of 21st-century cable news. The centerpiece of the show is its namesake, a "countdown" of steaming heaps of distilled liberalism, whose suffocating odor hastens the viewer to question whether the countdown ends at zero or one, the answer to which is then evaluated in the viewer's mind against the time it takes to locate a rope. 

The success of "The Countdown" led MSNBC to understand the audience demand for a full-blown liberal news channel that promised Bush-bashing coverage 24-hours a day.  Moreover, after more than a decade of ratings humiliation, MSNBC's leaders were more than willing to exchange the veneer of impartiality for a shot at higher viewership and its concomitant advertising dollars.

The amount of money MSNBC stands to make from its new approach is significant.  Being liberal attracts the younger, hipper audience advertisers dream of. Popular wisdom in marketing circles is that the younger the individual, the less the tastes for specific brands are set in stone. The same crowd that is likely to be moved to tears by the soaring, vacuous oratory of a young Democrat nominee is also likely to be fooled by TV marketing into changing their preferred brand of fast food, cola and deodorant. A slight change in the habits of this demographic -- which has an ever-increasing amount of discretionary income -- can make the advertisers exceedingly successful.

MSNBC's left turn has not come without internal conflict. Some at the network appear to be uncomfortable with the notion that they are no longer expected to be evenhanded. An example of this internal dissension occurred recently when it was announced that Keith Olbermann and Chris Mathews would no longer cover live political events after a wave of critics (including Tom Brokaw) accused the network of slanting coverage. Quickly responding to criticism about bias by shifting the schedules of two network stalwarts is an extraordinary departure from the mainstream media's standard operating procedure of either ignoring the criticism or accusing its critics of being conservatives.

Others at the network are less concerned with the news bias than the inability of MSNBC to be honest about what it has become. Statements by MSNBC leaders suggest either outright dishonesty, a remarkable lack of knowledge about their primetime lineup or absolute naivety (or all three).  Phil Griffin, who runs MSNBC, responded to critics who suggested MSNBC was biased by saying "We have people with multiple points of view. Everyone is getting a little thin-skinned. We argue and debate every topic." After watching a few minutes of MSNBC these days, one has to deny everything they know about reality in order to believe that statement.

Even if MSNBC refuses to acknowledge it to itself, the general understanding among Americans includes a healthy skepticism about the news media. Instead of being spoon-fed the headlines and told what to believe on a nightly basis by Walter Cronkite four decades ago, viewers can now pick and choose for themselves what to believe among several different, ideologically-opposing outlets. This skepticism and variety breeds a more politically-sophisticated audience.

Though it seems counter-intuitive, institutionalized bias when all sides are readily available makes reporting more credible, not less.  Viewers now understand where the reporters are positioned politically instead of having to guess or read into their words or the number of positive and negative news stories the channel runs about a particular candidate. Just as the establishment of political parties in the US institutionalized political dissent in the 1790s and early 1800s, the polarization of media into two or three camps provides a permanent set of opposing opinions in the news. Cable news now provides ready-access to opposing opinions of ongoing new stories as never before.

MSNBC's left turn means American news has come full circle. At the end of the 18th century, newspapers routinely provided partisan coverage of the Federalist or Republican side and engaged in vicious personal attacks and character assassination on a regular basis. Alexander Hamilton did not start the New York  Post solely to provide the news that's fit to print, but also to manufacture a cudgel to beat his political opponents into oblivion.

Somehow Americans at the time were able to digest the news and make rational decisions about their country. Today, as the cable news business evolves toward ideologically diverse outlets, the outcome will be the same: a better informed America.  
MSNBC has swung sharply to the left and that's a good thing. For the network itself, for the American left, and for conservatives and centrists too.

The weeks since the Democratic convention have provided the clearest-yet evidence of the maturation of cable news into separate ideological camps. Most visibly, the Sept 8th replacement of Dan Abrams with Rachel Maddow positions MSNBC as the hardcore-liberal alternative to a moderately liberal CNN and a more conservative Fox News.  Rachel Maddow, who will also continue her program on the Air America radio network, is an outspoken leftist, a significant departure from the conventional, lukewarm liberalism Abrams brought to the table.

Contrary to popular belief on the right, MSNBC's surge left is an example of market forces at play rather than of a liberal conspiracy to manipulate the American electorate. MSNBC was baffled at first by the ratings success of Keith Olbermann's show "The Countdown", an hour-long harangue that combines all of the monotony, vanity and pontification of a Fidel Castro speech with the clean lines, bright lights and prescription-strength hair gel of 21st-century cable news. The centerpiece of the show is its namesake, a "countdown" of steaming heaps of distilled liberalism, whose suffocating odor hastens the viewer to question whether the countdown ends at zero or one, the answer to which is then evaluated in the viewer's mind against the time it takes to locate a rope. 

The success of "The Countdown" led MSNBC to understand the audience demand for a full-blown liberal news channel that promised Bush-bashing coverage 24-hours a day.  Moreover, after more than a decade of ratings humiliation, MSNBC's leaders were more than willing to exchange the veneer of impartiality for a shot at higher viewership and its concomitant advertising dollars.

The amount of money MSNBC stands to make from its new approach is significant.  Being liberal attracts the younger, hipper audience advertisers dream of. Popular wisdom in marketing circles is that the younger the individual, the less the tastes for specific brands are set in stone. The same crowd that is likely to be moved to tears by the soaring, vacuous oratory of a young Democrat nominee is also likely to be fooled by TV marketing into changing their preferred brand of fast food, cola and deodorant. A slight change in the habits of this demographic -- which has an ever-increasing amount of discretionary income -- can make the advertisers exceedingly successful.

MSNBC's left turn has not come without internal conflict. Some at the network appear to be uncomfortable with the notion that they are no longer expected to be evenhanded. An example of this internal dissension occurred recently when it was announced that Keith Olbermann and Chris Mathews would no longer cover live political events after a wave of critics (including Tom Brokaw) accused the network of slanting coverage. Quickly responding to criticism about bias by shifting the schedules of two network stalwarts is an extraordinary departure from the mainstream media's standard operating procedure of either ignoring the criticism or accusing its critics of being conservatives.

Others at the network are less concerned with the news bias than the inability of MSNBC to be honest about what it has become. Statements by MSNBC leaders suggest either outright dishonesty, a remarkable lack of knowledge about their primetime lineup or absolute naivety (or all three).  Phil Griffin, who runs MSNBC, responded to critics who suggested MSNBC was biased by saying "We have people with multiple points of view. Everyone is getting a little thin-skinned. We argue and debate every topic." After watching a few minutes of MSNBC these days, one has to deny everything they know about reality in order to believe that statement.

Even if MSNBC refuses to acknowledge it to itself, the general understanding among Americans includes a healthy skepticism about the news media. Instead of being spoon-fed the headlines and told what to believe on a nightly basis by Walter Cronkite four decades ago, viewers can now pick and choose for themselves what to believe among several different, ideologically-opposing outlets. This skepticism and variety breeds a more politically-sophisticated audience.

Though it seems counter-intuitive, institutionalized bias when all sides are readily available makes reporting more credible, not less.  Viewers now understand where the reporters are positioned politically instead of having to guess or read into their words or the number of positive and negative news stories the channel runs about a particular candidate. Just as the establishment of political parties in the US institutionalized political dissent in the 1790s and early 1800s, the polarization of media into two or three camps provides a permanent set of opposing opinions in the news. Cable news now provides ready-access to opposing opinions of ongoing new stories as never before.

MSNBC's left turn means American news has come full circle. At the end of the 18th century, newspapers routinely provided partisan coverage of the Federalist or Republican side and engaged in vicious personal attacks and character assassination on a regular basis. Alexander Hamilton did not start the New York  Post solely to provide the news that's fit to print, but also to manufacture a cudgel to beat his political opponents into oblivion.

Somehow Americans at the time were able to digest the news and make rational decisions about their country. Today, as the cable news business evolves toward ideologically diverse outlets, the outcome will be the same: a better informed America.