MSNBC is a Problem — And Doesn’t Want to be a Solution


I wasn’t born yesterday.

I know nightly television programs in prized time slots need to get ratings and make money for shareholders and parent companies. I know that’s important. I know that anchors such as Chris Hayes, Rachel Maddow, and Lawrence O’Donnell want to be viewed by more people, and therefore can’t often do exactly what they would want to do if left to their own devices, without any profound editorial or corporate restraints.

As a struggling writer, and as someone who has been employed by media companies, I know the tensions involved in writing what I personally want and, on the other hand, writing what other people need me to write. I know what it is like to live in a commercial world where I can write MY vision and be read by a few people on Patreon, or write in accordance with a boss’s vision and get a paycheck which helps pay my mom’s bills.

I know that journalists and freelancers and artists all live between competing worlds, the one which feeds the soul and the one which feeds a households of hungry mouths. A balance must be struck between the two, and sometimes that means doing what The Man — the one who signs the paychecks — requires.

Really, I get it.

However, notice one word in that last sentence above: “balance.” Life requires mixtures of different mindsets, sensibilities, viewpoints, and dispositions. The use of emotions, the use of different forms of energy, the use of the left brain and the right brain, the involvement of body (exercise) and mind (stimulating thought) in a given day’s work and activity, create a well-rounded person who stays away from extremes and cultivates a perspective in which the diversity of life is held close in everyday existence. We need balance, or if you prefer, we can’t fill our lives with too many imbalances.

This is where — and why — MSNBC becomes more of a problem than a solution, both in the specific realm of cable “news” television and in the larger theater of American life.

This story broke on Thursday, August 23. It was important, explosive, and — like other events in the continuing ICE/immigration enforcement realm of activity — significant in its effect on families and young people. Even if you are conservative and think ICE is doing a good job, you will acknowledge that real-life drama affecting a number of young people is a story marked by the immediacy of a highly fluid situation. Solely on that basis, the Miami New Times story is compelling and deserves attention — maybe not in the way MSNBC might cover it, but it deserves some mention on a prime-time show.

No, it does not need 40 minutes or even 30 on a night — and during a week — when the President of the United States is facing a continuing stream of uncertainties in the courts through the persons of Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort, among others. I can acknowledge that for MSNBC, CNN, and other non-Fox television outlets, it makes for good television and does represent a legitimate point of interest among viewers (who are also citizens) who want to follow the evolving legal and political calculus of these intertwined cases.

I am not arguing that MSNBC should eliminate Cohen-Manafort-Stormy-Avenatti-Mueller-Russia content from its airwaves. Heck, I am not even arguing that those related topics, the backbone of MSNBC’s content mix throughout 2018, should even receive a minority share of a 60-minute broadcast’s air time. If MSNBC wants to arrive at 35 to 40 minutes for its preferred, featured topics — the ones that move the ratings needle and justify the salaries it pays to high-end talent whose (commercial) task is to deliver ratings — I can live with that. I might not prefer it, but I can live with that.

If MSNBC devoted 35 to 40 minutes for its ratings-movers, that would leave 20 to 25 minutes for other stories. Think of this as a 2018 version of the dance Edward R. Murrow had to perform for William Paley’s CBS empire in the 1950s. Murrow had to do the softball “Person to Person” interviews with famous people — which he didn’t much like — to satisfy his CBS bosses, led by Paley, the man in charge. In exchange for those concessions to the bread and circus part of the emerging world of television, Murrow earned enough leverage to do hard news in various circumstances under various formats, his 1960 “Harvest of Shame” documentary being a classic example.

Murrow, rightly seen as an icon among American television journalists, gritted his teeth and gave his bosses what they wanted, but hardly to the exclusion of stories that mattered. He knew what it meant to be balanced.

MSNBC could be like this. It could choose to hand over 20 to 25 minutes — it’s not asking too much — to “Harvest of Shame”-style content, comprising less than half of its lineup of 60-minute shows in prime time or, for that matter, any other time of day.

Yet, on Thursday, August 23, a day representative of how MSNBC has approached the month of August and most of the summer, something explosive happened in the realm of immigration enforcement which did not crack any of MSNBC’s prime-time shows — Chris Hayes, Rachel Maddow, or Lawrence O’Donnell — for even a single minute.

Yes, MSNBC did go all-in on immigration for a few weeks in the late spring and very early summer, but the issue had been building before MSNBC finally joined the rush, and it has remained hugely active and complicated since that brief burst of immigration coverage ended. While the legal drama surrounding President Trump is an inch-the-ball-forward courtroom saga in which a number of central figures are quietly wrestling with their next moves, the immigration story — in its various manifestations — retains the urgency of a harrowing, gut-punch-level question:

“Have these young people been reunited with their parents?”

“Have families been restored?”

“Have children been located?”

“Have asylum application procedures been followed or not?”

The matter of what Michael Cohen will say contains news value. I don’t propose wiping him off a full newscast. Yet, 20 to 25 minutes of prime-time real estate could be given to immigration stories such as the one broken by the Miami New Times on Thursday, August 23.

MSNBC’s three foremost prime-time programs — and their big-name hosts — had 180 combined minutes of real estate, minus commercials. The combined number of minutes devoted to the Miami New Times story: zero.

20 minutes for each show — Hayes, Maddow, O’Donnell — would have given MSNBC 60 minutes of attention to that immigration story, 60 minutes viewers could have learned from. Yet, when Cohen, Manafort and Trump are allowed to consume a whole hour of television on separate shows, MSNBC viewers are invited to think that Trump’s legal problems are the only thing in the world which matters.

I am not even counting other stories about health care, or the Supreme Court, or prison reform, or weeding out corporate corruption, or any of the many other issues which surface in important ways each day. If MSNBC gave those “20 to 25 other minutes” to a collection of important stories — maybe three stories at six minutes each or two stories at nine minutes each — it would give viewers a much more expansive sense of what is important to know about.

Yet, MSNBC can’t be bothered to lift a finger to even that extent.

When nationwide viewers are indirectly but powerfully told that “liberal” causes are bound and embodied in just one or two stories — more chiefly, the legal dramas of people who used to be in the President’s inner circle — the plight of vulnerable, fragile, emotionally traumatized, isolated, suffering human beings is ignored.

That can never be seen as a solution in the realm of television news. It can only be seen as a problem, and a very big one at that.


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