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The Problem With MSNBC Isn’t That It’s Too Liberal

It’s that it’s not very good.

Theo Wargo/Getty Images for NBC

Public departures have been one of the biggest media stories of the summer. The New York Times opinion editor Bari Weiss walked off the job in July, claiming the newspaper was now being edited by woke Twitter users. Andrew Sullivan used his last New York column to assert that he was being let go because his coworkers didn’t like him. (Sullivan’s departure occurred amid larger layoffs at Vox Media, which owns New York.) Earlier this week, MSNBC producer Ariana Pekary said goodbye to the “liberal” cable news network because its single-minded pursuit of ratings (and the advertising dollars that follow) “stokes national division” and “blocks diversity of thought.”

Pekary ended her post by writing, “More than ever, I’m craving a full and civil discourse.” This was catnip for conservative media and other opponents of “cancel culture,” which turned a short blog post by a hitherto unknown journalist into a multi-day smorgasbord of content. Here was proof that what liberals have been saying about Fox News for years was also true about MSNBC. It was proof that the left is more concerned with coddling its own than pursuing the truth. As one senior producer quoted by Pekary said, “Our viewers don’t really consider us the news. They come to us for comfort.”

Pekary posted a follow-up a day later underlining that she felt economic pressure, not ideological commitments, was ruining cable news. But at that point, it was too late: Her resignation had already become chum.

What’s striking about Pekary’s letter, however, isn’t what it says about the news media in 2020. It doesn’t say anything about MSNBC or cable news that wasn’t also true two decades ago. It’s like a Jon Stewart bit without the humor: Cable news is simply not incentivized to be informative. In the social media era, when people can switch their attention at any point, this situation has gotten even worse, encouraging networks to turn their viewers into partisan junkies who don’t change the channel because they need a fix that tells them they’re right about everything (and that the other side is wrong).

No one could deny MSNBC’s turn toward the conspiratorial in the Trump era. During the Mueller investigation, Rachel Maddow at times went full Glenn Beck, to the point that you almost expected her to start scribbling on a blackboard. The network’s overheated analysis of every turn in that investigation, big and small, led its captive audience to believe that the special prosecutor was about to uncover something huge. As Jacob Bacharach wrote in The New Republic last year, MSNBC has “the strange simultaneity common to prestige TV: It is at once vast and circumscribed. A wider world intrudes, but the same central heroes and villains show up, week after week.”

When it did finally arrive, the Mueller report was damning: It showed that the president had obstructed justice on a number of occasions; that his campaign had played footsie with Russian intelligence; that the president himself was corrupt to the core and contemptuous of the American legal system. But compared to what was being primed on MSNBC—collusion, intrigue, Putin!—it failed to live up to the hype. Beltway pundits dismissed it as thin soup. MSNBC had helped set impossible expectations, and the public, rather than being horrified by what had happened, shrugged. The made-for-TV version was better.

But that doesn’t mean MSNBC is the Fox News of the left. It just means it’s not very good. Surveying MSNBC’s offerings in 2014, Jason Linkins wrote in The Baffler that the network had made the “incessant production of insidery ideations the premium brand of televisual discourse on politics—instead of, say, the service of the public trust in an honest and equitable way.” Go back another ten years, and you could make a similar critique. Stewart’s famous line about cable news punditry “hurting America” was dropped like a bomb on CNN’s Crossfire but could just have easily been applied to MSNBC’s Hardball. Indeed that show, hosted by the recently exiled Chris Matthews, is a fine stand-in for the network as a whole—a show that always privileged the inane over the substantive and partisan conflict over rigorous inquiry.

Pekary’s post was taken as evidence that MSNBC is following Fox News into the gutter—or at least leading guileless hashtag-resistance rubes into the partisan fever swamps. Others want it to show that America’s media is growing more hostile toward intellectual diversity. In reality, the letter is more akin to being shocked that there is gambling going on in the casino. If only Pekary had the same sense of irony as Claude Rains.