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Why MSNBC Isn't Like, And Can't Beat, Fox News

My favorite moment in Gabe Sherman's account of the cable news network wars is a return to the days when MSNBC was terrified of allowing any liberals on the air:

And with the surge in patriotism following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, NBC CEO Bob Wright told Shapiro that MSNBC should try and outflank Fox on the right. “We have to be more conservative then they are,” Wright told Shapiro pointedly. Swirling graphics of the American flag soon became a fixture on the network along with the tagline “America’s News Channel.”
Despite the network’s emphasis on flag waving, MSNBC showed how little it understood the Fox model when, with Griffin as MSNBC’s prime time head, it hired the liberal Phil Donahue, who’d been Griffin’s childhood idol, out of retirement in April 2002 to anchor an 8 p.m. prime-time talk show that would challenge O’Reilly. The show debuted with the highest ratings ever for an MSNBC program, attracting more than a million viewers in its first night. But within a month, the audience was cut in half. At the same time, executives expressed increasing unease about his vocal opposition to the looming war in Iraq. At a time when red-meat patriotism prevailed, Donahue booked antiwar guests like Michael Moore, Rosie O’Donnell, Susan Sarandon, and Tim Robbins. Soon the Donahue problem threatened Griffin’s job. In a tense phone conversation, Shapiro told MSNBC president Erik Sorenson to fire Griffin, but Sorenson pushed back.
“I’m not going to do that,” he told Shapiro. “No. 1: Phil’s been loyal to me for a long time. I don’t think it’s right. And No. 2: We’re short-handed. We have all this talent, and he’s the one who’s managing it.”
As a compromise, Griffin’s job was spared but he was stripped of responsibility for the show. The new producer insisted on a precise numerical balance between liberals and conservatives. Donahue’s problems only increased when Chris Matthews let it be known that he wanted Donahue off the air. Matthews was a rising force at the network, with a reported salary of $5 million. He cultivated former G.E. CEO Jack Welch and had the ear of NBC CEO Bob Wright (the two summered together on Nantucket). Matthews saw himself as MSNBC’s biggest star, and he was upset that the network was pumping significant resources into Donahue’s show. In the fall of 2002, U.S. News & World Report ran a gossip item that had Matthews saying over lunch in Washington that if Donahue stays on the air, he could bring down the network.

That really was the dominant attitude of the time. You could have two kinds of cable news shows: scrupulously down the middle, or partisan Republican.

MSNBC, as Sherman reports, is now courting a liberal audience. But (my opinion) you'll never have a liberal equivalent to Fox News that has anything like the same level of success. Conservatives believe that the mainstream news is fundamentally corrupt and untrustworthy. They want a fully closed information ecosystem in which every piece of data they consume is filtered through the perspective of the conservative movement. Very, very few liberals want that. They want their liberal opinion, but they also want straight news, or at the very least news that isn't overtly propagandistic like on Fox. MSNBC has slightly right-of-center programming in the morning with Joe Scarborough, straight news throughout the day, then liberal opinion at night.

Will that work? Sherman implicitly suggests it won't. The beauty of Fox News is that the "straight" news seamlessly meshes with the straight opinion ranters. The daytime shows endlessly pump up the Black Panther intimidation story, and then the opinion hosts flog the story more. The whole product works together:

Fox’s secret is that viewers stay. That’s because Fox’s rightward flanking maneuver, capturing a disenfranchised part of the audience, was only part of its strategy. The news, especially political news, wasn’t something that happened. It was something that you shaped out of the raw data, brought out of the clay of zhlubby, boring politics, reborn with heroes and villains, triumphs and reverses, never-ending story lines—what TV executives call “flow.” And the beauty of it was that the viewers—the voters—were the protagonists, victims of evil Kenyan socialist overlords, or rebels, coming to take the government back. There was none of the on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand relativity crossfire that mirrors the journalism-school ideal of objectivity. All the fire went one way. The viewers, on their couches, were flattered as the most important participants, the foot soldiers in Fox’s army; some of them even voted.

The MSNBC formula might work, but I don't see them catching Fox news, or coming close.

Update: Here’s a great Daily Show video illustrating the hand-in-glove relationship between the “news” and opinion side of Fox News. 

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