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The Anatomy of MSNBC

Michael Arria

More than any other media outlet, MSNBC embodies the politics and sensibility of Trump-era liberalism. But the network that many call the “liberal Fox News” wasn’t always liberal.

MSNBC president Phil Griffin, Rachel Maddow, Lawrence O'Donnell, and Chris Matthews speak during an MSNBC panel on August 2, 2011 in Beverly Hills, California. (Frederick M. Brown / Getty Images)

Interview by
Luke Savage

During the Obama era, MSNBC emerged as a liberal challenger to Fox News, in some ways succeeding where earlier efforts to duplicate the reach of right-wing media had failed. But the history and politics of the network are more complicated than those who first became aware of it during the mid-2000s probably realize.

These themes and others were explored by writer and media critic Michael Arria in his 2014 book Medium Blue: The Politics of MSNBC, a study that has arguably become more prescient since its publication thanks to the network’s prominent role in shaping liberal discourse in the Trump era. Jacobin’s Luke Savage spoke to Arria — who is currently the US correspondent for Mondoweiss — about his research, the book’s themes, and what the history of MSNBC has to teach us about American liberalism.


LS

Medium Blue opens by recalling the first scene from Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, in which the show’s main character — portrayed by Jeff Daniels — delivers a long-winded soliloquy about the state of America. I’m sure most people will be familiar with it. Why did you choose this particular anecdote to begin a book about MSNBC?

MA

I just thought it in some ways encapsulated the essence of liberal establishment media. What struck me at the time I wrote the book — it was the height of MSNBC, and a lot of people were calling it the “liberal Fox News” — is that it seemed to me there was actually a real difference between the two. With something like Fox, if you look at the biographies of the people who are involved in that operation, they’re somewhat different. Someone like Glenn Beck, for example, was sort of a shock jock in the vein of Howard Stern before he became what we know today. It seemed like a lot of the people involved in conservative media were kind of in on the joke. I remember this Twitter thread Chris Hayes once had where he talked about meeting Ann Coulter at Bill Maher’s show, and he was struck by the fact she seemed surprised he took the things she said seriously.

Whereas, when I was looking into MSNBC, I never got the sense that the people involved were in on the joke. It seemed like they were all very earnest, in fact. It reminded me of Sorkin and that scene in particular because it was getting shared a lot around the same time MSNBC had taken off under Obama. I’m not a Sorkin fan, but I do think he’s extremely interesting insofar as The West Wing and The Newsroom do a great job of encapsulating a certain mindset held by liberals, the liberal establishment, and, in some cases, the liberal media.

LS

The introduction of your book notes that many liberal books have fact-checked Fox News and the wider conservative media, often in granular detail. Their conclusion is generally that, when taken as a whole, the US media has a conservative bias. But you write: “such analysis misses the point; the issue isn’t politics, it’s power.” Can you elaborate on that?

MA

I think a lot of people on the liberal side sort of miss why people find the conservative media enticing. I always go back to that argument from Corey Robin’s book about how conservatism’s essence has always been oppositional and counterrevolutionary. When you see the rise of talk radio, with the emergence of figures like Rush Limbaugh, it’s interesting that that took off during the Clinton administration and that Fox really hit its stride under the Obama administration — when they were able to rail against this nonwhite president they thought was a socialist. And I don’t think it’s controversial to say that Donald Trump’s rise couldn’t have happened without an outlet like Fox News. You turn Fox on at night, and it’s people like Tucker Carlson railing against AOC and Ilhan Omar. And despite the fact that conservatives are in power, the whole dynamic is still based on being opposed to something and acting like they’re under siege.

I don’t think liberals have ever really understood this dynamic. After Rush Limbaugh’s rise, there were these consistent calls in progressive media for the Left to develop its own Rush Limbaugh. And I’m old enough to remember Air America, which was an attempt to duplicate what the Right had done but make it liberal.

LS

Rachel Maddow, who has since become a staple of MSNBC, was in fact a host on Air America.

MA

Right, that’s where Maddow got her start. It also featured Al Franken, Chuck D, and Janeane Garofalo. The internet was actually a pretty exciting place for the Left back in those days, and there was a lot of interesting analysis going on around stuff like the Iraq War — it really had an edge to it and even a humor. But I don’t think Air America successfully duplicated any of that. It didn’t hold Democrats accountable for their involvement in something like Iraq or call for a withdrawal of troops very consistently. And this was happening at the same time the Democrats were nominating someone like John Kerry, a guy who had supported all of Bush’s wars, foreign policy plans, and the Patriot Act. It was an utter failure, and I think it’s interesting looking back to think about why that project failed when you would think, if it was trying to duplicate what the Right had done under Bush, it should have presumably been a great success.

One of the interesting things about MSNBC is that it kind of works the opposite way. Their ratings started skyrocketing in 2008 during the campaign between Clinton and Obama, and their rise in many ways coincided with the latter’s ascent. Now we’re in the era of Trump, and I don’t think they know how to react to being out of power. MSNBC seems to peak when liberals are in power, and they can see themselves as insiders — they sort of flail around when out of power. On the flip side, I think conservative media generally works the opposite way: even when it’s in power it kind of has to pretend everything’s coming apart in order to stoke the necessary anger and get its message out.

LS

MSNBC effectively positions itself as the liberal alternative — or antithesis — to Fox News. But, as you explain in your book, the network hasn’t always had this branding. Tell us a bit about the history of MSNBC as a media enterprise. How has its self-image evolved? It hasn’t always been a liberal network, after all.

MA

No, it hasn’t. When it started in the late ’90s, it actually featured a number of people who went on to fame in conservative media — there was even an early show called The Contributors, which actually featured Ann Coulter and Laura Ingraham. After 9/11 MSNBC then has this moment where they declare themselves America’s News Station, and they hire people like Pat Buchanan and Tucker Carlson. Alan Keyes had a show called Alan Keyes Is Making Sense. Meanwhile, there are two interesting people who are let go around this time: Phil Donahue is the liberal that they hired who becomes the only person on the network who regularly criticizes the Iraq War — he gets let go, allegedly because he has bad ratings (although if you look at his ratings in retrospect, they were actually pretty good in relation to others who weren’t let go). And the other person they let go was Michael Savage, a shock jock in some ways to the right of Limbaugh or Bill O’Reilly. They gave him a live call-in show, and he ends up telling a gay caller, I believe, to “get AIDS” if not “to get AIDS and die.” So this was the state of MSNBC back then. Steve Ballmer, who’s probably most famous now for owning the Los Angeles Clippers, made some comment along the lines of . . . if they’d have known how bad the ratings would be, they never would have created the network.

Then, in 2005, Keith Olbermann — who had come from ESPN originally — has this long attack on the Bush administration for their handling of Hurricane Katrina, and that’s where, to my mind, things start to shift. People might also remember he had that beef with O’Reilly at the time. Anyway, Phil Griffin — who was the president of MSNBC — basically tells Olbermann to knock it off. It wasn’t supposed to be their job to go on TV and criticize the Bush administration with these rants, but what ended up happening was that the ratings started to go up precisely at the time Olbermann started doing this. So that’s the beginning, I think, of that shift. And over the next few years, you then had the ascent of Obama and that’s when the ratings really began to skyrocket. From mid-2007 to mid-2008 their prime-time viewing increased by 61 percent — a huge jump from where they were, which was barely on the air. So it was definitely not a strategy: they just kind of fell ass-backward into being a liberal brand.

LS

So, in your view, the part of MSNBC that’s about being a liberal brand is primarily a business/commercial decision?

MA

Right, I’d say it’s a commercial decision. And there have been attempts to rebrand it again when their ratings have dipped. Griffin, for example, came out with that announcement about how they were transitioning into a different phase, and that’s when they changed their slogan to “Lean Forward.” So there’s been a shift, politically to an extent, but if you read anything about Phil Griffin, every move they’ve made from the very beginning has mainly been driven by ratings. And Griffin is a guy who interviewed at Fox News. When you read him talking about Roger Ailes, he’s always had an enormous amount of respect for him — whereas Ailes’s comments about him always seemed quite dismissive. He’s admitted that he’s always paid close attention to how Fox operated, how it did business, and how it’s had success. I think he’s quite talented in what he does, but I’ve never gotten the feeling what he’s done has ever had much to do with political calculations.

LS

MSNBC is clearly in some ways trying to ape the aesthetic if not the ideology of Fox News, but it sounds like you don’t think they’re particularly effective at that. Why is it that liberals are less good at doing the shock jock thing?

MA

I just don’t think it translates well. Going back to something you said earlier about fact-checking: I saw a recent video where someone cited a study suggesting Trump has told something like ten thousand public lies. And I just think if that’s true — if the Trump administration is literally creating its own reality, and its followers are buying into it, it’s very difficult to beat them at their own game. Because the Right really doesn’t care about what it says. It never has. It doesn’t care about the truth. It cares about power.

Liberal media kind of takes two forms. One is the form embodied by the late Ed Schultz, who was in sync with the Air America aesthetic. He was a right-wing blowhard — a sort of mini-Limbaugh — but then he switched and became liberal, doing the same schtick but now in defense of liberalism (he wrote a few books, including one where he appeared on the cover with boxing gloves). So that’s one form, which I don’t think works nearly as well the conservative equivalent because the conservative equivalent has anger on its side. The other form is closer to the Chris Hayes model: very pointed questions and a tendency to frame things as investigative. We’ve seen with Maddow, particularly with the Russiagate stuff, that it doesn’t always work because at the end of the day it’s very hard to do serious, high-brow reporting when your enemy is someone like Bush or Trump. It just doesn’t land the way I think they intend precisely because of who their enemy is.

LS

Rachel Maddow’s show has long been a staple of MSNBC, and she’s in many ways one of the faces of Russiagate. In Medium Blue you use her book, widely considered an antiwar text, to illustrate how the network has often treated American military action — as a primarily legal rather than a moral or an ethical question. How did this play out during the network’s coverage of war during the Obama presidency?

MA

A big thing I focus on in the book is the way MSNBC used the wackier aspects of the Right as a way to, well, not cover the transgressions of the Obama administration — especially on the subject of foreign policy. Some things that come to mind are Libya, something like the drone assassination program, the situations with Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning. I have a passage about how on the day Manning was sentenced, Ed Schultz didn’t mention it at all — instead doing five minutes on some comment Pat Robertson made about people’s sweaters being possessed by the devil.

In terms of what happened under the Obama administration: they just didn’t cover the foreign policy stuff. There’s a Maddow segment, I think, at the height of the drone program, where she lists off all the countries America would have hypothetically invaded if John McCain had won the election. So a lot of it is just disassociating themselves from reality and just focusing on the wackier aspects of the Right. Maddow did write a book (about American war-making). It’s not bad exactly, but its thesis is basically that we used to go to war the right way and have war approved by Congress.

The big thing from that era when it comes to war and peace, though, actually happened to Chris Hayes. He was on a show around Memorial Day, I think, in 2012, and he mentioned that he felt uncomfortable with the word “hero” and the way we wield it when we talk about issues of foreign policy. He said that he felt the way that we use it is often a means to justify more war, and resisted the idea everyone involved in war was a hero. I was struck by this because you don’t tend to see that kind of analysis anywhere, and certainly not on MSNBC. It was touching on the third rail of American politics, i.e. grappling with the reality of our foreign policy and what it means for its victims in other countries. And it was a perfectly reasonable comment.

But predictably, what happened was that he was viciously attacked by the Right, and within a matter of days he had to apologize on air. That was striking to me because it showed that you can only go so far on a station like MSNBC: you inevitably hit certain points in the discourse and the mainstream media where there’s going to be pushback and certain lines you aren’t allowed to cross — Phil Donahue criticizing the Iraq War at a time most of the Democratic establishment supported it; Chris Hayes challenging our notion of heroism as it related to foreign policy. It turns out you can’t do these things, even on MSNBC, which has in the past framed itself as a liberal alternative to Fox. I’m not sure what lines can’t be crossed at Fox or even if there are any based on some of the things Tucker Carlson has said in recent weeks.

LS

There’s one other progressive commentator who was briefly on MSNBC we haven’t spoken about yet: Cenk Uygur, who most people will now know from The Young Turks. There’s an incredible incident you recount in your book which allegedly occurred just before he left the network.

MA

Yeah. He claims that right before he left the network, Griffin told him something like — and I’m paraphrasing: “Everyone likes to be an outsider, wear leather jackets, and ride motorcycles. But we’re insiders. We’re the establishment now.” And this is the height of the Obama administration, where their ratings skyrocketed, and I think they all really felt like they were indebted to the administration.

Something I didn’t mention in the book (because it hadn’t happened yet) that’s in some ways even more revealing: when Bernie Sanders launched his first campaign, Ed Schultz had coordinated with Sanders’s staff to cover it live on MSNBC. He says he was about to do it but got an angry call from Phil Griffin demanding that he not cover it. Schultz later said he thought MSNBC executives were connected directly to the Clinton campaign. Obviously, we have no way of verifying the details here, but I thought that was extremely telling because a lot of the time when you read about MSNBC during its ascent, people like Hayes and Maddow would imply they never get told what to do and that it doesn’t work the same way that it does at Fox. But in these two situations, it definitely did.

LS

Lastly, I want to ask about the network’s relationship to conservatism. As you pointed out, the more ridiculous conservatives are often held up and ridiculed on MSNBC. But that’s not the full story of MSNBC’s relationship to conservatism because several conservative shock jocks got their start there, and during the Trump era there are plenty of people from the Bush administration, so-called Never Trump conservatives, and the like. So how would you characterize the network’s relationship to conservatism as a whole?

MA

I think it’s always been an attempt to gain ratings. And insofar as the Obama brand dipped, I think their brand also dipped, and they realized they needed a rebrand. I mentioned their earlier connections to a number of conservatives, but something I think a lot of people might not know is that the person who really helped Rachel Maddow get her job was Tucker Carlson. In 2005 his team brought Maddow into the network based on a tape that her agent had sent them. Griffin really wasn’t sold on her because he was trying to duplicate Fox, and Maddow didn’t fit the bill. But Carlson was the one who insisted she stay on, and it was only after that they gave her Connie Chung’s old dressing room.

All these people have interesting backstories, and Maddow is right up there because she was also a really good friend of Ailes — they were spotted dining together a number of times in DC establishments. And she was really given her break by Tucker Carlson, but was also a part of Air America, and thus part of liberal media efforts at duplicating conservatives in that regard. So MSNBC’s connection to conservatism is extremely interesting and has many layers, some direct and some behind the scenes.