President of "news" network: We're not the place to turn for breaking news

Seriously? Huh. When something’s happening in the world in the late afternoon hours on the east coast, I always turn to Chris Matthews to find out (a) how its Republicans’ fault and (b) how racism is motivating it. Oh, and (c) how Obama’s handling it really, really well.

As embarrassing as Phil Griffin’s admission here is, it has the shining virtue of being true. Candor is sufficiently rare in politics and media that I kinda want to pat him on the back for admitting it, even though it’s insane that he persists in letting his network operate this way.

At a time of intensely high interest in news, MSNBC’s ratings declined from the same period a year ago by about 20 percent. The explanation, in the network’s own analysis, comes down to this: breaking news is not really what MSNBC does.

“We’re not the place for that,” said Phil Griffin, the channel’s president, in reference to covering breaking events as CNN does. “Our brand is not that.”…

MSNBC’s viewers may have especially grown tired of politics because the news has been mostly negative recently toward President Obama, whom MSNBC’s hosts have championed. As another senior producer for news programs at multiple networks put it, “People will watch MSG when the Knicks are hot, and not watch when they aren’t.”…

With all the changes wrought by the Internet, Mr. Griffin said news organizations are in the midst of “a media revolution — and you better find out where you fit in this world.”

The Knicks analogy is cute, but John Nolte’s right that MSNBC’s ratings slippage didn’t begin with Scandalmania last month. They finished third in April, before the IRS and DOJ scandals erupted, and then slid to fourth last month behind HLN’s Jodi Arias frenzy. What happened in April? The Boston bombings, of course — and even though MSNBC had a valuable breaking-news asset in NBC’s Pete Williams, they still couldn’t top CNN for second place. As one cable producer told the NYT, “MS has stopped doing news so you don’t really think of them when there is a breaking news story.” Right, which apparently is by choice per Griffin’s comment about knowing where you fit in the world.

But … why would he choose that? Even if MSNBC has strayed so far from the path of straight news that it no longer sees virtue in covering it for its own sake, there’s a reason to cover it for the sake of advancing the liberal cause — namely that it’ll broaden MSNBC’s audience during big news events and some of those viewers will stick around for Hayes, Maddow, and O’Donnell in primetime. Purely as a point of pride, you would think Griffin would want to build his own stable of respected hard-news reporters rather than having to piggyback on NBC’s assets, which reinforces the sense of the network as NBC’s JV squad. CNN went out and got Jake Tapper, MSNBC went out and got Al Sharpton. If you’re making upwards of $200 million a year, as MSNBC is, and you’re committed to giving a platform to even the cheapest liberal demagogues, why not diversify your brand by going out and hiring both of them? Baffling.

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