The fall of MSNBC

In self-professedly “non-partisan” circles, it is common to hear it said that MSNBC is essentially just a leftward-leaning version of Fox News. This appraisal, I think, is wide of the mark. Contrary to its favored claim, Fox is not in fact “Fair and Balanced” but is a rightward-leaning station with an ideologically driven owner, a clear target audience, and an obvious and pronounced set of political biases. Or, as one wag has put it, Fox is designed to appeal to “a niche market called half the country.” This, however, is not to say that Fox is “extreme” or that it is “out of touch,” but that it is geared toward one of America’s two philosophical poles. As one can open the New York Times and still easily recognize the country one is discussing, to dive into Fox’s world is to be exposed to a familiar but slanted impression of America and its people. Should viewers seek out a second opinion? Absolutely. Should they automatically discount the one they heard on Fox? No, of course not.

In this regard Fox is a little different from MSNBC, which, by unlovely contrast, does not aim at a broad swath of the United States at all, but is instead focused on a fascinating alternative universe to which few would-be viewers have ever been. Its handful of rather ordinary news anchors to one side, MSNBC’s hosts do not so much exist to represent a popular viewpoint as they are put on air to play a set of dramatic roles in what has become a vast and monomaniacal piece of conspiratorial performance art, of the sort that one might see composed by the theater department at Oberlin. When Deadline Hollywood’s Lisa de Moraes records that “today’s buzz word at MSNBC is ‘news-focused,’” she is not suggesting that the channel hopes slightly to tweak its balance between the straight-up reporting of facts and the offering of unabashed opinion; she is conceding that the station’s long experiment with esoteric faculty-lounge silliness is coming, at long last, to a crashing and ignominious end. “The goal,” an anonymous source told the Daily Beast yesterday, “is to move away from left-wing TV” and to give up on the hope of a return to the “glory days during George W. Bush’s administration.” Thus did Air America’s visual counterpart meet its own inevitable end.

Popular as it is as a theory, the contention that explicitly left-wing media fails because left-wingers are “too smart” is brutally over-simplistic and invariably self-serving. Open them up on the subject and left-leaning types will explain smugly that, being bombastic and rudimentary and Manichean in nature, conservatism lends itself especially keenly to talk radio and to cable news. The problem for the Joy Reids and Ronan Farrows of the world, this assessment concludes, is that the subtlety and honesty of left-leaning figures renders their offerings lifeless and makes for dull — even bad — television. Disappointed that Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly rake in the cash while Chris Hayes and Current TV are reduced to mere punch lines? Don’t be, say the apologists. One is for the mass market; the other is for the discerning shopper, like you.