MSNBC hosts panicking over new boss

AP Photo/Steven Senne

Last month, we heard repeating rumors that MSNBC evening host Rachel Maddow was in negotiations to leave the network to host her own program elsewhere. Those rumors were apparently substantiated, but she wound up renewing her contract for another stretch at the liberal network. But some new details about that network coming out this week may provide some of the missing backstory behind the drama of the threatened Maddow departure. It turns out that the new boss at MSNBC, Rashida Jones, has the staff flustered and fearing that their new president is looking to take MSNBC in a new and “potentially disastrous” direction. As the New York Post reports today, meetings between Jones and her NBC Universal boss have been focusing on hard news and a rumored desire to take on CNN in a ratings battle. This has the people who make their living off of the opinionated, heavily liberal gab festivals in the afternoon and evening feeling like their rice bowls are being threatened.

MSNBC staffers are panicking over the direction of the left-leaning news network under newly minted President Rashida Jones, fearing that she’s gearing up for a costly and potentially disastrous battle with CNN, The Post has learned.

Staffers say recent meetings with Jones and her boss, NBCUniversal news chief Cesar Conde, have focused on hard news — with the execs boasting of ratings wins over CNN on breaking stories, such as this summer’s congressional hearings on the Jan. 6 attack on the US Capitol.

That makes some employees nervous that MSNBC isn’t adequately focused on shoring up its primetime lineup of opinion-focused shows that draw in the most loyal viewers. The issue burst into the open last month when news leaked that Rachel Maddow, the network’s star, had been negotiating a new contract and had threatened to leave.

This isn’t the sort of story that would normally catch my attention, but the barefaced way in which the descriptions of the conflict are being presented is too much to ignore. Let’s just take a moment and consider what the complaint is that’s being raised by staffers and hosts of the opinion shows, such as Maddow’s. MSNBC was launched to be a cable news network, competing against the traditional alphabet news networks as well as CNN and Fox. Now the staff there are worried that the network’s viability could be damaged if the new boss wants to focus too heavily on… the news.

It’s not that I’m denying the concern being raised by the MSNBC staffers. I’m not. It sounds like a totally valid thing to worry about. Traditionally, viewers shopping for actual news in the tradition of “who, what, when, where, how,” would split largely along ideological lines between Fox News and CNN, with Fox generally (but not always) getting the better of the battle by substantial margins. People with a more conservative bent would tilt toward Fox while those with a more liberal (but not too outrageously liberal) perspective might go with CNN. (The diminishing crowd who want as little opinion as possible can still tune in to CSPAN.)

From the beginning, that really wasn’t the battle that MSNBC was constructed to fight. They were designed to be the perceived counterweight of progressive opinions and slant that would act as a balance against Fox and its own stable of conservative opinion journalists. That balancing act is what made room for three cable news networks with measurable national audiences instead of just two.

While MSNBC has clearly struggled in the ratings game, likely for measurable reasons in terms of the country’s ideological breakdown, they have found a home for their opinion-spouting hosts. They’ve even enjoyed some success in the evenings against weaker CNN hosts like Chris Cuomo. But if the new boss is considering draining resources away from their evening talkers and mount a battle against CNN’s daytime lineup, that sounds like a recipe for a war of attrition. Even if they manage to chip away a bit into CNN’s daytime panel shows, it really seems as if the only winner will be Fox.

In any event, none of them sign my paycheck so I suppose I’m just another member of the peanut gallery munching popcorn while they sort all of this out. But if you think MSNBC is somehow going to suddenly become the number one hard news network in the country, I really have to ask if you can pass over a shot of whatever it is that you’ve been drinking.