MSNBC’s Militantism Aversion?
I thought I had written enough about Melissa Harris-Perry and MSNBC yesterday but after reading Brian Stelter’s latest CNN article on the story, I feel the need to revisit and expand upon my previous thoughts. Yesterday, I tried to keep my commentary out of the condescension zone even though I felt the urge to rush on in. But after reading this…
MSNBC began to move away from the liberal talk show approach more than a year ago. Harris-Perry’s show remained a refuge of sorts, but the show came under increasing pressure to stay on top of the news cycle, according to people at the channel. What some would call smart programming decisions, others would call a dilution of what made Harris-Perry’s show special.
On Sunday, January 31, she awkwardly co-hosted her own show from Iowa ahead of the caucuses there. The following week — Super Bowl weekend — her show’s branding was stripped away and replaced by MSNBC’s generic “Place for Politics” title.
In a brief phone conversation, Harris-Perry said the February pre-emptions were merely the most visible manifestation of the channel’s marginalization of her show.
By the time she wrote her letter, it was evident — through actions, not words — that she’d been canceled.
MSNBC disputes this point of view.
Harris-Perry said she is not trying to direct any activism.
“I am so moved by, and humbled by, the response of not just my audience but people who weren’t even my audience. It’s very powerful and meaningful,” she
said. “But I’m also not looking to put myself at the center of some sort of civil rights narrative. I just wanted to be able to speak. I wanted to tell people what was going on.”
Then you needed to understand the industry you worked in. This isn’t NPR. It’s not public access cable. This is a for profit mainstream business in corporate America. The rules are different. The rules will always be different. First and foremost cable news, for better or for worse (and you all know where I come down on that score), cable news is primarily a politics regurgitation channel. It has been since the Monica Lewinski scandal.
Big political stories will always trump militant ideological crusade programming…unless there’s a politics angle at play. It’s all about the numbers and the numbers in this case are ratings. Campaign 2016 has been a ratings rocket ship not seen since the Bush/Gore recount. We’ve had way more televised debates than ever before. MSNBC has mounted its most logistically complicated, expensive, coverage operation this week than it has ever.
Under these circumstances, there is absolutely no way MSNBC (or NBC) wants to interrupt this carefully planned format with non-sequitur programming. As Stelter noted, the network tried to take MHP on the road but it did not play out well. Her show and her format just don’t fit in well with that kind of programming.
The thing is, and this is what Harris-Perry totally missed out on (or just plain ignored), this would have all passed in a couple of weeks when the primaries weeded out the non-contenders and the need for this kind of blanket level coverage would have receded. MSNBC would have (probably) brought her show back. Weekend mornings after all are hardly the spot for heavy duty news cycle subjects (unless you’re CNN).
The reason I say “probably” though…the reason I put in a qualifier…is because of this “background friction” that’s been taking place between her show and the network which, if the stories are true, has been taking place for months. This friction storyline opens up another avenue of discussion:
Does the network think that militantism, not progressivism, has a place on its air any more?
We have seen a pattern emerge over the past few years at the network; one that divides those who are “safe” progressives from those who are “dangerous” progressives.
Consider the following:
Keith Olbermann – While maybe not an out and out progressive militant the way others at the network were, he certainly was militant in his own way. Wouldn’t play ball with the network. Gone.
Cenk Uygur – Militant progressive. Took his show into territory that made the network squirm, if the stories are true. Wouldn’t play ball with the network. Gone.
Ed Schultz – Militant progressive. Covered subjects nobody else was covering with a take no prisoners approach. Couldn’t figure out how to play ball with the network even though I think he wanted to. Gone.
Al Sharpton – Militant progressive and all around lightning rod. Role significantly reduced.
Melissa Harris-Perry – Militant progressive. Like Schultz covered subjects nobody else was covering. Wouldn’t play ball with the network. If not gone, soon to be gone.
Now look at who is left:
(no pun intended)
Rachel Maddow – Committed progressive but nowhere near as militant about it in her delivery. Plays ball with the network. Doesn’t make waves (that we know of). The primetime face of MSNBC who the network has no qualms about putting front and center with Brian Williams covering the primaries. It wasn’t until this morning that it finally dawned on me that Maddow is a “safe” progressive in NBC’s eyes. She has crossed the great divide between the outlying territories of fringe progressivism, where she began, to that space where progressivism is not only tolerated by the mainstream but is bankable to some extent. This is territory that in decades past was occupied by the likes of Phil Donahue, Bill Moyers, etc. One wonders if Maddow now having her place cemented as the “safe progressive” will hurt her in the long run as the militant firebrands are forced out.
Olbermann was there in that space as well for a while but other aspects of Olbermann intervened to make him a TV hot potato. Had Olbermann managed to stick and flourish, we might be looking at a radically different MSNBC than we are now where some of the people on my “gone” list are still around. Without him and his ratings beach head, it became a lot harder for the network to justify keeping fellow travelers, who couldn’t produce those kind of ratings, around.
Chris Hayes – Maddow clone but without Maddow’s TV charisma (which is a big reason why his show doesn’t gain traction). Plays ball with the network.
Lawrence O’Donnell – Committed progressive with militant tendencies but still viewed as “safe” by the media at large (and MSNBC in particular). Also plays ball with the network.
We’ve been reading about how MSNBC has lost its progressive way. That’s not true. What it has done is it has shed it’s militantly progressive aspects leaving a safer more palatable by Madison Avenue and mainstream America progressivism.