You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.

MSNBC’s Wild Ride

Thanks to Trump and the Russia investigation, the liberal network is booming. But is it selling its viewers a conspiratorial fantasy?

On January 31, Rachel Maddow, the eponymous host of The Rachel Maddow Show, returned from a commercial break. In the previous segment, she had interviewed Betsy Woodruff, a Daily Beast reporter, who had written a story on alleged connections between the Russian government and the National Rifle Association. Before that, Maddow had conducted a friendly and knowing colloquy with Adam Schiff, the newly seated Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, on his expansive plans to delve into the sprawling Russia investigation.

“Today,” she said as she came back on screen, “some new bread crumbs were dropped in the mystery case that has been winding its way through the federal courts in D.C. since last August.”

“Bread crumbs” are emblematic of the informal house style at MSNBC. The channel has a range of on-air talent, and its shows each have their own cadence and feel, but they are joined across the arc of each daylong cycle of programming, and especially the larger meta-cycle of the Russia investigation, by a kind of Sherlockian, my-dear-Watson zeal. We are discovering the clues, uncovering the documents, connecting the threads, following the trail in the forest.

A mystery is a puzzle to solve, but a conspiracy can only produce more and more mysteries. What did we find, for example, at the end of the trail of bread crumbs on January 31? “It’s a case,” Maddow said:

... that is very intriguing, in part because of what we don’t know about it. We know it involves Robert Mueller and the special counsel. We know it’s being handled with alacrity in the federal court system. But we otherwise don’t know what it’s about. It involves a corporation. We don’t know which one. A corporation that is wholly owned by a foreign country. We don’t know what country. It appears this mystery corporation has been fighting a subpoena from Mueller. And we think we know now that a federal judge is fining this corporation $50,000 a day for every day that they refuse to comply with that Mueller subpoena. Well, late last night, we got a few more bread crumbs in this case when the court unsealed a redacted version of the docket for this case.

It may well have been that this case involved a witness in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of matters related to Russian interference in the 2016 elections. Beyond that? “It could be anyone who’s been subpoenaed by the special counsel for anything,” an anonymous attorney representing a Trump staffer told Politico.

MSNBC’s Long, Flailing Road to the Trump Era
Before the network stumbled upon a winning formula of turning a deluge of Trump-related scandals into fodder for the Resistance, it lurched from one identity to the next. Over the course of its two-decade existence, it has been a platform for conservative misfits, aging shock jocks, and anti-Bush warriors—sometimes all at the same time. MSNBC’s prime-time lineup may now be anchored by liberals Rachel Maddow and Chris Hayes, but it has had more than a few twists, turns, and dead ends:
Click to view each timeline
Tap to view each timeline
Ann Coulter and Laura Ingraham, The Contributors, 1996–1997
MSNBC fired Coulter after she told a disabled Vietnam vet, “No wonder you guys lost” when he asserted that his comrades had been blown up by American mines.
Don Imus, Imus in the Morning, 1996–2007
Imus was fired after he said, “That’s some nappy-headed hos there, I’m going to tell you that,” in reference to the Rutgers women’s basketball team.
Keith Olbermann, The Big Show With Keith Olbermann, 1997–1998, and Countdown With Keith Olbermann, 2003–2011
Olbermann solidified MSNBC’s reputation as a liberal network with his thunderous “special comments” that targeted the Bush administration. “I probably owe George W. Bush an apology,” he later said.
Oliver North and Cynthia Alksne, Equal Time, 1999–2000
Alksne left after a month, when it was determined she hadn’t developed enough “on-air chemistry with North,” the central figure in the Iran-Contra scandal.
Alan Keyes, Alan Keyes Is Making Sense, 2002
Though MSNBC canceled the show after a few months, citing low ratings, the Israeli government awarded him a special honor in appreciation of “his integrity in reporting.”
Phil Donahue, Donahue, 2002–2003
The show was canceled for being too antiwar. According to a leaked memo, MSNBC feared it would become “a home for the liberal antiwar agenda at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity.”
Pat Buchanan and Bill Press, Buchanan & Press, 2002–2003
The show featured Buchanan’s inimitable brand of paleoconservatism: “As a practical matter, homosexual sex is unnatural and immoral,” he once said.
Michael Savage, The Savage Nation, 2003
MSNBC fired Savage after he said that a caller was a “sodomite,” and that he should “get AIDS and die.”
Joe Scarborough, Scarborough Country, 2003–2007, and Morning Joe (with Mika Brzezinski), 2007–Present
Trump regularly plugged their show before turning against the two hosts (“Psycho Joe” and “low I.Q. Crazy Mika” in his formulation) over some criticism.
Tucker Carlson, The Situation With Tucker Carlson (eventually Tucker), 2005–2008
Carlson was relatively scandal-free during this period, except when he was calling in to shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge’s show to defend child marriage.
Getty (x13); MSNBC (Alksne); WCPT (Press); The White House (Savage)

The prevailing criticism of Maddow’s on-air personality is that she embodies the stereotype of the smug liberal, and if you encounter her mainly through the brief video clips that are both the reputational currency and the lingua franca of online media, it’s easy to see why. She has a bit of a shtick—a habit of cocking her head or raising her eyebrow and speaking confidently but with an air of almost bemused incredulity. Can you, she seems to be asking, believe these guys? She gestures widely. She shrugs. She is arch and broadly ironic. She is very certain that she is right. 

But when I set myself the task of really watching her show, beginning to end, and for more than one night in a row, I discovered that she was far more appealing than I’d been prepared to find her. Her voice is low and a bit sinusy; it has more in common with the worlds of stand-up, DIY podcasting, or public-radio storytelling than with the prosecutorial sharpness of a lot of cable news. Maddow is sincere without being overly earnest. She thinks that she is funnier than she is, but we all have friends who think they are funnier than they are. She is obviously smart, which makes the frequent weirdness and obscurantism of her show seem like a deliberate choice, like a serious author who has, for fun, decided to dabble in the absurd. 

She has learned the art of looking into the camera while speaking to the guy behind it. It gives the sense that she just found herself sitting there, having this conversation with her producers and her crew, and this gives her show an immediacy and intimacy. We know that the case is “being handled with alacrity.” We know about this “federal judge’s” fines against this mysterious company. We are in on it.

Immediacy and intimacy are necessary for a show that consists, for long stretches, of a basically inert shot of a single woman who occupies the left-hand two-thirds of your screen, talking. But these qualities also render less conspicuous the defining trait of the show, which more than any other has contributed to Mueller’s near-messianic hold over segments of the so-called Resistance—a movement that was caught by surprise when Mueller finally submitted his report in late March, apparently concluding, from what we know of the report as of this writing, that Trump and his aides had not conspired with Russia to steal the election. Maddow’s prime-time hour of overheated speculation lacks the antic sensibility and maudlin sentimentality of, for instance, the pre-exile Glenn Beck, who had scribbled all his manic and intricate chalkboard theories of history as conspiracy (and vice versa) with the studied passion of a coffee-shop prophet. But Maddow—and much of her network these days—is frequently just as bonkers. 

MSNBC has had up-and-down ratings over the years, but a sharp downturn toward the end of the Obama presidency pushed the network nearly to also-ran status. By 2015, its popularity sometimes dipped below not just Fox News and CNN, but also CNN’s airport-lounge spin-off, HLN. There was speculation that it had become too liberal, that the appetite for stem-winding perorations in the vein of Keith Olbermann’s raucous, Bush-era “special comment” programming was simply too limited, and that there was perhaps no national market for a left-leaning counterpart to Fox. 

Then came the 2016 elections, and the incredible rise and victory of Donald Trump. Leslie Moonves, the erstwhile chairman of CBS, infamously claimed that Trump’s entry into politics “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” That despairing formulation has proved doubly true for MSNBC. By late 2018, MSNBC could, on certain weeks, claim to be the number one news network on cable. Its relentless focus on the minutiae of Trump world scandals—which Trump world obligingly delivers in endless variety and quantity—and its impressive ability to turn late-breaking, mad-making Trump pronouncements into a whole evening of dedicated programming, are especially well adapted to a political moment driven by the wickedly fast churn of online media. MSNBC has become what, just a few years ago, critics thought impossible: the liberal, Democratic cable channel. It is the touchstone network for the Resistance movement on social media, which is itself tightly wound around allegations of Russian plots and “collusion,” and its stars look likely to become kingmakers in the coming Democratic primaries. Since the New Year and as of this writing, Senators Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, and Amy Klobuchar, all announced presidential candidates, have made appearances on The Rachel Maddow Show.  

Maddow excels at turning the daily drip of scandal into a whole evening of programming.

The network has, in other words, quickly settled into a winning formula, and the effect of spending a whole evening with MSNBC for the first time is not unlike wandering into a scripted prestige television series in the middle of its third season. The careful place setting occurred long before you started watching, and now the narrative is barreling ahead.

There is the big, established cast of principal characters. Chris Hayes, whose mouth pinches and eyes widen behind his plastic frames as he struggles not to interject “correct” over whatever his friendly guest is already saying. Chris Matthews, whose interruptions are more staccato and reflexive, like a person who has done uppers and can’t let a single song play to its end without changing the record. Ari Melber: lawyerly, handsome, young but not quite as young as he wants to appear, reminding you that he listens to hip-hop. Maddow: extemporaneous, soliloquizing. Lawrence O’Donnell: calmer than the posturing 2010 character who got himself kicked off Morning Joe for his prosecutorial (and, frankly, correct) denunciation of former Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen and the whole Bush administration for falling down on the job before 9/11, but still evincing a West Wing style of righteous, lettered indignation—appropriate, since he was a writer and producer on the show that, perhaps more than any other cultural artifact, shaped the sensibility of post-Bush liberalism, including that of MSNBC.

There are the guests: a square-headed John Brennan, “former director of the CIA.” Rick Wilson, “the Republican strategist” who despises Trump. The “former federal prosecutor.” Print journalists who just happen to be conventionally attractive. Low-ranking Democratic House members. There is Trump himself, looming offstage, the oddly absent centerpiece of the whole production, like Julius Caesar in the later acts of Shakespeare’s play. There is Mueller, something between an oracle and a demiurge, also physically absent, and there was Mueller’s report, a promised deus ex machina hanging in the fly space above. There are Michael Cohen, Roger Stone, and a Russian oligarch whose name everyone pronounces differently.

There are set-piece locations: Trump Tower, the site of a 2016 meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and Kremlin agents that became central to the Russia investigation; a Moscow hotel; “the Border”; the White House. There is a complex establishing mythology, a series of actual acts and hypothetical acts and possibly mythological acts that, in total, build the texture of a sprawling world. There are terms of art and law that everyone seems to understand; they take the place, in this universe, of a fantasy show’s invented ancient language. 

It has, in other words, the strange simultaneity common to prestige TV: It is at once vast and circumscribed. A wider world intrudes, but the same central heroes and villains show up, week after week.

A cast of “characters”—such as GOP strategist Rick Wilson—helps enact MSNBC’s story.

MSNBC is conventionally assumed to be the liberal network in the sense that Fox News is conservative, although MSNBC has been through several iterations since its founding in 1996. Its earlier years were a wild grab bag of discordant content. Imus in the Morning, featuring shock jock Don Imus, ran for years in the long morning block that would eventually be colonized by the flirtatious coffee klatch of Morning Joe. There was The Site, a technology-focused hour anchored by Soledad O’Brien and ... a computer-generated hipster with an earring and pink hair named Dev Null. (It did not last long.) There was a two-hour block of Mitch Albom, who wrote the bestselling books about the people you meet in heaven.

From the late 1990s through the mid-2000s, the network also served as a weird clearinghouse for some of the great ghouls of conservative agit-prop, an early home-away-from-home for the likes of Laura Ingraham, Ann Coulter, and Tucker Carlson, though the latter was still in his clubby William F. Buckley phase and not yet banging on about racial destiny and birth rates. It hired Michael Savage, a virulent radio hate jock, but had to fire him a few months later when he screamed at a call-in listener, “You should only get AIDS and die, you pig!” Does anyone remember Alan Keyes Is Making Sense? If not, you may instead recall the omnipresence of Pat Buchanan.

This succession of short-lived programs seems to have been the product of a network struggling and failing to capture the political zeitgeist at the end of the millennium, as the Clinton era bled into the strange, bloody reaction of the Bush years. But as the Bush administration wore on, MSNBC began its turn toward liberalism, foregrounding anti-Bush voices like Olbermann and eventually hiring Maddow.

But MSNBC’s brand of liberalism, as well as the general sense that it is effectively a partisan Democratic outfit, are a fascinating product of an ideological incubation that occurred during the Obama years, which marked an inflection point in what will, I suspect, be seen by historians not just as a hardening of partisan sorting and polarization of the electorate, but as part of a much larger ideological realignment.

These changes had been going on since the days of Reagan at least, but in the calm, technocratic, white-collar, highly professional person of Barack Obama and the party he remade in his image, they came to a head. Through the conservative uproar that met this racial and cultural interloper, via the increasingly intransigent and combative Republican Congress, and the vitriolic outpourings of the Tea Party, conservative talk radio, and the Murdoch empire, something new emerged clearly for the first time. Suddenly, the Republicans were the wild reformists, coming with axes and dynamite for all the edifices of society and government that America had erected over the last 100 years, while the Democratic Party was the conservative party, which is to say: protective toward institutions, deferential toward established power, defensive around precedent, and deeply concerned that anything other than narrow tinkering at the margins represented a dangerous radicalism.

Somewhat ironically, the failures of establishment institutions were the central theme of Chris Hayes’s 2012 book, Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy. Hayes is relatively unsparing in his assessments of elite failures, from the collapse of Enron to the financial crisis. But the book suffers throughout from a habit of dividing phenomena into catchy but facile dichotomies. In Twilight of the Elites, these are Burkean “institutionalists” and more radical “insurrectionists.” Hayes confesses his own sentiments early on:

Whatever my own insurrectionist sympathies—and they are considerable—I am also stalked by the fear that the status quo, in which discredited elites and institutions retain their power, can just as easily produce destructive and antisocial impulses as it can spur transformation and reform. Call it my inner David Brooks.

This fear is not unfounded. “Destructive and antisocial” as a description of Donald Trump and the GOP in 2019 reads as restrained to the point of parody. But the conservative abhorrence of any revolution that exceeds the mandate of mere reform is inadequate to the problems that Hayes himself diagnoses. It leads directly to a central problem with contemporary mainstream liberalism: the idea that the trouble is not so much institutions themselves as the people who run them. The result is an unfortunate tendency to rehabilitate dubious people and organizations the moment they line up against the right villains. How else to explain the sudden liberal affection for the FBI, the office of the special counsel, the “intelligence community”?

Today, MSNBC’s liberalism and partisanship can only be understood in this framework. The presidency of Donald Trump is, in this analysis, more than anything else an affront to institutions and traditions. The network is far more equipped to deal with these affronts than the political and policy content of his administration.

On a recent episode of The Beat With Ari Melber, for example, it took a calm but clearly exasperated Katrina vanden Heuvel, publisher of the left-leaning The Nation, to point out that Trump’s rhetorical hostility to open-ended military conflicts and occupations represented an actual opportunity to begin a conversation about American military de-escalation rather than to natter on, again, about the irresponsibility of yanking troops out of Syria, however crass and inconsistent his reasoning—such as it is—might be.

Moments like this are few, in large part because the network so rarely finds time to pan out from its narrow focus on the baroque divagations of the investigations of Donald Trump, his political and business associates, and the specter of Russian interference in our elections.

Prominent critics of MSNBC and the Russiagate-media complex, such as The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald, have complained about the willingness of American journalists to chase any Russki rabbit down a Red Scare hole. I have been a skeptic of any overarching Russian state conspiracy, but I think it requires a contrarianism bordering on deliberate naïveté to insist there is nothing to it at all. The Mueller investigation is now complete, although it is not yet public as of this writing, and it is a little silly to say that the last two years have produced only sound and fury. People have gone to jail, and it seems plain that other legal authorities will continue to pursue Trump, his businesses, and his associates in other venues. In the parade of fools, grifters, hack attorneys, and dubious property men who scurried out from every overturned stone, there really is evidence of a gang of greedy amateurs, right up to the president himself. There is at least circumstantial evidence that Trump, or others acting on his behalf, chased a quick buck for their shady, half-legal businesses, and that they sought that buck in Russia, among other places where shady, half-legal business remains an art. Nevertheless, it seems increasingly unlikely that any convincing proof will ever emerge that Russian state actors accomplished anything like actually swinging an American election. Accidentally benefiting from ham-handed malfeasance does not mean there was no malfeasance, but the president’s repetitive and stentorian insistence that there was “no collusion” now seems to have been pretty well calculated: Maybe I stole, but I sure didn’t cheat!

Still, it does make pretty good TV. Perhaps it is my own idiosyncratic affection for conspiracy narratives, but there was something innately satisfying about sitting with a panel of savvy D.C. lawyers and journalists and dissecting the latest filings and charges. And MSNBC’s machinery for the production of this kind of content is impressive. As soon as Mueller’s investigatory work had concluded and he had sent his report to Attorney General William Barr, the network pivoted to a meta-narrative about the meta-narrative, in which the details of the report’s eventual release were examined with the diligence of augurs watching flocks of wheeling birds in ancient Rome.

Well, one of the fundamental features of a conspiracy narrative is that it cannot end. It is the most flexible and capacious of all storytelling forms. And yet if you permit yourself to be swept along in the swirling narratives, there is a sense that you are really getting somewhere, that even more than the excellent Democratic fortunes in the last midterms, this is how we’re going to finally pin something on Trump, this odious and stupid but supremely slippery man. No more indictments from Bob Mueller? No problem. Have you heard of a little something called the Southern District of New York?

This is the fundamental appeal of MSNBC, and this, I think, accounts for a surge in ratings driven by a great growth in the 55+ demographic. (As at all the other cable channels, viewership among those in the 25–54 age range continues to decline.) As the Trump presidency drags into its third ugly year, it feels ever more like a crisis frozen in amber. The paralysis of the latest partial government shutdown only heightened the sense that nothing—certainly nothing good—is happening, except for the ticktock revelations of campaign and executive skullduggery, which at very least have the power to provoke Trump to guilty-conscience tantrums on social media. For those viewers, age 55 and above, professional and affluent, generally socially liberal but largely unexcited by the younger generations’ pivot toward socialism and more radical economic policies, the belief that there may yet be a gotcha moment, a crack in the case that forces a reckoning, a legal procedure through which normalcy may be restored, is well-nigh irresistible. And the familiar byplay of procedural blame-assigning and briskly apportioned punishment likewise exerts a pronounced appeal for any viewer weaned on the All the President’s Men model of executive accountability won through the patient scandal-reporting of elite journalistic institutions. With the underlying narrative of institutional integrity thus secured and defended, our national politics can return to what every MSNBC anchor’s inner David Brooks understands as the old normal: an orderly back-and-forth of power between two ordinary political parties, and a smooth transition to retirement with wars and crises just a distant hum beyond a comfortable backdrop. I am still a few years shy of the target demographic for this fever dream of an institutionally mediated day of political judgment, but I can feel the attraction and the pull.

The danger, however, is that it is possible to make MSNBC your principal source of news and information and, as a consequence, to escape knowing much of anything about what is going on in the world. It is possible to watch an entire primetime lineup without mention of Brexit, of the gilets jaunes, of any Eurasian politics beyond the bogeyman Putin and some snarking at Trump’s vague China tariffs. Venezuela makes an occasional appearance, mostly as it relates to our own domestic politics (although, credit where it’s due: Chris Hayes, at least, made some mention of historical U.S. interference in the region). Brazil, the second-largest country in the Americas, which just elected its own far-right leader, Jair Bolsonaro, barely appears. There is a “border crisis” but little sense of what is on the other side of that border. There is “Syria,” but little actual reporting from the Middle East. North Korea bubbles up sporadically, garnering particular attention whenever the president decides he wants another genial confab with Kim Jong Un, and even then exists mostly as a platform to joke about Trump’s inability to close a deal. The Indian subcontinent hardly exists. Africa hardly exists. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal sparked a flurry of coverage of the politics of climate change policy, but the environment and climate change, as stories in and of themselves, hardly exist.

And as a consequence of this narrowness of interest, it is possible to believe that getting the president of the United States, whether through impeachment, indictment, or just beating him in the 2020 race, will be a social and political panacea, that it will set aright most of what ails our society, and that we can return to a version of an already idealized Obama era, with a graceful grown-up reassuring us that cooler heads will inevitably prevail.

They will not, or at least not inevitably, and I will be curious to see what becomes of the network if and when Trump’s moment does pass. There is a huge fight coming, one that will make the present bickering over a few billion dollars for a phantasm of a border wall seem less than petty. It will be a fight about the allocation of resources on an international level in an era of actually inevitable and irreversible climate change. It will entail huge economic upheavals and the migration of millions of people across the globe, including here in the United States. None of it will be solved by Robert Mueller, and it cannot be worked out in three-hour segments over coffee with Mika and Joe. 

MSNBC promises its audience that if we dig deep enough, we’ll get to the bottom of this thing, but what good is digging a hole in preparation for a flood?