MSNBC, with its imploding ratings and extreme bias, is widely regarded as an irrelevant propaganda organ, even among many liberals and some radical leftists.
Its executives are fully aware of that, too.
But it did not have to be that way.
Founded by two major U.S. corporate powerhouses, Microsoft and General Electric’s NBC unit (now owned by Comcast), MSNBC had the potential to be hugely influential and profitable.
Instead, its executives chose ideology over business savvy, according to insiders and analysts. And the consequences are clear.
At the most fundamental level, MSNBC’s biggest problem is that nobody is watching; and if nobody is watching, the bottom line suffers. A recent ratings report showed MSNBC with only about one third of the viewers of Fox News, 351,000 compared to 1,047,000. And in the key 25-54 demographic it could report only 67,000, compared with Fox’s 217,000.
Already small relative to its competitors and even some alternative media outlets, MSNBC’s ratings are still plummeting, sparking questions about the operation’s very survival.
Just over the last year, MSNBC’s daytime viewership is down more than 20 percent – with a 41 percent plunge among the key demographic aged between 25 and 54. Those are its lowest figures in a decade.
Fox News, by comparison, had almost three times as many viewers in the crucial demographic, crushing MSNBC and CNN combined.
Even MSNBC’s flagship, “The Rachel Maddow Show,” with a mere 145,000 viewers between 25 and 54, just experienced its worst quarter ever, and analysts say it is now essentially part of the leftist fringe. Other prime-time MSNBC shows are suffering a similar fate.
The failure has become impossible to conceal, and even President Obama, whose agenda have been promoted non-stop on the channel, has been lovingly ridiculing his most faithful cheerleaders.
“MSNBC is here. They’re a little overwhelmed,” Obama joked at last year’s White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner. “They’ve never seen an audience this big before.”
The year before that, Obama comically hit on what numerous sources who spoke to WND have identified as one of MSNBC’s biggest problems.
“Some of my former advisers have switched over to the dark side,” the president joked in 2013. “For example, David Axelrod now works for MSNBC, which is a nice change of pace since MSNBC used to work for David Axelrod.”
MSNBC President Phil Griffin, who in 2011 described the channel as “the place to go for progressives,” realizes there is a problem.
“It’s no secret that 2014 was a difficult year for the entire cable news industry and especially for MSNBC,” Griffin wrote in a December staff memo promising major changes to come.
As WND reported in February, a “massive shakeup” at the channel was being planned in response to the ongoing ratings implosion. Sources said “everything” was on the table.
There is even talk of drastically scaling back MSNBC’s radical left-wing bias.
Whether the anticipated shakeup will materialize or be enough to save the operation, though, remains to be seen.
WND set out to discover what was behind MSNBC’s stunning decline.
In less than two decades since its founding in 1996, MSNBC went from provocative powerhouse news and talk channel created by two of the most powerful corporations in America to what critics and even some supporters now say is a widely ridiculed and barely noticed promoter of far-left propaganda.
Based on an extensive investigation and interviews with numerous insiders and media analysts, WND found that MSNBC’s ongoing decline are a result of several key factors.
The first: transparently promoting a radical ideological agenda that is so far outside of the mainstream that few Americans can take it seriously. The shameless promotion is so blatant that even those who agree with it have little reason to tune in, critics told WND.
Another factor, WND’s sources and recent reports suggested, is that senior leadership at MSNBC apparently misread the market and, in any case, was often more interested in advancing an agenda than it was in serving even its own relatively tiny niche market.
WND repeatedly sought comment from senior MSNBC executives and other top figures at the network. Not one was willing to speak on record, and most did not even return calls or emails.
But it is hardly a secret that everybody, from corporate executives and show hosts to outside media analysts, realizes something must change – and quickly – if MSNBC is going to thrive, or even survive.
Conservative former MSNBC host tells all
In an interview with WND, conservative leader and former assistant secretary of state in the Reagan administration Alan Keyes, who hosted the MSNBC show “Alan Keyes Is Making Sense,” shared his experiences.
He also offered some advice to executives hoping to stem the viewer exodus from MSNBC.
After his experiences with NBC, Keyes was initially reluctant to host a show on MSNBC, he explained.
“My first reaction was, ‘No, I don’t want to do that, because they are so biased,'” said Keyes, who has also run for the GOP presidential nomination.
Eventually, after negotiations, a contract was developed in which Keyes would maintain control over the content of his show.
“I didn’t want them to be dictating that,” he said.
The show was also supposed to air during prime time.
For a while, he said, “that worked out.”
However, Keyes’ conservative message and its powerful delivery eventually led to what he described as “some conflicts.”
“I got the feeling by the end of it that they were more interested in having conservative window dressing – somebody who would wear a conservative label, have a conservative reputation but who, in the end, would be willing to compromise that,” Keyes said, a sentiment expressed by other former MSNBC insiders.
The animus against conservative principles was not the only factor in the eventual break between MSNBC and Keyes. Another was the fact that MSNBC wanted to move him into a less prominent time slot.
“And it was indicative of the road they’ve taken since then: yo become more and more explicitly propagandistic,” Keyes told WND.
The former diplomat admitted he did not pay much attention to MSNBC either before he joined it or after he left.
But from what he did gather, Keyes said he got the impression that “they had pretty much decided that they were going to try to succeed on the basis of both coverage and opinion shows that were strictly in accordance with a left-wing viewpoint.”
MSNBC did have “a couple people there who were supposed to be conservatives,” Keyes continued, struggling to remember their names.
However, even the token conservative who still has a show was willing to “blandify” his presentation to the point where conservative ideals were “non-recognizable” – a trend also evident in the Republican Party establishment, Keyes said.
“They still want to keep their conservative label,” he added. “I think that is fraud.”
While MSNBC is not unique in that respect, people are turned off by it, Keyes said, because “they know that it’s phony.”
There is also another fundamental problem with the way MSNBC promotes its agenda.
“Even when Americans have viewpoints, a lot of them want to be able to feel and know that they have listened and tried to think through the arguments that are being made against them,” Keyes said. “That’s part of intellectual integrity.”
“MSNBC, from what I can perceive, appears to have sacrificed that,” he said, again emphasizing that MSNBC was not the only culprit and that most of the broadcast media had become “propaganda” tools – even if not as extreme and obvious as MSNBC. “I think that turns people off regardless of their viewpoint.”
When asked what advice he would give to MSNBC executives, Keyes was not shy.
“There is a real hunger in this country to have people in the media who are just willing to be truthful,” he said, blasting “journalists” who have adopted ideological notions of truth being relative and, as a consequence, tell lies to their audience.
Keyes said media consumers also want honesty in the opinion arena.
If that was happening on MSNBC and elsewhere, “they would find that a lot of folks, including folks that don’t necessarily agree with their editorial point of view … would want to watch their programs, because they wouldn’t feel like they were being played for fools and manipulated.”
Less reliance on the “entertainment” mantra would also help, he added.
“Yes, entertain them, but entertain them as serious citizens.”
Insider view of MSNBC’s troubles
According to MSNBC insiders with insight into leadership’s thinking, who asked not to be named for various reasons, top executives have long wanted to become the leftist version of Fox News.
Virtually everybody there ranged from liberal to extreme left, sources told WND.
Initially, executives brought in some conservative figures to help build up an audience – Keyes, Michael Savage and Pat Buchanan, for example – but executives were never truly comfortable with the audience hearing well-articulated alternate views.
After getting rid of Keyes and Savage, the channel turned to the ultra-left.
In 2008, Griffin, described as a “hardcore leftist” by WND sources with knowledge of the matter, was named president of MSNBC.
After meeting some success with left-wing host Keith Olbermann, executives decided the strategy of promoting fringe leftism alone might be enough to succeed. It was not.
More recently, insiders with knowledge of the issue told WND that top MSNBC leaders had “deluded” themselves into believing that because Americans voted for Obama, there was a large enough market for “progressive” television.
They forgot that Obama lied to win the election and Americans would have overwhelmingly rejected him if the truth had been known, a former senior MSNBC staffer said.
At this point, the source told WND, despite looming changes, the channel has probably backed itself into a corner.
If it seeks to move more toward mainstream America, the shift would essentially represent an admission of defeat – not just for MSNBC leadership, but for leftist ideology more broadly and the Obama administration’s vision specifically.
If it does not change course, though, it will likely end up as a giant write off to current owner NBC Universal.
Still, despite its financial woes and practical irrelevance, one MSNBC source told WND that the channel plays an important role for the far left.
By moving the goal posts and passing its content off as semi-mainstream liberalism, MSNBC attempts to shift the political center further and further to the left.
Media analysts slam MSNBC as ‘propaganda’
While its descent into becoming almost a parody of itself was especially obvious over the last decade or so, part of MSNBC’s extreme liberalism comes from its origins, explained Media Research Center analyst Tim Graham, who serves as executive editor of Newsbusters.
Here some of Keyes’ comments:
Microsoft as a company – and particularly Bill Gates – are known generally as liberal, said Graham, speaking of the role that the software powerhouse played in first putting MSNBC together.
It also tried to maintain a semblance of balance, though.
“In the very beginning, they were sort of NBC News mini,” he told WND in an interview. “Alan Keyes’ show was a sign that, at least at that point, they had a broad spectrum of hosts.”
The drastic shift to the left started becoming more apparent during the presidency of George W. Bush, said Graham, who has served as a media analyst since 1989.
That is when Olbermann stepped on the scene and soared in popularity by excoriating Bush.
“The entire current flavor of MSNBC comes from Olbermann,” Graham said. “Olbermann and his bombastic style sort of became the model for what they wanted to do.”
Then, Rachel Maddow was brought in, and MSNBC ended up becoming the “safety net” for failed radio hosts when “liberal radio went down the tubes.”
As more and more openly radical leftists came in under Bush, MSNBC got “more and more extreme,” Graham said, citing examples such as Olbermann’s claim that Fox News was “worse than al Qaida.”
The strategy of moving further to the left seemed to work, for a while, under Bush, when progressives claimed to feel under siege.
With the most extreme “progressive” in history currently occupying the White House, however, and with his policies and popularity increasingly in the tank, even leftists media consumers are watching less MSNBC.
“MSNBC is not succeeding right now,” Graham said, contrasting its decline with Fox News’ continued and consistent rise.
“One of the obvious reasons for that is that progressives are depressed, and when the lefties are depressed they watch less MSNBC,” he said, citing the meteoric conservative and GOP resurgence and the repudiation of progressive policies it represents as among the reasons for leftist malaise.
Six years into the Bush presidency, MSNBC was selling the notion that it was all over for the president and his agenda.
“That is not what they want to talk about now” when it comes to Obama, Graham argued.
He also noted that Fox was popular and at the top throughout the Bush and Obama presidencies, something MSNBC has not come close to replicating.
Another problem for MSNBC is that its hosts – with the exception of Ed Schultz, who remains fairly popular – are remarkably homogenous, Graham continued.
“Watch MSNBC from noon to 11 p.m., and you’re going to notice that the topics repeat,” he said, pointing to the wall-to-wall coverage of the “Bridge-gate” scandal one year ago surrounding New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, on every show. “They’re all covering the same stuff.”
“When you keep hammering the same idea all day – war on women, people hate Obama ’cause he’s black and so on – they need to find something fresh,” Graham added, ridiculing a whole list of MSNBC personalities as everything from “hacks” to “loopy.”
He also pointed to a broad range of examples of extremism and vulgarity from hosts that the overwhelming majority of media consumers were unlikely to sympathize with – Martin Bashir calling for somebody to defecate in Sarah Palin’s mouth, for example, or the attacks on Mitt Romney’s adopted, black grandson.
Even MSNBC’s “token” conservative, Joe Scarborough, who mostly brings in establishment-type Republicans and often agrees with liberal talking points, fails to get audiences excited.
MSNBC executives, Graham explained, are largely ideological progressives, as evidenced by their shoveling funds into Obama’s campaigns.
Still, they are interested in the bottom line, too.
“They’re seeking the win-win,” Graham said. “They want to be a liberal network that makes money.”
But so far, the plummeting ratings indicate that is wishful thinking.
“Not a legitimate news channel”
Another prominent media analyst, Roger Aronoff, editor and executive secretary for Accuracy in Media (AIM), argued that MSNBC “is not a legitimate news channel, but a propaganda outlet for the left in general and for Democrats in particular.”
He told WND that the channel goes beyond just promoting Democrat policies with mottos such as “grow hope” and “lean forward,” delving into the realm of “outright electioneering.”
The bias is reflected in its viewership, with the overwhelming majority of MSNBC’s audiences identifying as Democrats even when less than one third of the public does.
According to Aronoff, when MSNBC was founded, it “seemed like a good idea,” and it did not set out to be a highly partisan propaganda outfit.
“I think that what happened was partly a reaction to the success of Fox News,” he said, adding that, at least in the mind of MSNBC executives, Fox was viewed as a “partisan, Republican cable network.”
“Part of it was the divisions in the country that settled in following the period of general unity after 9/11, followed by the lead-up to the Iraq War, followed by all of the finger pointing after the fall of Saddam and the failure to find WMD, at least in terms of the specifics the Bush administration had said were there,” Aronoff continued.
It was during that period between mid-2003 and the 2004 presidential election that MSNBC started to become what it is today, he said.
The transformation was sealed when Griffin, then an NBC News VP, was selected to lead MSNBC.
“I believe that Griffin solidified and consolidated the network’s move to the left,” Aronoff said.
More than a business strategy, the bias exhibited by MSNBC, he continued, “reflects that of their news executives.”
As Obama recently indicated in an interview with Vox, the left “longs for the days” when people all got their information and worldview from a common place, Aronoff said.
As a business strategy, though, MSNBC’s leftism has failed.
“Clearly, the mainstream American public does not want to consume stories from pundits such as Al Sharpton who endlessly hype racial conflict regarding the Michael Brown or Eric Garner cases, and they see that the station is becoming more and more of a propaganda outlet for the Obama administration,” Aronoff continued.
He pointed to MSNBC White House correspondent Kristin Welker’s defense to the accusation that the channel defends Obama and Democrats all day.
“Not everyone on MSNBC does that 24 hours a day,” Welker said.
Aronoff added: “As MSNBC attempts to consolidate itself among its base and promote liberal news, it alienates more and more viewers with its partisan non-news brand.”
If MSNBC executives hope to see the channel succeed and capture a decent share of the media market, a “major overhaul” would be required, he continued.
Aronoff suggested giving Tucker Carlson a show again, and giving him free rein, as an example of what could help boost MSNBC’s prospects.
“Or have guests on who strongly disagree with the ideology of Chris Matthews and Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell, and who can destroy their arguments,” he added.
But the channel’s leadership is probably not prepared to do that, Aronoff said.
As such, the future does not look bright for MSNBC.
“This is speculation, but I think they will continue to exist as the media arm of the DNC and the left in general, even at the expense of low ratings and low profits, and of credibility among people who are looking for more balanced news,” Aronoff concluded. “They’re more about the cause.”