The Real Reason for MSNBC’s Decline—and a Roadmap for Revival

by Randy Shaw on June 4, 2013

Recent reports on declining viewership at MSNBC, the only mainstream television network that gives a fair airing to progressive views, have focused on its weak coverage of “breaking news” and declining interest in “political talk.” But I find a different reason for its decline: its overreliance on pundits and failure to become the place to go for activists following major progressive campaigns. During election cycles, viewers turn to MSNBC to get the latest on progressive campaigns like Elizabeth Warren’s Senate race. Today, however, CNN is far ahead of MSNBC in covering the struggle against the Keystone XL Pipeline (thanks to Van Jones), and MSNBC is not the chief voice of a single progressive social justice struggle. There’s a reason millions turned to Headline News (HLN) every night for the Jody Arias trial: they knew that Nancy Grace and her crowd would have the latest news. For MSNBC to succeed in non-election years, it must become the up to the minute news source for activist campaigns and movements.

I was struck by the sharply declining viewership at MSNBC in 2013 because I am among those who regularly watched the station in 2012 and rarely do so now. Why? The shows offer nothing that I have not learned earlier in the day from the Internet. And when hosts pick stories that have not been covered, they are often irrelevant to the issues of most activists’ concern.

Contrast this with 2012 when we turned to MSNBC to see the latest Elizabeth Warren or Barack Obama campaign appearance, or footage of similar campaigns not easily found elsewhere. There was a reason to turn to MSNBC in 2012, but now MSNBC is all about bashing Republicans, a speaking to the choir, politically pointless exercise that gets dull awful fast.

I’ve previously described why I find many of CNN’s “he said, she said” news shows “unwatchable,” but even listening to people you agree with is boring when nothing new is added to the debate.

Cover Movements Like Candidates

What if activists closely following Keystone, immigration reform, the battle against federal budget austerity and other campaigns knew that each night MSNBC would have the latest on developments in all of these campaigns. And that they would not have to watch forty minutes of unrelated stories, but could tune in knowing that these movement stories—like election coverage during campaign season—would be discussed right at the top.

Nancy Grace does not ask her viewers to sit through anything before getting to “breaking news” from the day’s trial. And FOX News puts Benghazi and other red meat scandals right at the top, rather than starting with obscure issues not covered by other media.

But instead of promoting itself as offering the latest on progressive movements, MSNBC President Phil Griffin seems to take pride in announcing his network “is not the place” for breaking news. Griffin confuses CNN’s greater ability to be all over a tornado or bombing with MSNBC’s capacity to being the up to the minute voice of progressive movements.

Of course, if Griffin understood how progressive movements can drive viewership he would not still be banning Markos Moulitsas of DailyKos from MSNBC’s airwaves. The blacklisting of an activist whose site is read daily by millions to curry favor with Joe Scarborough, an ex-Republican Congress member and star of the failing “Morning Joe,” shows Griffin does not understand how to build steady progressive viewership.

It’s great that MSNBC has given shows to Rachel Maddow, Al Sharpton, Chris Hayes and other progressives. But unless activists see these and other shows as the voice of popular movements, they’ll continue to rely on websites, Twitter and other non-television news sources in non-national election years.

Randy Shaw is the author of The Activist’s Handbook and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century

(i.e. based on the 2012 elections those held by the majority of Americans).

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