Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.
Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed, a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Thank you for joining us everyone this week. Of course you can follow us on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook at Citations Needed and help us out via Patreon, become a supporter, a patron, a member, a joiner of Citations Needed, Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. That would be much appreciated.
Adam: Yes, it would. So, on today’s episode we’re going to talk about a topic that we’ve touched on quite a bit, but never really focused on, which is what the hell is wrong with MSNBC? It’s a question we get a lot on social media, which is like, what’s their deal? Why do they suck so bad?
Nima: Mhmm, yeah. What has happened with them?
Adam: Right. So, MSNBC is by far the most influential media outlet on the American left. People watch cable news. It sets the tone. It sets the parameters of acceptable debate among American liberals.
Nima: Yeah, it sets the agenda of what people are going to be talking about.
Adam: Right. But major issues on the left that are of importance to people on the left are almost never talked about ever. And that includes imperial war, worker strikes, Palestine. These topics are totally non grata at MSNBC.
Nima: Even climate change is barely touched on.
Adam: And climate change as well, and the network as it stands today is a little more than a 24-hour Trump/Russia commercial for better or for worse. And so we asked the question, what’s the point of having a liberal network if they don’t really ever discuss anything of substance on the left other than ‘Trump is the devil’ and ‘Trump is bad’?
Nima: Well, right.
Adam: Which is perfectly fine as far as it goes, but only in so far that he’s been corrupted by this foreign entity, not because of the underlying ideology that he represents and the broader issues within our society.
Nima: Right, and also kind of setting the agenda, setting the tone for the ways to combat that and to actually raise up the voices of the people in the organizations that are leading the charge to combat these really dangerous things in our country. So it winds up being more of a, um, you know, is this network more about partisan politics? I think the answer is clear, um, rather than hewing to a certain ideology or at least a political leaning and what is MSNBC doing or not doing to actually challenge power? And I think it’s pretty clear that any story that really challenges, you know, centers of power, systems of power are going to be third rail.
Adam: Right. So the topic today is how did MSNBC get this way? What are the sort of corporate forces that give it this editorial ethos of limp partisan hackery. And is it possible that we can have an actual corporate media network that isn’t terrible?
Nima: So, later on the show we will be speaking with a former MSNBC employee who is going to join us anonymously to take us behind the curtain.
Former MSNBC Employee: None of these hosts who work on those shows are incredible cynics. You do get some degree of cynicism within the industry but I think that for a lot of them it becomes easy to sort of believe that the stories you’re doing that are performing well are the stories you should be doing because they’re performing well. And so you start thinking to yourself, all right, well, I’m doing good and I’m being rewarded for this so this must be good journalism.
Adam: So, that’s our first, uh, anonymous guest. Got the voice distortion there going. We kind of have to do it. We are not doing it for affectation, I promise. We want to make sure that we don’t reveal the identity because this is someone who wants to work in the industry. But it’s hard to get people because it’s such a tight knit industry and it’s so incestuous and there’s, you know, such a limited circle. It’s hard to get people to talk honestly about those things. So I’m looking forward to that interview as I think you should to.
Nima: Yeah, that’ll be great.
Adam: Before we begin, we should start with some raw numbers to give a little bit of perspective here about why we think it’s important to focus on how bad MSNBC is. So, um, let’s start with some major stories that MSNBC has ignored. They went a full week before, over a week, about eight days in March of 2018, not covering the West Virginia teachers union strike in prime time. They did one, two-minute throwaway segment in the afternoon and eventually once there was a bunch of Internet bullying, Chris Hayes did eventually cover it, but that was a major story on the left that they completely ignored.
Nima: That’s right.
Adam: From December of 2015 to December of 2017 MSNBC aired a total of two segments, or nine minutes, on the issue of Palestine. So, roughly .00005 percent of their time is dedicated to the topic; or, nine out of its 1,051,200 minutes were dedicated to the issue of Israel/Palestine.
Nima: Right. Now we should also point out that earlier this month as Israel has again revealed itself to be a war criminal state and shooting unarmed protesters across a made up border fence in Gaza, that actually, Chris Hayes, again, is the only prime time host to actually do a, uh, albeit short piece on what is actually going on.
Adam: And that was the first time that they had covered Palestine since, uh, the middle of last year.
Adam: So again, it’s a rarity when it does happen.
Nima: Yeah. So, uh, similarly the U.S.-backed war on Yemen backing our, a great Saudi allies-
Adam: Total non-issue.
Nima: Total non-issue. These are major war crimes. This is, you know, crimes against humanity. Major cholera outbreak. Millions displaced, tens of thousands killed. This is basically not touched on at all on the network, hasn’t mentioned it at all this year, 2018, did one three-minute report all of last year.
Adam: Oh yeah.
Nima: The entirety of 2017 there was one three minute report on Yemen that didn’t even really touch on the U.S.’s vital role.
Adam: Now anyone who’s turned on MSNBC at random at any given time of the day knows that the thing they do cover the most is the Trump/Russia story such that it is. Now we want to be clear the Trump/Russia story is, of course, objectively a story. The question is should it be the story that consumes almost half the coverage of MSNBC?
Nima: And that leads nearly every single-
Adam: And that leads nearly every single major cable news segment.
Adam: So Aaron Maté, who works for Real News, wrote a piece for The Intercept last year where he actually sat down and watched the entirety of Rachel Maddow for one six week period between February 28th and March 31st of last year.
Nima: He’s a hero.
Adam: He discovered that 53 percent of the coverage of Rachel Maddow was Russia related. So 640 total minutes were dedicated to Russia related news. By contrast, 18 minutes were dedicated to covering the Supreme Court fight over Neil Gorsuch and 16 minutes were set aside discussing ICE raids and Trump’s crackdown on immigrants.
Nima: So, right when you look at that disparity, I mean there’s, like, who is going to serve a life term on the Supreme Court and can determine so much of what happens legally and constitutionally in this country?
Nima: That is the huge story, let alone-
Adam: It’s the single most consequential political story.
Nima: Exactly. Major, major substantive consequences in the lives of American citizens and also non Americans who are here and also people all over the world because of the reach that this country has. And so to barely touch on that, barely touch on, you know, so much of campaign talk leading up to the 2016 election, obviously there are plenty of issues to discuss, but oftentimes when it comes to presidential elections, a major talking point, a major touchstone of what is discussed is the fate of the Supreme Court. And that certainly happened in 2016 on the, on the left and the right for Democrats and Republicans. And yet once Trump is in office, that story fades away in favor of this more soap opera approach to what is happening within the Trump White House, to how the election may have been lost to the Clinton campaign through no fault of its own. And boosting up this kind of Manchurian Candidate, new Soviet Red Scare story again and again and again that leads nearly every single broadcast. Rachel Maddow opens like with a 20-minute diatribe nearly every night about this or about some tangentially related scandal within the West Wing.
Adam: Yeah. It is the story that consumes everything. And we keep wanting to stress, you know, it is not as if it’s not a story or that it’s not of interest or public interest.
Nima: Yeah, it should definitely be reported on. Without a doubt.
Adam: Its just, the question is, should it be 10 percent or should it be 55 percent?
Adam: Uh, the question is, should it be 15 percent or should it be 60 percent of, you know, people say, oh, well, you know, you want to downplay Russia, whatever. I don’t think anyone on the left really, except for people literally work for Russian television. Um, I don’t think anyone really thinks that it shouldn’t be covered at all. I think the issue is one of proportionality. If I say I think ISIS stories are hyped, which we’ve talked about in the show, doesn’t mean I don’t think ISIS exists.
Nima: Well, right.
Adam: But that there is an underlying substance. Is it something that we need to like sex up and talk about nonstop? And when you talk about MSNBC and we want to be careful because I really don’t want to use critiques of MSNBC as a proxy for a kind of Russian skepticism because some people have a tendency to do that. I want to be clear here, I honestly believe that if the Russia scandal, such that it is, never really happened or that Trump never ran, it’s not as if MSNBC would therefore then be talking about Yemen and Palestine, you know, they would find some other bullshit to talk about. It’s institutional in the organization itself in that the Russia thing is just this sort of permanent conspiratorial scandal that offends basically nobody in power.
Adam: And that’s why it’s popular.
Nima: Well and something also that is important to point out is that the Trump administration is admittedly ridiculous, is admittedly based on a framework that has everything to do with entertainment and nothing of substance that it is all scandalous and salacious and smoke and mirrors, ‘look over here, he said something absurd’ and then there are policies that are pushed through by people he’s never heard of or met that actually are very detrimental to a lot of people. But what is so clear is that when it comes to reporting, when it comes to journalism, when it comes to corporate news of the magnitude of a Fox News, of a CNN, of certainly an MSNBC, is that the editorial ideology that the driving ethos is so often revealed, not through what is aired, not through what is shown constantly, but rather through what is omitted. So what you don’t see, what they do not report on, reveals so much more about what they want people to be thinking about and what is constantly ignored and then masked and obfuscated.
Adam: And it’s not just an issue of foreign policy either. So, FAIR did a survey in December of last year during the Republican tax cuts, which were a massive, massive transfer of wealth that was still a partisan issue, but and so in a survey he found that in the shows that aired from December 1st and December 4th through the 7th, that both Chris Hayes and Rachel Maddow bypassed all these stories and lead totally with Russia investigations. So the major cable names during this week timeframe that the study was conducted completely ignored the run-up to the tax bill, which of course is of tremendous consequence to your average person and talked exclusively about Russia and Trump because there were some other, you know, Mueller farted again or something or some sort of thing that happened that we have to breathlessly report on.
Nima: Meanwhile this is occurring, as there are numerous reports that the country as a whole, the United States as a whole, is moving left in its politics. Um, this is often not represented through elections all the time because of who is disenfranchised, who actually goes out to vote, etcetera, but with the country potentially moving left and certainly younger voters are moving left, you wind up realizing who is the target audience for news networks that are not reporting on issues that are very important to those voters and to those viewers. So that climate change is not really talked about. Again, foreign policy when it reflects poorly on the United States is not talked about.
Adam: Yeah, and yet again anything that makes Russia look bad is reported on.
Nima: Well, right, and so you start to see where the target audiences are and if it’s not skewing younger, that makes a lot of sense, that you can kind of look at the centrism of MSNBC, which again is like the only, you know, leftish cable network, that they are not appealing to a younger demographic and therefore it’s all about Russia. It’s all about the things that are going to make an older audience freak out.
Adam: Because the thing with the Russia, the, the Russia/Trump thing is that its, the whole point is that it’s never suppose to end. Like it’s just supposed to be on. People generally like conspiracy theories, you know, the substance of which we can debate later. But I mean, it is definitionally a conspiracy theory, right? You have meetings in Prague, you have like illegal payments, you have all sorts of inferences.
Nima: That’s right.
Adam: Tea leaf reading. It’s sexy. People like that shit. And then compound that with the fact that it’s a scandal that again, gets all the centers of traditional power off the hook from the CIA, to the NSA, FBI, uh, the Democratic Party establishment, the corporate wing of the Democratic Party, which of course didn’t do anything wrong. The Russians stole the election. Um, it gets corporate media off the hook.
Adam: There’s this corollary issue of fake news, which of course reinforces the corporate media’s place as arbiters of truth. You have this idea of Russian bots stoking, you know, discord and panic. They exploit things like Black Lives Matter and anti-fracking. So that sort of sullies those movements as being kind of Russian side ops.
Nima: Exactly. Those have now been infiltrated. Exactly.
Adam: Yeah. It’s the story that gets everybody off the hook, which is why it’s so popular, you know, and you have Adam Schiff come on and talk about how much you know, how we need to combat Russia and confront Russia. Meanwhile, he’s doing fundraisers with, you know, with Raytheon, one of the largest weapons contractors in the country. And this is, of course, this sort of one of the reasons you know, a, it’s, it is sexy objectively, and I’m sure it gets ratings objectively. People love grand conspiratorial narratives. The whole thing reads like a, like a Robert Ludlum novel. And then the second is that it doesn’t really offend or kind of touch a raw nerve on centers of power, which is why it’s funny when you know, for example, the story about Jared Kushner pressuring Michael Flynn to talk to the quote unquote ‘Russians’ what was the main lead, but of course he was lobbying the Russians on behalf of Israel, but the inciting incident was to lobby for Israel.
Nima: Right, which is then buried. Right.
Adam: That’s buried and we get the whole, like illegally talking to Russia thing.
Nima: Right. (Whispers) About what?
Adam: But they were trying to convince Russia to do something, which they ended up not doing, which is veto the UN resolution condemning Israel’s illegal settlements in the West Bank.
Adam: So, um, you know, this is the kind of-
Nima: But that part of the story is obviously not going to be the sexy part.
Adam: Because it offends the centers of power in the orthodoxy within the Democratic Party as well as big donors. And that’s not something you’re really allowed to do because there is no pro-Russian donor base.
Nima: Right. So. So let’s backtrack just a little bit Adam. MSNBC launched its network on July 15th, 1996. It is the result of a merger between two massive corporations, NBC and Microsoft. The reason MSNBC is called MSNBC is because it’s a portmanteau of MSN, which was Microsoft’s online platform, and NBC. And so, you know, in, in the, in the mid-nineties, I remember this, it was the technological revolution of we’re bringing TV and this and the newfangled Internets together. Um, and this is going to revolutionize everything. And actually revolution is the way that MSNBC was pitching itself. That was their, that was their brand. And so here is one of the advertisements that was being run on TV in the lead up to the launch in mid July 1996.
Woman: The revolution begins here.
Man: From now on the promise of the Internet and the power of television become one. Because from now on, NBC News and Microsoft will revolutionize the way you get news.
Man: A 24-hour cable and Internet news service. The future of news from the people you know. MSNBC.
Nima: So that was one of the many ads leading up. It showed, you know, Brian Williams and Katie Couric. Matt Lauer was on the network early on. Soledad O’Brien had a prime time show all about the Internet. Right? It was called The Site.
Adam: Yeah. They were very excited about the web.
Nima: Yeah, the World Wide Web.
Adam: But I think there was, yeah, it was supposed to be sort of like a technology, maybe, you know, younger demographic focused site.
Nima: And so when the merger between Microsoft and MSNBC was actually announced, um, at the end of 1995, um, The Baltimore Sun actually said that it was going to represent, quote, “The blurring of lines between the computer industry and the media.” End quote. And so you can kind of see where that’s gone. I mean, obviously now there is no line that’s been completely blurred or destroyed. Um, the Internet and TV media it is all one, it is packaged together. MSNBC was really pushing itself as the vanguard of the future. Um, it’s very first broadcast it opened with Jodi Applegate and it’s very first broadcast, touched on an issue with a slightly different frame, but an issue that is familiar to MSNBC viewers now. Here it is.
Man: You’re connected to MSNBC.
Jodi Applegate: Good morning and welcome to MSNBC. I’m Jodi Applegate, and here are some of the top stories were covering for you today. Boris Yeltsin is a no show for a meeting with Vice President Al Gore and now questions are once again swirling about the Russian leaders health. Bob Dole is fading fast a new MSNBC poll has a bleak forecast for the Republican candidate.
Adam: (Overlapping clip) Russia!
Nima: (Overlapping clip) Russia, Russia, Russia.
Adam: (Overlapping clip) It’s in their blood.
Nima: Anyway. So they led with Yeltsin and now they lead every night with Putin.
Adam: Russia from the beginning.
Nima: Russia from the very very start.
Adam: They’re just keepin’ it real, man.
Adam: I think that’s a great way to segue into our guest who, um, is anonymous. It’s an anonymous former MSNBC employee who we have to talk about the sort of, a little bit more of an insider’s perspective of what goes on there. We’re super excited to have them on, so stick around. We’ll talk to him in a second.
Nima: We are joined now by an anonymous former MSNBC employee. Thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Former MSNBC Employee: Thanks for having me.
Adam: We are doing an episode on MSNBC in general and what they’re kind of editorial priorities are. It’s a, it’s a very, I would say, one of our top three most requested shows people are, they sort of generally know that MSNBC has very warped priorities, is very anti left, very sort of down the middle Democratic Party. And one of the things that people don’t understand is sort of why? And there’s kind of the easy answers about, well, they’re corporate media, they’re effectively just a mouthpiece for the party itself, which of course is captured by corporate interests. Uh, this seems a bit inadequate. So we thought we would turn to someone who actually worked there and ask, are we being unfair? Are we being ungenerous in your opinion, what are the broad editorial forces or ethos within MSNBC that make it so we get to a place where they just don’t really ever cover, um, things like Yemen or Palestine or even really frankly climate change or anything that is not an immediate kind of myopic partisan story?
Former MSNBC Employee: Right. That’s a great question and I think sort of to understand that you sort of have to understand the history of MSNBC a lot of people think of it as the liberal of the three cable networks, which isn’t saying much. The left of the three cable networks, but when it was actually started during the 1990s it was meant to be like cable news was having its early early days it was mean to just be a partnership between NBC News and MSN. Um, Microsoft. Back then they just did straight news. They tried this early digital integration that didn’t work well. They hired reporters like Soledad O’Brien, Dan Abrams your basic down the middle reporters and for a while they mostly had their lunch eaten by Fox News and by CNN who were the two major networks at the time. Then during the Bush era, they gave Keith Olbermann a show, which was originally intended to be sort of a fake news TV show where he eventually started criticizing the Iraq war, the Bush administration and they discovered that there was a sort of appetite for a central left to left audience out there in the cable news sphere. And so it would, I think important to take away from that unlike fringe left publications like The Nation or other places that were started with the ideological intent of giving a voice to the left. MSNBC’s leftward turn and I think more recent turn away from that have always been primarily driven by a desire to perform, to make money, right? To commercialize that ideology and when as long as it’s profitable. And as soon as its not, as you’ve seen they’ll turn towards something else.
Adam: I feel like profitability in my mind can’t really be the only explanation that always strikes me as kind of a little bit inadequate. And what I mean by that is if they are reliably partisan network, I think that even if they effectively hire and fire based on partisan loyalty, especially someone like Joy-Ann Reid or Rachel Maddow who are just sort of, they basically just run down the list of partisan talking points that day. Um, you know, someone like maybe Chris Hayes is not quite as partisan, but he definitely checks the box, that it seems like they have a, an institutional interest in advancing the democratic agenda. And I think largely because, and this is, this is me editorializing a bit here, but I’m curious what you think, largely because I feel like the corporate wing of the Democratic Party aligns sort of neatly with Comcast’s interests. That it kind of, especially when it came to the ACA, which they were huge pusher of, and Obama sort of general corporate brand of corporate liberalism of which Comcast’s, and um, a lot of the related companies profited greatly, so I think it’s kind of a synergistic relationship between the ideology or the kind of partisanship and this profit motive.
Former MSNBC Employee: I think that’s an interesting way to think about it. And I would say, from my experience, from the inside, that that might be an interesting reason why the way that the network has gone hasn’t been resisted but I was there when the majority stakeholder was still GE.
Former MSNBC Employee: And it was largely the same. And I have to say I think the reason I would give is more of a sort of simple fundamental human one, which is that when you’re in cable news they send you this email where you get this sort of report everyday. It tells you what the ratings were for the program the day before or the night before if you’re evening news. And it tells you basically it gives you the sort of context data bite that you probably can’t make that much out of in general, but does sort of tell you what your viewers wanted to see. And I think that a lot of the decisions get made based on like what performed well the night before.
Former MSNBC Employee: And so for something like the Russia story, which I think MSNBC has got a lot more into than the other two networks. It’s because they have an audience that skews older. It skews sort of center left.
Adam: I think it’s probably more partisan too like it’s the kind of drooling partisan crowd who really just wants that red meat.
Former MSNBC Employee: Yes.
Adam: And doesn’t really want to challenge their worldview in any meaningful way.
Former MSNBC Employee: And in fact, when you look at um something like the 2012 election and you see the kind of partisan coverage of Mitt Romney’s campaign for instance performed really well among the audience.
Former MSNBC Employee: Also. In 2010 you know we’re coming up on a midterm right now and it’s interesting to me that back in 2010 the coverage was heavily heavily, especially in the prime time shows but the daytime shows as well focused on these races around the country, the Tea Party, making the Tea Party look like these nut jobs, and the democratic candidates running against them were in this sort of space now in terms of the election cycle but they’re not doing that. They’re squarely focused on I think the Russia story and the reason for that is that it plays better. Right? Its the audience, that they are catering to would rather hear about what’s going on with Robert Mueller’s investigation, then even the kind of partisan I won’t call it click bait but channel bait that motivated them back in 2010.
Nima: Actually, getting a little more into your own experience at MSNBC. Were there episodes that you can kind of talk about where the editorial line was really kind of either mandated or was there more of a culture of self censorship because of the kind of daily line of this story played well, this lost viewership, how did that really work in the editorial room and which stories were deemed worthy and do you have any experience of anything being actually killed?
Former MSNBC Employee: So I don’t want to get into too many specifics about stories. I don’t want to give away which shows or what stories I may have worked on.
Nima: Of course.
Former MSNBC Employee: But I will say that at the time that net neutrality really came in vogue in I want to say it was like 2014 in the Obama era 2015 around the time that the FCC was restrained with a Title II designation. There was never overt censorship like, ‘Comcast doesn’t want us to do these stories and thus we shouldn’t do them.’ But there was a sense among the leadership that would say, ‘Oh these stories don’t do well, they don’t perform as well, our audience doesn’t care about them’ and you know you were left to wonder. I truly don’t think that ever there was a mandate from the top saying don’t do these stories, but there could’ve been a sort of like soft culture of, ‘Well, my boss’ boss doesn’t like when we do these stories. I don’t want to piss off my boss or I don’t want to piss off, you know, this person’s boss, this person’s boss’ and so it just sort of a sort of soft culture of compliance in that way. And I, I will say though that some of the prime time hosts would sometimes do a bit of a wink and a nudge when they had more latitude than the ‘dayside’ hosts usually, and they might choose to do a net neutrality story and nudge and say like ‘Our parent company Comcast claims they support net neutrality but opposes this specific measure,’ blah, blah, blah.
Nima: Right. So would you say that in general the daytime shows have less leverage? Uh, less ability to determine what they’re doing, what they’re showing?
Former MSNBC Employee: I think that’s right. I think that the prime time and the weekend shows then the daytime shows were given a little but more leeway then what they call ‘dayside’ in the building.
Nima: I remember when Up With Chris started, that show wound up, I think addressing a lot of topics that were not generally covered and I actually found that refreshing — albeit, um, it was, it was a limited refreshment.
Adam: Right. And then he went to prime time and then it all went to shit.
Nima: Yeah, there were some, you know, amazing guests that were on the weekend shows that, that were never going to show up on prime time. But then again, you know, you also had like Eli Lake showing up all the time, so that was a mess. But um, what I’d love to actually hear about, if you have any insight into it is the Cenk Uygur episode at MSNBC and kind of the hiring on of the host of The Young Turks show, which, you know, he was more progressive than I think MSNBC in general and how that played out?
Adam: Yeah. How much of that was grand standing and how much of it was an actual force of censorship?
Former MSNBC Employee: I have to qualify this by saying I wasn’t close to that part of MSNBC’s operation at the time. It’s very silo-ed there, a different part of the network but there is gossip as you can imagine.
Former MSNBC Employee: When something like that happens and Cenk Uygur was during the sort of ascendant era of liberal hosts as they were, um, MSNBC was, was looking for more and more liberal hosts to fill its new mandate of trying to be a voice for progressives. They hired, briefly hired Cenk Uygur. Uygur’s coverage tended to be more critical of then President Barack Obama, the other hosts and he was rather quickly dismissed and they replaced him with the Reverend Al Sharpton who I believe was famously quoted once saying in his role as a host he wouldn’t criticize the first black president of the United States. And as an activist I can, you know, you can understand that. As a person who’s supposed to be delivering the news to people that might not be as understandable.
Nima: (Laughs) Right.
Former MSNBC Employee: (Laughs) But as I understand it there was some interpersonal discord there. There was a executive producer who was sort of notoriously difficult to get along with and Cenk Uygur was a big personality. There was um, the relationship I guess didn’t work out on a personal level. Now that said it’s possible that the relationship, those interpersonal drama, was the product of Uygur’s lack of willingness to conform to the network’s largely celebratory coverage of Barack Obama.
Adam: Yeah. This goes into the, the classic back and forth between is it, is it just, you know, ratings driven or is it more ideological and more partisan? The ratings driven argument is, which again, I find sort of deeply and satisfactory and kind of reductionist, is always saying, ‘Oh, well the reason why we publish shit or we produce shit that is facile and not morally interesting is actually because that’s just what the masses is one and it’s not our fault.’ Right? This is kind of an argument that that just ends the conversation. But to me personally, the, the ideology does not come into play when people decide what to produce, it comes into play and what they decide what not to produce. So we have a list of things at the top of the show where we discuss how they don’t. They’ve covered Palestine I think twice in almost two years. They’ve covered Yemen once in the last two years, you know, when they sit down and say this is something we ought to cover, um, you know, they went a week without covering the West Virginia union strikes until they were basically, Chris Hayes was basically shamed on social media and doing so, and why these things that are of interest to actual left activists and progressives who are actually doing things is that it doesn’t really fit a very neat partisan narrative. And it’s also not, doesn’t really satisfy the kind of drooling Daily Kos crowd who wants the sort of non-stop Robert Mueller red meat and of course the, the group, the Russia conspiracy is just also inherently sexy, right? I mean, it’s it, it is definitionally a conspiracy theory and people love conspiracy theories, especially when they’re socially acceptable.
Former MSNBC Employee: So I think you’re hitting on something right there which is that its well the ratings justification might be insufficient on its own. It’s sort of a combination of both in so far as you know news audiences are, cable news audiences I should say, are sort of incredibly loyal creatures.
Former MSNBC Employee: And so when you begin from a certain culture fit that is attempting to determine what your audience wants, which is largely a reflection of what, I wouldn’t even say senior leadership, but mid level leadership who are the executive and senior producers many of whom come from broadcasting backgrounds, not necessarily political or news backgrounds.
Former MSNBC Employee: They might have come from sports radio or something like that. What they see as interesting, sexy stories become the stories that are aired that then determine who your audience is, right? It determines what your brand is. And then you’re just sort of measuring performance within that group from then on out and getting feedback of what does and doesn’t play with them instead of considering what kind of audience could have for your Trump coverage to change.
Adam: Yeah, and I think that, just to circle back to my point, I think the issue, like for example, the Russia story, one of the reasons why it is so popular aside from the fact that it is ratings driven and it’s sexy and obviously MSNBC’s ratings have increased proportionate to their nonstop breathless Russia coverage, is that it truly is a story that offends basically no one in power except Trump. It flatters the CIA, the FBI, it flatters the Bush administration.
Nima: It flatters the Clinton campaign.
Adam: Yeah, neo-conservatives, Clinton campaign. It’s sort of the story that really doesn’t offend anyone. Um, and I think that goes back to my point about how censorship is sort of like you’re like a rat in a maze and you can quickly learn what walls not to touch that will electric you.
Former MSNBC Employee: Exactly right.
Adam: And Russia doesn’t have any of those walls. It’s not criticizing Israel, it’s not criticizing the US military, it’s not criticizing the, you know, the CIA. It’s not criticizing really any institution of sort of historical institution of power. And it’s really, it’s the perfect thriller.
Former MSNBC Employee: Right. There was an article published in which Rachel Maddow I believe devoted much of her broadcasts as I understand solely to the Russia investigation has just become, has outranked Fox as the number one cable news show on television. And part of that was probably a function of the fact that Bill O’Reilly, who was a powerhouse of cable news, has been finally driven out of the industry for good. But I think that’s because of the idea that they, the rat learning what not to touch I think is a good metaphor. And I should say I also saw Chris Hayes was a person I don’t know that well working in the building, but there was this reputation when he got that prime time show, especially among producers, that he wasn’t long for this world. His show was too heavy. He was touching that wall too much and it surprised a lot of people I know who still work there that he has lasted this long. And I think that might be because he’s possibly made some compromises though I noticed on Twitter that he was being dragged by that same center constituency you were mentioning before, for covering Palestine in his broadcast and doing so in a way that was not de facto charitable to the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] spokesperson.
Adam: When there was the Jerusalem move, they did some kind of token stuff, but nothing really substantial. I think this is probably the first substantive prime time piece on Palestine that MSNBC has done in I think about four years since the 2014 bombing of Gaza. So to put that in some context that is exceedingly unusual, so, so, but you know, credit where it’s due.
Nima: Yeah, no, I think that Chris winds up being one of the few, uh, hosts with that kind of platform to sometimes actually be responsive to his interlocutors on social media and to people that do either regularly watch his show or wished that he were covering other things and not just doing like a lock step Putin episode every single night. And so I actually found that fascinating that he, that he did cover it, and especially in those terms, as you said, not the de facto hand-wringing about Israel, but actually talking about criminal acts and about shooting unarmed protesters.
Former MSNBC Employee: I should point out too here that when we talk about the sort of moves, learning what walls not to touch, none of these hosts who work on those shows are incredible cynics. They do get some degree of cynicism within the industry but I think that for a lot of them it becomes easy to sort of believe that the stories you’re doing that are performing well are the stories you should be doing because they’re performing well. And so you start thinking to yourself, all right, well, I’m doing good and I’m being rewarded for this so this must be good journalism.
Nima: Right. So how much of the kind of editorial line winds up being the product of which guests wind up being booked? I mean so, you know, there’s a lot of focus on hosts of course, but a lot of people work on these shows, right?
Former MSNBC Employee: Right.
Nima: A lot of producers work on these shows. A lot of bookers work on these shows. Can you kind of tell us a little bit about how that works out and that it’s not just the editorial line of what the anchor is saying or the host is saying, whether it’s daytime, weekend or prime time, but like who else is on air? Who is being shown as an expert?
Adam: Yeah, ‘cause Jeff Cohen at FAIR noted that there’s a, that MSNBC is back to having an over-reliance on ex-CIA military.
Former MSNBC Employee: Your Malcolm Nances.
Adam: Yeah. People who work for think tanks funded by arms industry who always pushed for war and that’s MSNBC’s almost as bad as CNN or Fox. I mean they’re just as bad frankly.
Former MSNBC Employee: Right, well this is a really interesting thing I think you’ve tapped on something that I hadn’t thought about, but it’s true that these shows are not simply the products of their hosts, but they have an executive producer, several senior producers usually, um, segment producers who write them, bookers, and a whole host of other staff that are, that help make these editorial decisions. And it varies from show to show, but I will say that the general understanding in that building was that the shows on the weekends, oddly enough, usually had more, they would do these two hour shows where they’re filling air in panel format and that gave them a lot more leeway to book a broader spectrum of guests and more, I don’t want to use the word diversity because I think that seems wrong, but less of the same old talking heads who come on to say the same five things over and over again.
Adam: We need more William Kristol. We don’t have enough of him.
Former MSNBC Employee: (Laughs) The daytime shows usually, depending on, it really comes down to who your executive producer is, who your host is, how much they’re invested in the show, how much they’re invested in, what the guests have to say. Some of them I would say lazy or people who have gotten into a rut will get into the habit of booking the same five people, who are, cause more part of it is that booking is hard and you have this, you know, you have this designation called an MSNBC Contributor or a CNN Contributor-
Former MSNBC Employee: And that means they get a small supplemental paycheck to do a certain number of hits a month for a year and those people, you know, when you book a guest on the cable news show, they have to show up at a designated place or a designated time they can’t be omitted because it’s a live broadcast and so there’s a whole circus that goes into wrangling them.
Nima: And thank god Josh Barro is always free.
Former MSNBC Employee: (Laughs)
Adam: I was pretty convinced for awhile there that Adam Schiff was living at MSNBC, like, like on the couch in the green room because he was on air like every five seconds and I want to know at CNN like who are these people that wake up in the morning and want to know what Paul Begala thinks? Like, who are these people are like, man, I really need to know what Paul Begala thinks about the news today?
Former MSNBC Employee: It is amazing that Paul Begala has maintained his employment at CNN for so long given that he was sort of the other face alongside Tucker Carlson in their great Crossfire debate.
Nima: Oh yeah. Crossfire, of course.
Adam: They got shamed off air by Jon Stewart.
Former MSNBC Employee: Its actually interesting that CNN like they for a long time they would be they tried to be the sort of breaking news hub that would cover whatever wildfire or, you know, Carnival cruise ship that everyone shat on um breaking news banners and flashing and now they, it seems like they’ve returned to this mode of two pundits of partisan stripes essentially saying nothing but yelling at each other very loudly and hoping that a clip gets written up in a RawStory article somewhere.
Nima: Hopefully Mediaite will really repost it.
Adam: Yeah, they do the like, ‘Rob Reiner Destroys the GOP.’ And I’m like, okay-
Former MSNBC Employee: It’s the RawStory industrial complex.
Adam: Yeah, it’s the RawStory industrial complex, everything’s always being ‘destroyed’ or ‘eviscerated.’ So obviously part of the filtering systems are who gets hired, um producer-wise. Right?
Former MSNBC Employee: Yes.
Adam: So, like, in my general experience that people who are overtly ideological and I want to differentiate ideological from partisanship because I think partisanship is rewarded mostly and people don’t really care and if you’ve ever worked at like liberal publications as I have who have extremely partisan kind of what I call the kind of drooling, Daily Kos types, they, they usually kind of rise to the top but they’re usually not very good writers and they’re not very interesting because they don’t have a lot of original thought. They just kind of repeat what comes out of the conveyor belt. But ideology in terms of like believing in actual things and having actual convictions seems to be very dissuaded in an environment like MSNBC, and I assume this is true across all kinds of large corporate media or TV media, just to be clear. That like people who are overtly ideological get kind of filtered out. You really want someone who’s kind of just reads the script. Is that something that you think is generally true or do you think that there are people who are kind of closet ideologues who make their way to the top?
Former MSNBC Employee: That depends are you talking about hosts or are you talking about producers?
Former MSNBC Employee: Producers, so I think you are, that is definitely true, that those people slowly get weeded out and there are a number of reasons for that. For one thing cable news has been around since the early nineties, delivering love broadcasts and back in the day before the Internet that was an incredible feat. So they developed all this broadcast technology that can beam high res satellite signals across the country and then that technology because it was not needed for anything else after the advent of the Internet really sort of never changed. And the most important thing when people are applying for jobs inside cable news is do you understand how to use this incredibly anachronistic tech that no one will ever have to use again in their life? So you get a lot of people who come from broadcast backgrounds and not necessarily say political journalism backgrounds on these shows. I think it might be different on the prime time shows to some extent, but largely they look for people with broadcast backgrounds when they are hiring. And those people tend to be less ideological, they tend to be more focused on the production, what kind of visuals they can show, sound quality, video quality more than the content of what they’re actually producing. I think another thing is that smart writers in the world don’t really want to go write words that someone else says for two minutes on television.
Former MSNBC Employee: I think they sort of self-select out that way at times.
Nima: I think that’s a key component actually.
Former MSNBC Employee: Right.
Adam: Yeah because so much of it is just sort of what the partisan talking point of the day is. Like there was an interesting interview once that somebody was giving about, um, it was someone who made a video game and like the bad guy was this like left-wing dictatorship in Venezuela or you know, sort of anti-Chavez kind of propaganda. And then someone like asked the makers of the game why they chose that country. And they’re like, ‘Oh, I just kind of saw it on the news.’ Like it wasn’t really a thought. It’s sort of like just the thing that is. Like there’s this, and you really saw this a lot in the Al Franken episode because I think you had to really be a soulless partisan hack to take the line that it was all one big conspiracy and this whole thing was like drummed up and I don’t know, I think you kind of saw some of that, you know, there are certain instances where partisan hackery gets, it’s just super depressing and I think that was one of those episodes.
Former MSNBC Employee: And I should point out that, to the point I was making earlier, Al Franken, his background was in broadcast. A lot of the people who came to MSNBC that had this nexus of left politics in broadcast came from the old Air American radio station where Al Franken was a host.
Adam: Right. As was Rachel Maddow right?
Nima: Yeah, exactly. To the point you made earlier, Keith Olbermann is really the one who turned the tide for MSNBC and, I mean, if you even look at a number of the hosts that are still on air, I mean including two or three of the prime time hosts, maybe all three. They were all initially guest hosts for Keith. You know Chris [Hayes], Rachel [Maddow] and Lawrence O’Donnell.
Former MSNBC Employee: That’s right.
Nima: And Lawrence comes from broadcast as a writer.
Adam: “Mr. Bush will you apologize sir?” That’s my-
Nima: Right, and he worked on The West Wing. Which he always talks about.
Adam: Yeah. Um, and was mysteriously on Big Love.
Former MSNBC Employee: Yeah that’s right he was the lawyer on Big Love wasn’t he.
Adam: He was, yeah.
Former MSNBC Employee: I forgot about that. Um, I will say if you’ve ever watched the television show 30 Rock there are a lot of hidden gems about the eccentricities within that building from the page program to the mice that occasionally run around on certain floors that are gems for anyone who has worked there and felt the grind.
Adam: That about wraps it up. Thank you so much for joining us.
Nima: Yeah, thank you for joining us today on Citations Needed, anonymous former MSNBC employee.
Former MSNBC Employee: Thanks for doing what you do.
Adam: That was interesting. I, I, you know, it’s, this is our first and probably, well, not our last, but having anonymous-
Nima: Depending on how it goes we’ll see if we get any others.
Adam: Yeah, I think that he, when he, when he made a point of saying that he didn’t think that a lot of the hosts were cynical, that they like sort of basically have reinforced self-delusion-
Nima: Yeah, people are far more boring than sinister.
Adam: Well, I mean I think some people are cynical. I think some people are venal. I think people begin to rationalize, you know, when you’re making three and a half million dollars a year, you know, if someone handed me that, I would start to rationalize pretty quickly.
Nima: And you’d be all about Putin.
Adam: I’d be all about Russia/Trump. So I think it’s not, it’s not really the right question to ask like is Chris Hayes a good person or not? I, I frankly don’t really care. The reality is that based on the very institution of corporate media, you’re really by definition not going to have a meaningful left wing media. We come up against this a lot. People always ask, you know, can we reform The New York Times? It’s like the very nature of these institutions are to be regressive and to be, to sort of sort of protect the left-wing flank of acceptable corporate discourse.
Adam: Um, and I really think that like trying to reform these networks is kind of a useless task. I do think scolding them for being blatant hypocrites is useful. We do it a lot.
Nima: Sometimes it actually reaps rewards.
Adam: I mean, yeah.
Nima: If you could can get a segment covering a worker strike or covering Gaza, then that’s great. What that does in the long-term? Nothing. It’s not changing the editorial standards of the entire system as it, as it stands.
Adam: Because one of the things people come away with from the show is unfortunately I think has a sense of defeatism or cynicism and I really think the way to look at it as not just try to think, oh, it’s futile to reform corporate media but rather to build alternative media. And it’s one of those things that we kind of tried to stress in that episode where we talked about alternative media where really it’s about building alternate systems and trying to support alternate systems and support one another as opposed to thinking that you’re going to somehow have, you know, some meaningful left political discourse on a corporate network just isn’t going to happen in corporate media by definition.
Nima: Right. So the question is not if MSNBC started airing really perfectly produced well-written segments with the perfect guests, would that change the narrative wholesale or at least would that go a long way to improving news in this country? The answer is undoubtedly yes, that would be better, but it’s because that’s not going to happen working toward that is going to be a very difficult, difficult task. Which is why finding those alternate outlets, boosting up voices elsewhere, making sure that Fox, CNN, MSNBC are not the only sources that people are able to access.
Adam: Yeah, the reality is that Comcast is not going to give a few hundred million dollars to a far left, you know, personality. This is not going to happen. General Electric or Universal are not going to give money to people that are meaningfully subversive of corporate interest or of American imperialism.
Nima: But if they wanted to try, like, we, you know, I’ll talk to them.
Adam: Don’t, don’t, don’t debase yourself, Nima!
Adam: Anyway. Um, so, but I, you know, we didn’t, we didn’t even talk about the Iraq war, which of course I, MSNBC famously fired one of its major television personalities because of his opposition to the war. Um, if you watched MSNBC’s coverage around that time, it’s pretty uniformly pro-Bush, which is consistent with its, with its broader ethos, even though at that time it was kind of liberal, but sort of not, it tried to have a balance.
Adam: But, um, that’s pretty consistent with I think they’re very, I mean again, they’ve had one segment on Yemen in two years, that to me is a scandal.
Nima: Meanwhile, uh, for the entirety of this current year, they’ve already run well over 225 segments about Stormy Daniels.
Adam: And zero about Yemen.
Nima: So, that gives you some indication. I remember back in early 2014 as Israel was bombarding Gaza, killing hundreds of civilians as they tend to do, Rula Jebreal, a MSNBC contributor and journalist went on the Ronan Farrow show, Ronan Farrow Daily, at the time, to talk about not only what was happening in Palestine but to call out her own network for their biased coverage.
Rula Jebreal: We are ridiculous. We are disgustingly bias when it comes to this issue. Look at how many airtime Netanyahu and his folks all have on air on a daily basis. Andrea Mitchell and others. I’ve never seen one Palestinian being interviewed on these same issues.
Ronan Farrow: Well I’ll push back on that a little. We’ve had Palestinian voices on our air.
Rula Jebreal: Maybe for 30 seconds and then you have 25 minutes for Bibi Netanyahu and a half an hour for Naftali Bennett and many others.
Nima: So, she called out MSNBC, basically her other upcoming appearances were then canceled. There was a little bit of online outcry, so the following night, this is back in July 2014, Chris Hayes actually had Rula come onto his show to discuss this a bit, but leading up to her appearance, he talks about how cable news works and this is what he says.
Chris Hayes: All right. That happened. That exchange played yesterday on our air, in this building, Rula Jebreal who had that criticism of this network’s coverage of the conflict in Gaza later tweeted this quote, “My forthcoming TV appearances have been cancelled! Is there a link between my expose and the cancellation?” Let me take you behind the curtain of cable news business for a moment. If you appear in a cable news network, you trash that network and one of its host by name on any issue, Gaza, infrastructure, spending, sports coverage or funny Internet cat videos, the folks at the network will not take kindly to it. Not some grand conspiracy at work. Fairly predictable case of cause and effect, but I know Rula Jebreal, I like Rula Jebreal. We’ve had a lot of conversations on this topic and others. I know the issue of how the fight in Gaza covered in the media is an important one and I actually think we’re doing a pretty good job. I wanted to invite Rula Jebreal to join me here tonight to hash it out. Rula. I’m glad you’re here.
Rula Jebreal: Thank you Chris for having me.
Nima: So, Rula goes on the show and I’m not going to go through what they actually talk about, you can find the clip. But when she appears, no longer is she referred to, this is the following night, no longer is she referred to as ‘MSNBC contributor.’ She is now listed as ‘Palestinian journalist.’ So went from one day ‘MSNBC Contributor’-
Nima: -calls out MSNBC for their shitty coverage of Gaza-
Adam: To obviously biased Palestinian.
Nima: -and this is on the show where she’s going to like actually hash this out with what seems like a sympathetic host or at least who wants to talk about this. And so you can see, again it goes back to it’s not just the hosts, right? It’s, there’s this entire system in play, there’s this infrastructure of the producers, of the bookers, of the line and segment producers, of the graphics people. It all creates a culture whereby power will not be challenged. Whereby the narrative will stay.
Adam: Yeah. It’s the path of least resistance.
Adam: Like, you’re just and people who, again, who are, who are hired in those capacities are usually, yeah again they’re not very ideological, they’re kind of just reading off the partisan script. They’re fairly venal. Um, and so that’s what gets weeded out for. And so invariably you’re going to have people who don’t want to really ruffle feathers. And then I think, you know, occasionally we’ll have someone who’s maybe high status enough to where they can kind of push the needle and that’s always the sort of goal, right? You’re going to change the system from within or whatever.
Nima: As we saw with Cenk, that they don’t last long.
Adam: Yeah, I think that’s right. And uh, so this has been our recap of what the hell is wrong with MSNBC.
Nima: (Laughs) Yes. Indeed.
Adam: I think we got the general outline there.
Nima: The gist?
Adam: Thanks to our anonymous guest. You know who you are.
Nima: And yes, of course, thank you also to all of our listeners and our supporters through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast, especially namely our critic-level supporters. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Our production consultant is Josh Kross. Our research assistant is Sophia Steinert-Evoy. The music is by Granddaddy. Thank you for listening everyone. Have a good week.
This episode of Citations Needed was released on Wednesday, April 18, 2018.
Transcription by Morgan McAslan.