Inside Cable News In Depth: MSNBC’s ‘We’re Insiders’ Problem…


The dust has hardly begun to settle in the wake of Cenk Uygur’s departure from MSNBC but already we can see the two distinct storylines being pushed by the respective parties involved. Uygur says MSNBC wanted him to tone it down and MSNBC says it wanted Uygur to tone it down but where they differ is what exactly needed to be toned down and who was concerned about the tone in the first place. However, ultimately none of that is relevant because it doesn’t matter what the truth is…what matters is what does the audience that Uygur catered to think is the truth. And to begin to answer that question we need to first look at how MSNBC went left in primetime.

MSNBC’s leftward turn may have started out organically thanks to Keith Olbermann but it was a business decision to expand upon that and build out early prime and primetime based on what Olbermann had done. MSNBC didn’t start out at launch looking to address a perceived need as FNC did. No, it spent years fumbling about trying various identities and looking for a winning formula. Consequently, while FNC viewers have never to any great extent seriously doubted that network’s commitment to its mission, MSNBC viewers in general and progressives in particular tend to look at what the network has done going left as a business decision.

Why does this matter? Because by being viewed as a business decision what the network does is viewed more skeptically by the true believer crowd it’s trying to cater to. The thinking would be something along the lines of “Yes, MSNBC is now trying to talk to us but it didn’t used to and it may not do so in the future”. MSNBC isn’t viewed as “one of us” by progressives the way FNC is viewed as “one of us” by conservatives. It’s viewed as “someone who is trying to cater to us”. That’s not an insignificant distinction and it goes a long way to underscore the reaction taking place on the internet to Uygur’s departure. While a few souls have characterized the fall of Uygur as something of his own creation, others have taken a different tack…

Democratic Underground’s message board is very unhappy…

The Huffington Post’s Chez Pazienza

Since making a conscious decision to lean to the left, MSNBC has been precariously walking a fine line between giving its progressive voices the freedom they need to be effective as hosts and understanding that that freedom will often have them saying and doing things that will make the network’s corporate overlords want to drop a hundred-thousand-pound anvil on the whole place. Again, MS is the establishment — which means that while guys like Phil Griffin want their anchors, reporters and contributors to work outside the box, they need to make sure they work inside a slightly larger box.

Firedoglake’s Jane Hamisher

My experiences on MSNBC have always been positive, even when I have disagreed with the host. But there will be an enormous amount of money coming down the political pipeline in the next year and a half, controlled by the DNC. Moreover, they control access to the guests and the scoops that the cable network needs to do business. That puts a lot of pressure on management to cater to their messaging interests, whether they respond to them or not.

Crooks and Liars’ Heather

Personally, I’m sad to see Cenk leave MSNBC because I like him and have actually talked to him a few times when Video Cafe was first being added to the site here at C&L about featuring some of his Young Turks segments. He’s a friend of John’s and a very nice person and I’m sorry he’s going to be losing that spotlight on MSNBC just as I would be about any liberal or progressive voice we’ve got out there in the corporate media whether I agree with everything that they say or not. We don’t have nearly enough of them to counter all of the wingnut b.s. that makes up the majority of our “news” coverage.

Note Heather’s “corporate media” pigeonholing of MSNBC. As I noted earlier, MSNBC isn’t viewed as “one of us” by progressives the way FNC is viewed as “one of us” by conservatives.

And this encapsulates the problem MSNBC has faced this year and will continue to face going forward. Whether Phil Griffin really told Cenk Uygur “We’re insiders” or not is irrelevant. What matters is how the network is viewed by a majority of the audience it’s trying to reach. And as “insiders” the rules are different. You can name only one talent in the near 15 history of FNC that pushed the boundaries of what it was willing to tolerate to the breaking point; Glenn Beck. And even then Beck’s departure from that network never caused conservatives to pause and think, “Is this network no longer my network?”. MSNBC has had two in the past eight months; Keith Olbermann and Cenk Uygur…three in a year if you charitably want to include David Shuster who was dropped for entirely different reasons but was someone who was something of a progressive darling. Certainly in Olbermann’s case there was far more to his departure and MSNBC’s willingness to let him go than just “Keith couldn’t be Keith” as was the case with Cenk…or to be more accurate as Cenk felt was the case. But for progressives, Olbermann’s sharp elbows and penchant for self-destruction came in a very distant second for compared to the fact that “he was one of us” which is also how Uygur was viewed. That, in turn feeds back into MSNBC’s perception problem by progressives that the network’s still trying to straddle the line between being a “progressive voice” and being “a corporate entity”.

You can question’s Olbermann’s spinning of his story – though most progressives won’t because they consider him “one of us” – but his departure does mirror Uygur’s in some ways and I wondered Wednesday night who would be the first person to write about that. Business Insider’s Glynnis MacNicol appears to be the winner

Here is Uygur on last night’s Young Turks show explaining that even though his ratings were reasonably good MSNBC had asked him to “tone it down” saying “people in Washington were concerned about his tone” and then offered him another role for more money. Uygur turned it down saying he didn’t want to work for a network that didn’t “challenge power.”

Sound familiar? Uygur’s complaints skew nicely with Olbermann’s complaints about MSNBC.

What MSNBC has to worry about is progressives drawing the same conclusion. All true believers want “the real deal”. They don’t want to feel played or manipulated. They don’t want to have to think about the motivation behind what they’re getting from their news network. With FNC conservatives don’t worry about whether they get that. With MSNBC progressives may now worry that they don’t.

The point of this entry is not to argue about whether MSNBC is really delivering the goods for progressives or not. I already feel that cable news primetime is too much a partisan wasteland and would prefer to see less ideology, not more. No, the point of this entry is to explain the extremely delicate high wire act MSNBC is undertaking by trying to cater to an audience that wants more than the network, with its various interests, is apparently willing to give and how that could ultimately alienate the very people they are trying to reach.

Note – this post first appeared on Inside Cable News and appears here with consent.

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