In essence, MSNBC has no news operation whatsoever. It has about half the total staff that Fox employs, roughly one-sixth that of CNN, but none of these people are reporters. It is almost purely a talk network. It regularly runs even less news content than Fox. In primetime, it runs none at all. At 7 p.m., when Fox and CNN are running hour-long newscasts, MSNBC airs a re-run of Chris Matthews’s interview show, Hardball. Even when it puts news on the air, the content is almost entirely drawn from its corporate big brother, NBC, and NBC’s news operation pales compared to that of CNN. From a business standpoint, MSNBC is useful as a means to amortize the costs of NBC’s newsgathering. This can produce genuinely awkward moments—as it did frequently during the 2008 election campaign, when NBC’s relatively straight news staff joined its more opinionated studio hosts in covering election results.
Ironically, Ailes left NBC because he was piqued that NBC in 1995 had gone into partnership with Microsoft to create MSNBC, infringing on his authority as president of CNBC, he thought. He then went to Murdoch and established Fox News. And now MSNBC, having long since divorced itself from Microsoft, has essentially copied the model Ailes established at Fox—a little news, a lot of opinion, and theatrical presentation of it all. It’s no accident that one of MSNBC’s most outsized personalities—Matthews—was promoted by Ailes when he was at CNBC.
Yet as striking as are the differences among the channels there is one overwhelming similarity: whatever it is that dominates cable news, it is largely not journalism.
There is, as has been remarked upon often, an awful lot going on on-screen all the time. There is the central image that is being broadcast at the time; plus a chyron, or label, identifying the scene and/or the people in it; plus the ever-present scrawl at the bottom of the screen, sometimes commenting on the scene being broadcast, sometimes referring to something utterly different. But for all of this hyperactivity cable news is surprisingly old-fashioned. There is much less use of moving pictures than one would think, and very few actual images of news events.
Mainly, what is going on instead is just talking. Studio hosts talk to reporters and sometimes to themselves. If there are multiple hosts, they talk to one another. The hosts talk to guests, either gathered in the studio or at another studio or occasionally by telephone. The guests are a familiar collection of politicians, political operatives, journalists, some experts, and a group we could call expert commentators. (What, for example, is David Gergen’s expertise beyond commenting?)
Even on news shows like Wolf Blitzer’s The Situation Room on CNN, the ratio of news to everything else is preposterously tilted toward everything else. During high news events, Blitzer will often have not one but two separate panels of analysts/commentators in the studio. The result is that even when there is news to be broadcast, more time is spent assessing it than reporting it.
Over the course of an average day, all this talking on the three channels adds up to more than half a million words spilled on cable-news air. That’s a phenomenal amount of verbiage—by volume, a new War and Peace every single day. It does not, as you might guess, approach anything like the art and coherence of a novel. Rarely does a single sentence rise to that level.
What are they talking about all the time? Usually, they’re talking about what a particular little morsel of news means. What is that bit of news good for? Whom is it good for? Who’s up, who’s sideways, who’s selling the country down the river? There is a very large measure of performance involved in all of this. The studio hosts typically play some amped-up, over-the-top version of themselves. They bring to mind nothing so much as one of the vibrant monologues from the Howard Beale character in the movie Network: “Television is a Goddamned amusement park! Television is a circus, a carnival, a traveling troupe of acrobats, storytellers, dancers, singers, jugglers, sideshow freaks, lion tamers, and football players. We’re in the boredom-killing business!”