Among highly paid primetime cable hosts who commute weekly by private jet between rural Minnesota and Manhattan, Ed Schultz is as close to a perennial underdog as you could find. Schultz, the star of The Ed Show on MSNBC and one of the most popular liberal hosts in talk radio, has a talent for taking embattled positions that, after much sweating and shouting, become ideal vehicles for his carefully cultivated image as the one liberal loud and mean enough to stand up for the working man. He’s both revered and hated as the media’s most outspoken champion of the beaten-down labor movement. And he first came to national prominence in 2004, when he began what is now a nearly decade-long struggle to reverse the fortunes of progressive talk radio, where the most popular liberal hosts air on fewer than 100 affiliates, while Rush Limbaugh, the right’s top talker, is on 600.
One area where even Schultz can’t cast himself as underdog, for the moment at least, is ratings. After briefly moving from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. in the primetime reshuffling that followed Keith Olbermann’s parting ways with MSNBC in 2011, The Ed Show finally settled in at 8 p.m., and went on to have an impressive year in 2012. The “fat, red-headed guy from Fargo,” as Schultz refers to himself, handily beat the more camera-friendly Anderson Cooper in that timeslot. And while it seems no one ever will top Fox’s Bill O’Reilly, Schultz earned MSNBC its best 8 p.m. ratings among the coveted 25-to-54 demographic since 2009.
But even as Schultz’s audience grows, he’s beginning to look out of place in an MSNBC lineup that is increasingly the domain of a wonky, erudite liberalism that is about as far from Schultz’s fired-up everyman persona as 30 Rock is from Fargo. MSNBC President Phil Griffin has been working to make the network’s brand more recognizable and coherent, and Brian Stelter, who covers the television industry for The New York Times, reported in November that anonymous sources within MSNBC had told him Schultz might be kicked out of primetime in favor of the wunderkind Ezra Klein. MSNBC denied it at the time, and when I recently suggested to Griffin that the MSNBC brand seemed to be moving away from Schultz, he disagreed: “I think we’re always tinkering and evolving the brand. But I think Ed fits in there. And I think it’s very important to have that voice talking about the issues the way Ed does.”
Most likely, the contrast Schultz provides will remain popular with management for exactly as long as it remains popular with viewers, but a look at the heart of MSNBC primetime reveals an undeniable trend: At 10 p.m. there is Lawrence O’Donnell, a Harvard grad and former chief of staff of the Senate Finance Committee; Rachel Maddow, a former Rhodes Scholar who writes books with words like “unmooring” in the subtitle, is at 9 p.m.; and leading off is Schultz, a former NCAA Division II passing champion and owner of Big Eddie’s North Country Lodge, which offers fishing vacation packages in northern Manitoba. MSNBC’s weekend lineup, which the network considers a farm team for primetime, includes the decidedly un-Schultzian Chris Hayes and Melissa Harris-Perry, a professor of political science at Tulane.
It’s enough to make you wonder how Schultz ended up here in the first place.
There’s one powerful interest group responsible for ensuring that Schultz has a live mic pointed at his mouth for four hours every weekday, and its name is Ed Schultz. He had help along the way, of course, including from some powerful entities (MSNBC and the Democratic Party chief among them) that felt they had something to gain by harnessing themselves to his ambition. But there certainly were more likely candidates for the job.
This out-of-nowhere quality has been a theme throughout Schultz’s life. When he was a high school quarterback in Norfolk, VA, his singular focus was to become a professional football player—a long shot under the best of circumstances but especially so in Schultz’s case. “He was not a natural athlete,” a high school friend told The Virginian-Pilot in 2004, “but he was a grinder. He was real driven. He always had an idea he was going to be somebody, and he’d work as hard as it took to get there.”