He’s convinced his support did not go unnoticed. After Obama won, Schultz put his name on the list to attend the first presidential press conference. He arrived at the event and learned that he had been assigned a seat in the front row, right next to Helen Thomas. “That was the Obama people saying thanks,” he says. “I know it was. I know it was.”
Phil Griffin was watching that press conference, and was surprised to see Big Eddie, who had pitched him to get on the network in the past, front and center. Griffin had his assistant set up a meeting in Georgetown, which, as he had with the Senate Democrats, Schultz turned into an audition. “I came out of that conversation pumped up about what Ed was saying and about what he could bring to the network,” Griffin says. “I wanted a voice like that.”
The Ed Show debuted in April 2009. In early meetings about the show, Schultz says he told MSNBC management, “I want to tell a story about what America needs. And what America needs right now is a voice for the middle class.”
Throughout the first year of his show, Schultz brought his fire-breathing style to the debate over healthcare reform, hammering relentlessly for the public option and quickly establishing his progressive bona fides. Years later, his audience still remembers him for it. Every Schultz fan I talk to brings up healthcare—and Schultz’s mother, who died of Alzheimer’s, and his wife, whose battle with cancer Schultz discussed on the air. The personal connection people feel to the man is undeniable. As Schultz put it, in his industry “they’ve gotta like the talent.”
During much of 2011, Schultz shifted his focus to the fight against the anti-collective bargaining legislation proposed by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker as a way to balance the state’s budget. Schultz frequently broadcast live from the protests in Madison. It was a watershed moment for the labor movement, for both political parties, and for Schultz and MSNBC. Sure, the network had Rachel Maddow and a growing backbench from the Ivy League. But here was Ed Schultz doing exactly what Ed Schultz was meant to do, handing his megaphone to the voice of the liberal street, so to speak.
One broadcast stands out. In it, Schultz, bundled against the February Wisconsin cold, struts in front of a crowd of shouting protestors and delivers a rant, not against Scott Walker or the Koch brothers (the conservative billionaires who helped get Walker elected), but against Rush Limbaugh, the man who helped inspire him to abandon sports for politics.
After playing a clip of Limbaugh calling the Wisconsin protesters “freeloaders,” Schultz unloads on the right-wing talkers: “If you want to follow the Limbaughs and the Becks of the world, and you want to turn your back on firefighters, turn your back on police officers, turn your back on nurses, turn your back on brothers and sisters who have stood in solidarity to fight for the middle class in America? Is that wrapping yourself in the flag? Hey Rush, why don’t you wrap your fat ass in the flag on Monday?”
The crowd roared.
Like much of Schultz’s work, this segment was more symbolism than specifics. (The speech was largely about firefighters, who, though outspoken among the protestors, were exempt from Governor Walker’s collective-bargaining proposal.) And in its obsession with Schultz’s media rivals, the rant was at least as much about Schultz as it was about the Wisconsin workers. But Schultz went on to interview a number of protesters, something that consistently separated him from others in the MSNBC primetime lineup during this long-running story. Most of cable-news talk is, of course, a multibillion-dollar vehicle for the personality and opinions of the hosts. Say what you will about Schultz, he is one of the very few hosts who consistently puts a microphone in front of Americans who aren’t currently employed as political operatives, and he is at his best when he does so.
The Times’s Brian Stelter says, “Seeing Ed Schultz on television makes a viewer think, ‘Wow. Where are the other guys like him?’ I personally didn’t recognize the dearth of labor coverage presented from a pro-labor point of view until Ed started doing it on television.”
At the same time, Stelter continues, “When MSNBC talks about its brand, it talks about Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell and Chris Hayes. It doesn’t talk as often about Ed Schultz.”