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.”
It’s arguable that, just as the Democrats viewed Schultz as the right man for the job during the heart of the Bush years, MSNBC is beginning to view others as a better fit in the age of Obama. Schultz’s bombast, which resembles the Fox News style of the 2000s, was once the hallmark of opinionated cable news. But now, perhaps, MSNBC sees a different way forward, and is building a lineup in the sober, technocrat image of the current administration.
If the prospect of this troubles Schultz, he isn’t saying. For the first time in his life, Ed Schultz feels he has no higher plane to reach. He’s finally gotten to play those big-league downs he aspired to since high school.
Sitting with Schultz in his radio studio in 30 Rock, a small room along one of the building’s long hallways, I asked him what, in a career marked by a constant restlessness—for more airtime, more audience, more money, another medium, a bigger impact—he hoped to do next. “I want to have a show that’s the best it can be at eight o’clock,” he said. “After this, what else is there? There aren’t many people who get to this level.”
And then the intro music kicked in, signaling the end of the commercial break, and Big Eddie turned back to the mic.