Every afternoon at a quarter past four, an email goes around 30 Rockefeller Plaza to all of MSNBC’s on-screen personalities, all of their executive producers, all of their bosses, and all of their bosses’ bosses. It contains a long spreadsheet, in yellow and white, meticulously detailing total viewership in fifteen-minute increments throughout the previous day’s schedule. When the numbers are good, everyone’s cellphone blows up with congratulatory messages from colleagues. When the numbers are bad, there’s silence. “You cannot understand the building, the network, or anything without understanding the centrality of that,” a high-level MSNBC employee told me. “I can’t overstate the degree to which it has an impact. Everyone gets those numbers. Everyone looks at it. Everyone knows what it is. Everyone knows when someone’s rating well, when someone’s rating poorly.”
It’s only natural that ratings would be important to cable executives. But in the halls of 30 Rock, where MSNBC has undergone multiple reinventions over the years, those spreadsheets have been a compass, guiding a seemingly dissonant ensemble of on-air talent. These days, the lineup includes, among others, left-leaning commentators like Rachel Maddow, Lawrence O’Donnell, and Chris Hayes, along with centrist Republicans like Joe Scarborough, a former congressman, and Nicolle Wallace, who once quarterbacked the daily media spin of President George W. Bush. There’s Brian Williams, Chuck Todd, and Katy Tur, old-school newspeople with inside-the-Beltway sensibilities. And until recently, MSNBC also had a blaring establishment Democrat, Chris Matthews, whom I watched on live television in late February as he compared the victory of Bernie Sanders in the Nevada Democratic primary to the Nazi conquest of France. As Matthews told viewers, “The general, Reynaud, calls up Churchill and says, ‘It’s over.’ And Churchill says, ‘How can that be? You’ve got the greatest army in Europe. How can it be over?’ He said, ‘It’s over.’ ” Matthews added, “I had that suppressed feeling.”
I was taken aback by the analogy. It turned out that others were, too. Within days, criticisms of his Sanders comments were piled on top of long-standing #MeToo accusations against Matthews, and he announced that he was retiring, effective immediately. It was also widely reported that the Sanders campaign had been banging on the door at MSNBC for a while, upset over a perception that the message coming from the network’s assorted talkers was that Sanders was not to be taken seriously, and even feared. Ahead of the Democratic debate in Las Vegas, which MSNBC sponsored, Sanders had marched up to the event’s producer, stuck his finger in the man’s face, and yelled, “Your coverage of my campaign is not fair!” Later, outside the greenroom, Sanders took his complaint directly to Phil Griffin, MSNBC’s president.
“Their news coverage from the field reporters, I had no qualms about,” Bill Neidhardt, the Iowa deputy state director for the Sanders campaign, told me. “It was the anchors, the analysts they brought on.” A sample on-air exchange: “If you’re voting for him because you think he’ll win the election because he’ll galvanize heretofore sleepy parts of the electorate, then politically, you’re a fool, and that’s just a fact,” James Carville, a senior Democratic consultant, said. “You’re describing what sounds a lot like political suicide,” Wallace replied. To Sanders and his supporters, it seemed that MSNBC, a cable network ostensibly geared toward Democratic voters, was unwilling to engage with an important faction of the party. “What bothers people is that MSNBC takes up this oxygen as a gatekeeper of acceptable liberal thought,” Adam Johnson, a media analyst for Fair.org and the host of a podcast called Citations Needed, said. “Yet most of the hosts have a pretty well-documented ideological perspective that is hostile to what is viewed as being to the left of the Democratic Party consensus.”
MSNBC has rejected the notion that it ever demonstrated bias against Sanders. “He is due fair, not fawning coverage, like any other campaign,” Alexandra Roberts, a network spokesperson, told me. Besides, she said, as the race evolved, so did the balance of conversation. To an extent, that’s true; for a few weeks in February, when Sanders looked like a leading contender, producers started booking more of his evangelists. Beyond that, however, when I asked around at MSNBC, it became clear that election coverage has been driven less by a particular political view than by a faithfulness to numbers—hence the importance, in the office, of the daily email that breaks the ratings down for all to see. The majority of MSNBC viewers are over fifty—which is to say, they’re Biden people. And the person most responsible for ensuring they’ve been served play-it-safe centrism from Beltway-credentialed anchors and pundits has been Andy Lack, the chairman of NBC News and MSNBC. “He’s the most slavishly establishment person I’ve ever encountered,” the high-level MSNBC employee said. Lack’s tenure will be over at the end of May.
Measured from a business standpoint, MSNBC has done well under Lack. Last year, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence, its operating revenue topped a billion dollars for the first time, more than double what it was in 2014. Over the same period, advertising surged from $212 million to $614 million. Four years ago, MSNBC was the sixteenth-ranked network in total viewers. This year, it’s second. It has, at times, even bested Fox.
But those numbers could be attributed as much to Lack’s acumen as to Donald Trump’s presence in the White House. And many on MSNBC’s staff have found Lack, who is seventy-three, to be a problematic leader. During his time at the helm, male employees were accused of predatory behavior toward their female colleagues. Personnel changes—made not to protect women, it seemed, but to chase ratings—left current and former staff members unhappy. Some found Lack’s temperament to be harsh and intimidating. Reporting on sexual abuse was shelved. Politically, MSNBC has undergone numerous makeovers. There is a sense, including among some top anchors, that the network has never quite known what it wants to be. (Lack declined to comment for this piece.)
If the tensions—and outright hostilities—present in the Democratic Party are also coursing through the halls of the network that aims to cover it, you would think that might make for good television. Instead, what the audience sees is a breathless, perpetual four-alarm fire drill, a confused jumble of viewpoints tipped to favor the old guard, and personalities forged in the Darwinian crucible of Nielsen quarter-hour rating reports. Sometimes, the shows are simply boring. As I watched, it felt like a shame that the ideological conflicts within MSNBC don’t appear on air, except insofar as they’re expressed by the instability of its programming. Since the network’s founding, it has struggled to find its footing, in ways that reflect compelling shifts in the American political discourse.
Several rebrands ago, in December 1995, MSNBC was introduced at a press conference as a big idea for the new millennium. Bob Wright, NBC’s president and CEO, was flanked by suits from General Electric and Microsoft, who were collaborating on the project (hence the “MS” in the name); Bill Gates joined via live video feed. “MSNBC will redefine the way that people get information by making available news content of unparalleled breadth and depth whenever and whatever form it may take,” Wright said. This was early on in the dot-com era, when the bubble was just beginning to inflate.
Lack, then the president of NBC News, was among the executives in attendance. A well-dressed but slightly disheveled figure, he has big, bushy eyebrows, a receded hairline, and a modest paunch. He’d gotten his start as a producer on 60 Minutes, worked with Walter Cronkite at CBS, and, in 1993, after Dateline rigged the explosion of a truck to make a safety segment look dramatic, was hired by NBC News to restore its credibility. With Lack in charge, Tom Brokaw overtook ABC’s Peter Jennings to become the most-watched anchor on television.
Onstage for the MSNBC rollout, Lack outlined his plans to lead the network into the internet age. Backed with the full resources of NBC News and Microsoft, he said, this new twenty-four-hour cable channel would “run with any big breaking story,” on air and online. The venture was designed to attract “a whole new generation of viewers, the millions of people sixteen and older who use the internet regularly.” It was expected to reach more than thirty-five million Americans by the year 2000.
MSNBC went live in 1996 from Fort Lee, New Jersey, just across the river from Manhattan. (The headquarters was later moved to Secaucus.) Sets were designed to resemble internet startups, with laptops visible on desks. The programs had names like Homepage, Internight, and News Chat. They scored some early successes. MSNBC’s coverage of Kosovo, the Columbine shooting, and the death of Princess Diana, with somber stand-ups from the dark streets of Paris, allowed the network to show off its breaking-news chops. In June 1999, MSNBC topped CNN in viewership for the first time with its coverage of the wedding of Prince Edward and Sophie Rhys-Jones, at Windsor Castle.
But even in those days, MSNBC executives realized they had a problem of purpose. The hours of extra airtime on cable came in handy when the world was on fire, but you still had to find a way to keep people interested after the firefighters put out the flames and everybody went home. When there was nothing big to cover, ratings plummeted. “It’s a great business to be in, the breaking-news business, when there’s breaking news,” Erik Sorenson, MSNBC’s general manager, told a reporter at the time. “It’s a very suspect business when there’s no breaking news.” Journalists can fall into a trap: “You do stay with a story—and we’ve all been guilty of that, milking and milking and milking.”
The challenge of keeping viewers tuned in absent any big news was particularly evident at prime time, which offered the highest advertising rates and thus the greatest pressure to perform. To fill the hours, Lack and Sorenson experimented with a format they called “the friends of MSNBC,” shows that featured a sort of Washington dinner party, live. After that, they tried the version with warring guests, a model pioneered on CNN with Crossfire. To find the right formula, Lack, Sorenson, and other executives experimented with a wide array of people, from Paul Begala to Oliver North. Keith Olbermann began his first stint at MSNBC in 1997, hosting a show in the 8pm slot. On one particularly slow news day, he led off an episode with the publication of that year’s Farmers’ Almanac. “It was as bad as it sounds,” he told me. “We weren’t doing well, and I was not having a good time.” When Bill Clinton was impeached, Olbermann’s audience increased more than tenfold, he remembers. But after that story ran its course, MSNBC’s ratings problems returned.
The year 2001 was a turning point. In May, Lack was made president of NBC, which meant that his attention was no longer focused on cable news. In September, terrorist attacks on the United States upended the world—and transformed TV journalism. MSNBC covered the story, but advertising revenue fell. Desperate for more viewers, the network unveiled an entirely reimagined programming slate for the spring 2002 season, with a new slogan: “America’s NewsChannel.” It was “a new name, for a new day and a new time,” Sorenson wrote in a memo to the staff, explaining a need to “serve the American people.” The tail feathers of the peacock logo became red, white, and blue; there were American-flag ribbons in the background on sets. New hosts were brought in, figures with bombastic personalities and strong opinions: Curtis Sliwa, the founder of the Guardian Angels, got a show; Patrick Buchanan, a xenophobic, conservative firebrand, was paired with Bill Press, a liberal pundit who previously worked for Jerry Brown, the governor of California; MSNBC also briefly brought in Jesse Ventura, a professional wrestler turned politician. The splashiest and most expensive move was the hiring of Phil Donahue—the old king of daytime talk, whom MSNBC lured out of retirement and pitted directly against Bill O’Reilly, on Fox.
The result, in many cases, was an undignified spectacle that embarrassed the old-school stars of NBC News, many of whom were reluctant to appear on cable. To make matters worse, the ratings barely moved. Jeffrey Immelt, the CEO of General Electric, was so frustrated that he appeared on Fox News with a message to the executives who worked for him. “I think the standard right now is Fox, and I want to be as interesting and as edgy as you guys are,” he said. Afterward, the Wall Street Journal called MSNBC’s ratings “abysmal” and reported that staffers were uncomfortable with its new identity, “which they see as a cynical attempt to cash in on post–Sept. 11 patriotism.” The article added, “A day of reckoning—and possibly yet another change of direction—may be at hand for the network.” In early 2003, Donahue’s show was canceled, followed immediately by an embarrassing leak of memos suggesting that his bosses got rid of him because he’d insisted on using his platform to air arguments against the invasion of Iraq. In one missive, an executive worried that Donahue’s opposition would interfere with MSNBC’s efforts to capitalize on the “anticipated larger audience who will tune in during a time of war.”
Around this time, Lack left to become the chairman and CEO of Sony Music Entertainment. For the next few years, MSNBC’s problems continued. Bill Wolff, who became the network’s vice president of prime-time programming, arrived in 2005. Wolff recalls his reaction when he first saw the ratings: “Absolute shit,” he told me. “They were running, like, eighth in a three-team race and just getting killed.” That year, Jeff Zucker, in many ways the paragon of media executives, was made the chief executive of NBCUniversal. One day, Zucker visited New Jersey for a meeting with MSNBC’s senior management and top producers. “Do what you’ve got to do,” he told everyone. “But if you guys don’t get your fucking shit together, we’re going to board this place up.”
MSNBC’s liberal identity was born amid that atmosphere of crisis. It was also a period of upheaval in American life. Olbermann, now hosting a show called Countdown in the 8pm slot, was in the anchor chair in late August 2005 when Hurricane Katrina made landfall over Louisiana and Mississippi. Over the next several days, he aired frontline reports from the flood zone with harrowing rescue footage and interviews with traumatized survivors. As he cut from one shot to the next, Olbermann grew increasingly frustrated by the Bush administration’s response. He reached his tipping point, he recalled, when Michael Chertoff, the secretary of homeland security, appeared at a press conference and said, “Louisiana is a city that is largely under water.”
The following Monday, Olbermann devoted a segment to eviscerating the federal response to Katrina. He cut to footage of Bush praising Michael Brown, then the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency: “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.” Then Olbermann aired devastating images of the scene. “This is the law and order and terror government,” he said. “It promised protection, or at least amelioration, against all threats, conventional, radiological, or biological. It has just proved that it cannot save its citizens from a biological weapon called standing water.” He went on to compare the president to Marie Antoinette. It was a diatribe of a kind not typically seen on NBC, even on cable; it received millions of hits online. In a later interview, Griffin, who had overseen Olbermann’s show, said that he’d been uncomfortable with Olbermann’s tone. But the reaction from executives, Olbermann recalled to me, was uninterested silence.
So a year later, when he again felt moved to speak out against Bush, he went for it. At an event with veterans in Salt Lake City, Donald Rumsfeld, the defense secretary, accused critics of the Iraq War and the administration’s counterterrorism efforts of trying to appease “a new type of fascism” and of suffering from “moral or intellectual confusion,” making a comparison with the concessions European leaders made to Adolf Hitler in the 1930s. When Olbermann read those comments, he said, “the back of my head blew off.” On his show, he delivered what he would later call a “special comment”: “In what country was Mr. Rumsfeld raised?” Olbermann asked viewers. “On what side of the battle for freedom did he dream one day to fight? With what country has he confused the United States of America?” While producing the segment, Olbermann thought to himself, “If NBC doesn’t fire me because of this, and I don’t get thrown into the back of a black car headed for Gitmo or something, I’ll consider myself lucky.”
Instead, Olbermann said, Griffin appeared the next day in his office and informed him that his ratings had shot up 50 percent. The anti-Rumsfeld segment had gone viral, Griffin told him, on a new form of social media called YouTube. Could Olbermann do a “special comment” every show?
Olbermann declined to commit. But on future episodes, he would accuse Bush of failing to learn the lessons of Vietnam and of perpetuating the “monumental lie that is our presence in Iraq.” He spoke out against the Military Commissions Act of 2006, which deprived enemy alien combatants of legal protections normally afforded to United States citizens. He began tracking terrorist threat level alerts, suggesting that they were suspiciously timed. His rants tapped into a deep vein of discontent; his clips went viral. Olbermann, previously known best as the face of ESPN’s SportsCenter, became a political celebrity—“Limbaugh for Lefties,” according to New York magazine—and his numbers continued rising. In 2006, Countdown scored MSNBC its first 8pm ratings victory over CNN in five years. Within a year, Olbermann’s ratings jumped another 29 percent; by 2008 they hit 1.77 million.
Olbermann had demonstrated what MSNBC’s role could be. “MSNBC is now a player in the competitive world of cable news in a way that we have not been for many, many years, and that’s a really big deal,” Dan Abrams, who had recently been appointed MSNBC’s general manager, told the Los Angeles Times. MSNBC, he added, was “finally finding its identity.” Soon, the network moved to 30 Rock, into a pair of newly renovated, 8,500-square-foot studios outfitted with more than two hundred miles of cable, two hundred eighty high-definition monitors, and six high-definition projectors. Griffin, after a three-year term as vice president of the main network, where he oversaw the Today show, returned as MSNBC’s president. He happily embraced a liberal agenda. Over the next five years, he went all in: first by announcing that Maddow would follow Olbermann, in the 9pm slot; then by hiring O’Donnell, Hayes, Melissa Harris-Perry, Joy Reid, and a slate of other progressives. The new shows were hits.
“There’s an old idea in media: Do you build the car for the driver, or do you pick a driver for the car?” Wolff, who served as executive producer on Maddow’s show, told me. “That is to say, do you build your product, in the news business, around your personalities, or do you have a system and you just plug people into the system?” In cable news, he said, “You’ve got to pick the right drivers. It’s about the drivers.”
In November 2008, Barack Obama was elected president. MSNBC seized on the energy around Democratic politics. Olbermann secured a four-year contract extension worth an estimated $30 million. By 2010, MSNBC was the number two news channel in prime time, behind Fox, and in the daytime it was the second most watched in the “key demographic,” consisting of viewers aged twenty-five to fifty-four. Griffin brought in more progressives and launched a two-year, multimillion-dollar marketing campaign with ads directed by Spike Lee. Set over dramatic music, the spots featured images of Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, and Obama. At a gleeful town hall meeting, Griffin unveiled MSNBC’s new slogan: “Lean Forward.” He told employees, “We’ve taken on CNN and we beat them. Now it’s time to take on Fox.”
“Corporations are organisms. They’re like sharks,” a former MSNBC executive told me. “They just move toward the money.”
The mood seemed high. But there were dissenters among the ranks: some managers and established journalists grumbled about the dismantling of NBC’s reputation for objective newsgathering (and about having their seats stolen at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner). In 2011, Olbermann left under acrimonious circumstances—he’d recently been suspended for donating money to Democratic candidates—and decamped to Al Gore’s Current TV, a wannabe progressive channel that never took off. Still, you couldn’t argue with the money. By 2012, according to S&P Global, MSNBC’s profits had grown to $235.9 million—a 25 percent spike over a two-year period. Comcast bought out GE for a majority stake in NBCUniversal, and Steve Burke, the executive tapped to run it, consolidated the news units. Griffin was elevated on the organizational chart to be the equal of Steve Capus, the head of NBC News. MSNBC received more investment from its corporate overseers. Griffin decided to throw his own correspondents’ dinner after-party.
MSNBC was never an ideological project, however. It was always about the ratings. “Corporations are organisms. They’re like sharks,” a former MSNBC executive told me. “They just move toward the money. That’s all they do. It’s not moral or immoral; it’s amoral. They follow what gives them money. And that was how it started. There’s no liberal overseer, and there really isn’t coordination with the Democrats. There isn’t. It really began by luck. It was just Olbermann doing his thing. Holy shit, let’s do that more. And then Matthews kind of followed suit. And by 2008—so three years later—along came Rachel to have her own show, and the rest is history.”
As time went on, Griffin’s formula would face the inverse of the problem MSNBC had in its early years. Back then, when there was not enough news, anchors didn’t have enough to say. Now all they did was talk, and they all talked about the same things, in the same way, on repeat. In an analysis of 108 hours of cable programming over three days in November and December 2012, the Pew Research Center found that MSNBC devoted 85 percent of its programming to opinion, with only the remainder going to “factual reporting.” That figure far outpaced CNN and even Fox. The ratings started to drop. Mark Kornblau, who joined MSNBC in 2014 and is now the executive vice president for communications in the NBCUniversal News Group, recalled attending focus groups in which even the progressive participants complained. “I love steak, but you’re giving me steak all day long,” he heard them say. “Put on West Wing reruns at five o’clock, or something.”
While MSNBC paid out expensive contracts to its opinionated hosts, CNN focused on reporting. By the third quarter of 2014, MSNBC hit a low point, falling from second to fourth place in the ratings among viewers in the key demographic—behind Fox, CNN, and HLN (formerly Headline News). During the same period, CNN’s ratings doubled. Naturally, along with the decline in viewership, MSNBC’s profit fell: from 2012 to 2014, it decreased by $54 million. Something had to change. “You can look at the dysfunction in Washington, the wariness about politics, the low approval ratings,” Griffin said at the time. “That’s had an impact. But we’ve got to adjust; we’ve got to evolve.”
There was trouble at NBC News, too: Brian Williams, by then the Nightly News anchor, was found to have misrepresented aspects of his reporting on the Iraq War; he was suspended, then demoted. There was conflict at the Today show. Upper management at NBCUniversal decided they needed Andy Lack back. To accept the job, Lack resigned from a position he’d only just recently taken, as chief executive of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the agency that oversees Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and other federally supported international news media. He returned to 30 Rock in April 2015. Griffin found himself with a new boss and was obliged to follow Lack’s lead. The plan was to remake MSNBC in the image of its founding: as a premier destination for reporting, backed by the resources of NBC News. “The news is the star,” Lack said at the time. “We are building a network that has as its core value delivering breaking news better than anyone else. It is not about the anchor who happens to be delivering the news.”
Lack and Griffin canceled all of MSNBC’s liberal daytime programs. The prime-time lineup—which Lack referred to as the channel’s “op-ed pages”—likewise seemed in danger of being upended. Once Donald Trump was elected president, Lack brought in Wallace, along with Greta Van Susteren, a Fox News veteran; Hugh Hewitt, a conservative radio personality; and a slew of right-wing commentators that included Peggy Noonan, Charlie Sykes, and George Will. He also signed Megyn Kelly to a three-year, $69 million contract and placed her at Today, NBC’s most important franchise.
“Andy’s view was not ‘We want to change the ideology of the network,’ ” Kornblau told me. “It was: ‘It’s boring if everybody says the same thing, and our audience will want to hear what conservatives are saying even if they don’t agree with it. And so let’s get those voices in the mix. Let’s get some voices on there that aren’t predictably toeing the Democratic line, so that there’s more interplay and back-and-forth and diversity of perspective.’ ” Lack hoped, too, that figures like Van Susteren could persuade Republicans to appear on MSNBC, which they had been loath to do before.
Lack recruited a new ally to shepherd many of these changes: Jonathan Wald, formerly an executive producer for Don Lemon at CNN. Wald became MSNBC’s senior vice president for programming and development. Though Griffin ranked above him on the organizational chart, Wald had executive producer credits at both Today and the NBC Nightly News, and many interpreted his arrival as an indication that Griffin’s days were numbered. Soon, Wald was showing up at daily meetings with prime-time executive producers, offering story suggestions and providing feedback on guests—feedback, it was assumed, that reflected Lack’s preferences.
The plan might have worked, except that it did not. Instead, it was Hayes and O’Donnell, the progressives, who became must-watch television for the network’s anti-Trump viewers, who started growing in number. The ratings for those shows skyrocketed. Maddow, too, was a fan favorite. Nobody wanted to tune in to MSNBC to hear from GOP pundits. What they came for was seeing the opposite of Fox. Gloating and still somewhat bitter, MSNBC’s progressive faction took swipes at Lack in the press. Many of Wald’s suggestions were ignored; eventually, he was demoted. “Hayes, Maddow, O’Donnell—the entire primetime lineup is doing record numbers and Lack can’t stand it. It makes him furious,” Ryan Grim, a former MSNBC contributor, wrote in HuffPost, quoting an anonymous senior MSNBC source. “Tossing those primetime hosts overboard while they’re raking in viewership and revenue has so far proved an elusive task.”
Maddow, Hayes, and O’Donnell have remained. Van Susteren and company were let go. When I asked MSNBC to comment on its strategic decisions and the implications for its brand identity, Roberts, the spokesperson, said she took issue with any suggestion that MSNBC hasn’t settled on what it wants to be. It is, above all, she said, a twenty-four-hour news channel capable of going toe to toe with any cable news network. The daytime programming is devoted to breaking news, while prime time retains its “point of view” shows. The changes in recent years amount to adjustments of “format,” Roberts argued, not failed ideological reinventions. “We cover the news aggressively and provide compelling and insightful analysis,” she told me. “Our goal is to own the big stories, put our unrivaled NBC News and MSNBC resources behind it, and cover it in a way that is valid, aggressive, and has an in-depth perspective.”
In February, almost immediately after I started watching MSNBC all the time, my wife began complaining that her quality of life had gone into marked decline. It was not that I made her watch it with me. She refused. It was that, according to her, I had entered a state of heightened anxiety and excitement. I ambushed her with polling data when she was coming out of the laundry room. I interrupted her when she was talking about our kids’ schoolwork to speculate on whether Biden would make peace with the Bernie wing of the Democratic Party. Often, she complained, I wasn’t “present.” I couldn’t help it. I was preoccupied by the possibility that Russia would interfere—again—in the November election.
Even with vast resources to draw upon, cable news is a repetitive medium. Part of my obsession with these stories reflected the way MSNBC hammered at them over and over again, with endless contributors on split screens, chewing every angle. The arguments were fairly consistent, and relied on conventional wisdom. I’m sure it happened once or twice, but in my months of watching MSNBC consistently I did not see one voter interviewed; everyone was discussed in terms of demographic groups and trends. The opinions of each host were predictable; the more I watched, the more they seemed like old friends. But in every case it was a masochistic relationship, one defined by a persistent sense of doom. In the age of Trump, these shows, even the news programs, almost always left me with a sense that the world was on the verge of collapse.
The greatest fear, perhaps, was what would happen if I didn’t watch. Occasionally, for brief moments, MSNBC would offer hope, but it came as comfort in the idea that many more viewers like me would tune in, discover the truth about America’s political crisis, and rally in pursuit of redemption. Other people, I learned, shared the feeling. A friend of my mother’s, a retired professor named Ann Yee, keeps MSNBC on all the time. “There’s a palpable fear that Trump’s world of absolute power, ignorance, and white supremacy will become our new reality, because nothing seems to take him down,” Yee said. “That’s what makes us insane. But the knowledge that there are still a few loud voices out there who continue to bring light to truth is the reassuring part.”
And then the coronavirus hit. It was earth shattering, and there was plenty to report. MSNBC seemed at its best when it tried to get ahead of the story or dig behind the headlines; Maddow did an admirable job on her show, contrasting images of empty, pandemic-stricken Europe with the Trump administration’s avoidance of the subject. When states began to shut down—and it became clear that Biden would receive the Democratic nomination—MSNBC bailed on its horse race political coverage and devoted itself to reporting on the spread of covid-19. Here was a breaking-news event tailor-made for the Andy Lack era.
The daytime shows began highlighting the latest developments with a rubric placed prominently on-screen: “Know the Facts.” But there was a problem: the facts were bleak, changed only incrementally as the hours passed, and were repeated on every show. Soon enough, MSNBC returned to form, scrutinizing the news first as information, then as evidence of Trump’s dangerous incompetence. Eventually, it became excruciatingly tedious to watch.
The coverage also highlighted the challenge of following traditional journalism rules in the Trump era. During the day, the president’s many failures of leadership were subject to discussion; in the evening, MSNBC aired his coronavirus briefings live. Early on, I saw value in that; I learned crucial information. As the crisis unfolded, however, health officials faded into the background. Trump co-opted their time, using the briefings as an opportunity to browbeat reporters and play to his base. “From a purely journalistic news point of view, I can’t imagine any other circumstance in which a news network would turn over hours a day of its airwaves to an event where they know that misstatements, disinformation, and outright lies will be disseminated,” Mark Lukasiewicz, a former NBC News executive who was in charge of breaking-news specials and is now dean of the Lawrence Herbert School of Communication at Hofstra University, told me. On Twitter, a number of MSNBC’s hosts condemned the practice of carrying the press briefings live. Even Lack wrote, on the NBC News website, that “Trump’s daily briefings, which sometimes include pertinent and significant information, have also frequently become a sideshow, filled with false and misleading statements, compulsive boasting and self-promotional videos.”
Some networks dialed back their coverage, but MSNBC continued on for weeks, basking in the ratings and allowing Trump to dominate the news narrative with falsehoods—just as he had during the 2016 campaign. (Lack wrote that his newsroom was “aggressively fact-checking in real time, assessing the value to viewers minute to minute and cutting away when warranted,” but to me, the efforts were subtle.) And as the shock of the pandemic began to wear off, political overtones returned, recasting the network’s emphatically partisan coverage of the election in a more somber light.
On April 16, Morning Joe landed a pair of special guests, Joe Biden and his wife, Jill. The show airs from 6am to 9am, and the Bidens wouldn’t be coming on until the last hour, so Scarborough and his cohost and wife, Mika Brzezinski, a liberal commentator, needed to fill time. To set the stage, they opened with a clip of John Kennedy, a Republican senator from Louisiana, appearing the previous night on Fox to argue that it was time to reopen the economy. “If we don’t, it’s going to collapse, and if the US economy collapses, the world economy collapses,” Kennedy said. “Trying to burn down the village to save it is foolish.”
The camera cut to Scarborough. “That’s just one of the dumbest things I’ve actually heard him say, and he’s said so many stupid things over the past year, it’s hard to count,” he said. The rest of the block was devoted to the hypocrisy of Kennedy and other Trump allies who claimed to represent “the party of life” but, in Scarborough’s telling, seemed fine with poor, elderly vets contracting covid-19 and dropping dead to save large corporations. “Sure, senior citizens are gonna die, but what the hell?” he said, impersonating GOP leaders. “We really got to get Wall Street moving again.” Other topics included a segment on Trump’s increasingly authoritarian tendencies and an interview with the author of The Toddler in Chief, whose cover features a picture of a balloon designed to look like Trump as a baby.
When it was finally time for the Bidens, Scarborough welcomed them by noting that in the middle of a pandemic, it was a shame that Americans didn’t have a leader capable of expressing empathy. Could Joe Biden, “as a man who’s endured loss,” share with the public what was on his mind?
“Well, Joe and Mika, I really mean it, what’s on my mind is they’re on my mind,” Biden replied. “I mean, people are frightened, they’re frightened.” He was not pressed to answer policy questions.
The greatest fear, perhaps, was what would happen if I didn’t watch.
If things had gone according to plan, Lack would likely have announced his retirement at the end of this year. “What has become powerfully clear during this pandemic is that the heart of journalism has never been stronger,” he wrote in April, for the NBC News website. “As ever, journalists are asking tough questions and going where the facts lead.” He went on: “Make no mistake, journalists have plenty of faults. Our coverage is rarely, if ever, flawless. We are a collection of human beings making hundreds of decisions a day. During times like these, as millions of people turn to the news for answers, the choices we make about what to air and how to report it can make the difference between panic or persistence, and even life or death. Humbled by the responsibility we bear, we try our damnedest to serve our audience.” He closed by saying how lucky he felt to have a career in the news business. “In this moment,” he wrote, “it feels more like a calling.”
Lack’s essay may have been part rallying cry, part earnest reflection on his work, as he perhaps knew that his last days at NBC were approaching sooner than anticipated. At the end of 2019, the New York attorney general’s office had begun investigating allegations of sexual harassment, retaliation, and gender discrimination at NBC News; according to Variety, Lack’s behavior was central to the questioning. Women who had come forward with allegations against Brokaw, Matt Lauer, and other NBC stars past and present were interviewed about Lack’s awareness of their cases and how he responded. Several women had been compelled to sign nondisclosure agreements. (An NBCUniversal spokesperson told Variety, “We are not aware of any inquiry.”) “It’s time to ask what top management at NBC and other outlets are doing to change the culture that allowed Lauer, along with numerous news anchors with questionable attitudes toward women, to stay in their positions for so long,” Addie Zinone, a former production assistant on the Today show, said in the Variety article. (The attorney general’s office offered no comment on that story or this one.)
At the same time, employees exchanged complaints about how Lack had handled reporting by Ronan Farrow, an investigative journalist, on Harvey Weinstein’s sexual crimes. In 2017, Lack and his deputies killed the story. Farrow went on to publish it in The New Yorker and to receive a Pulitzer Prize; last year, he released Catch and Kill, a book detailing his experience getting his work out. “The way that Lack and other top executives at NBC presided over our reporting on Harvey Weinstein was an absolute disgrace,” Rich McHugh, Farrow’s former producer at NBC, told me. “They were not acting as journalists or treating this as journalism. They were behaving more like an extension of Weinstein’s PR team.”
For months, it seemed as though Lack—the “news is the star” advocate—would survive the embarrassment of losing such a scoop. But then he started facing scrutiny from new sources. Burke, the chairman of NBCUniversal, was preparing to retire. His replacement, Jeff Shell, used to be the head of the Broadcasting Board of Governors—and he’s the man who recruited Lack to the job Lack quickly ditched to join NBC in 2015. By all accounts, Shell had been furious about and felt betrayed by Lack’s abrupt departure. Early this year, Shell, who most recently was overseeing NBCUniversal’s film and entertainment division, became the company’s CEO, and embarked on a staff-wide listening tour. Employees in the news division vented about Lack’s ruling on the Weinstein story and attitude toward the women in the workplace; they also took the time to air strategic concerns with his oversight of MSNBC.
“You cannot, I think, with a straight face, argue that the vision Andy Lack outlined in 2015—that it’s all going to be straight news during the day—has come to pass,” an MSNBC veteran, who declined to be identified for fear of retaliation, told me. “What’s working is leaning into the coverage of the Trump administration and the progressive versus conservative political divide in the country. And that’s what they’re doing.” MSNBC’s schedule has plenty of straight reporting, on shows helmed by Stephanie Ruhle (9am), Hallie Jackson (10am), Craig Melvin (11am), Andrea Mitchell (12pm), Ali Velshi and Ruhle (1pm), Tur (2pm), Wallace (4pm), and Todd (5pm). But several of those hosts have taken open swipes at Trump. Lack’s biggest success, Wallace, among the last remaining Republicans at MSNBC, has thrived in part because of her willingness to attack the president. Last year she was number one in cable news for total viewers in her time slot—the heart of the news day—for the first time in MSNBC history. She labeled Trump’s defenders in the media “chickenshit” and, more recently, declared that the prospect of his reelection was so awful, she would rather vote for “an automobile.”
In the nineties, a key to Lack’s vision, in addition to breaking news, had been building a network for “the next generation.” Today, however, MSNBC’s viewers skew old; the focus on ratings, to this point, has meant missing out on the young people driving interest in socialism. One of the progressives Lack sent away upon his return was Krystal Ball, who hosted a daytime program. Ball has since emerged as a leading voice of the young left; she now has a show on The Hill’s website with a young Trump-conservative. Hayes, who may be the network’s most outspoken progressive, has courted a younger crowd, though many of those fans, it seems, would rather follow him on Twitter or listen to his podcast than tune in to his television program.
Going forward, MSNBC will have to find ways to lure younger audiences. But that job will not be Lack’s. In early May, a day before Variety published its report on the attorney general’s investigation, Shell announced a corporate restructuring: Lack was out; Cesar Conde, who was the chairman of Telemundo, would oversee NBC News, MSNBC, and CNBC, as chairman of the NBCUniversal News Group. To many at MSNBC, the timing of the changeover was a surprise. “This is the right structure to lead NBCUniversal into the future during this transformational time in the industry,” Shell said in a press statement. The send-off to Lack, at the bottom of the release, consisted of a line saying that he’d decided to step down.
With Lack gone and Conde taking over, the old guard, it appears, has lost a pivotal battle. Lack’s deputy, Noah Oppenheim, the president of NBC News, who had been considered Lack’s likely successor, was vaulted over. The outlook could be similarly grim for Griffin. In Catch and Kill, Farrow singled out Oppenheim and Griffin as the two Lack associates most involved in suppressing his reporting; all three, Farrow writes, were in direct communication with Weinstein and his attorneys. “I think this puts them all in a perilous position,” McHugh told me, referring to Lack’s departure. “Noah was supposed to be the heir apparent. A lot of people feel both he and Phil have to go in light of the body of reporting that has raised serious questions about their views towards women. Getting Lack out the door is a half step. But it needs to be completed.”
McHugh, who no longer works at NBC, had another observation: “It’s interesting that in this grand reorganization, given what NBC has just been through over the past four years—with both the Lauer and Weinstein disgraces—that they couldn’t come up with at least one qualified female executive to help lead their charge forward.” (NBC declined to make Oppenheim, Griffin, Conde, or Shell available for interviews.)
Conde, a polished and well-liked forty-six-year-old graduate of Harvard and Wharton, joined NBCUniversal in 2013. Before that, he’d been an aide to Colin Powell, the secretary of state in the Bush White House, and spent ten years at Univision, rising to become the network’s president. He left for NBC the same year Comcast acquired its majority stake, serving as the executive vice president in charge of international and digital enterprises; in that position, he reported directly to Burke. In 2015, he was named the chairman of the NBCUniversal International Group and NBCUniversal Telemundo Enterprises. Under Conde’s leadership, Telemundo overtook Univision in the ratings during weekday prime time among viewers between eighteen and forty-nine—a coveted demographic. Conde has aggressively pursued young Latinx audiences, developing original series like El Señor de los Cielos, based on the life of a Mexican drug lord, and Sin Senos Sí Hay Paraíso, which follows a young girl as she fights to get away from a crime-ridden environment. He’s also expanded Telemundo’s news coverage, pushing his team to focus on immigration, the Mexican border, and Puerto Rico.
Few among the MSNBC rank and file know much else about Conde, except that he’s not Lack. For many people, that’s reason enough for optimism. “Somebody coming from Telemundo is a little bit outside NBC News—I feel hopeful about that,” Jessica Kerry, a former segment producer for Hayes, said. “The new leadership could certainly change the coverage of the election, and could make the tough choices about how you cover people in power who lie.” Perhaps employees from across the ideological spectrum would now be at liberty to speak their minds, even when they’re at odds with the establishment.
Then again, it’s hard for staffers to know what will happen—or to expect meaningful change. Networks are like sharks, after all; they move toward the money. The economic crisis caused by the pandemic has already led to pay cuts and furloughs at NBCUniversal. It feels too early for the progressives at MSNBC to celebrate. “It would take more outside-the-box thinking to change it,” Kerry said. “It will take some tough decisions to change the way the campaign is covered—and that will have to come from somebody in leadership.”
Whether MSNBC takes this moment as an opportunity to unburden itself of its worst qualities is yet to be seen. Much depends on to what degree Conde—whose portfolio is significantly larger than Lack’s was—decides to tinker with MSNBC’s identity. As time passes, producers will no longer be able to count on this generation’s older viewers to keep watching. And it’s not hard to guess what will happen. Inevitably, the ratings will reflect how things have changed. The executives will fret. Once again, MSNBC will reinvent itself.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story misidentified Andy Lack’s role at Sony.
TOP IMAGE: Virginia Sherwood/NBCUniversal via Getty Images