Thursday, January 10, 2019

THE MOSTLY DESERVED NEW DARLING OF CABLE NEWS RATINGS

By Dominique Paul Noth

It would be comforting to believe that liberal advances in national cable news polls reflect more intelligence and discretion by the viewing public.  But we have 20 years of  evidence this is not what makes  cable news outlets rise to the top – usually it’s advertising, false excitable controversies, bitter putdowns, easily duped viewers and simplistic sound-bites, which continue to elevate FOX despite the growth in more liberal outlets.


Rachel Maddow's climb to the top
This time, though, factors such as screaming advertising and belligerency on-air are  absent as polls embrace more liberal news outlets, particularly MSNBC which has been growing steadily, from near invisibility 15 years ago to now having the dominant cable news show in recent testing, “The Rachel Maddow Show” (8 p.m. Central time).

But still we have to deal with old canards. MSNBC has long been regarded as the most left of the cable news outlets just as FOX was the most right, with CNN taking up the more middle position, though it has had many feisty moments of late.

As to the old canards, yes – but not as clearly as before.  FOX is clearly the most rabidly conservative – if you are Trump trumpeting morning shows, No. 1 Sean Hannity and a Medea would-be, Judge Jeanine Pirro.  (Or maybe just his second favorite. There are those Russian rumor items that must  be beaming into his steel dental fillings, so curious has  been his penchant, outside Kremlin talking circles, of reciting warped histories of Afghanistan, Belarus and Montenegro, stories that keep cropping up and first stirred laughter and wonder from the aforementioned Rachel Maddow.)


But in other time spots, some of FOX’s hosts have taken a knife to Trump’s outlandish tendency to lie, as has his favorite Murdoch newspaper, the Wall Street Journal, which recently called his history on Afghanistan “cracked.” Ignorance is becoming harder to maintain on right-wing outlets.


Maddow has been heavily focused on investigating things Russian.  Americans have trouble remembering the Russian names in Dostoevsky novels much less news reports. But Rachel’s storytelling style has led to viewers actually separating Yevgeny Prigozhin (an oligarch better known as Putin’s chef) from Konstantin Kilimnik and Oleg Deripaska (the duo Paul Manafort whispered sweet polling data to) and Natalia Veselnitskaya (the lawyer who hung around Trump Towers and now is a defendant in a separate money laundering case).


Audiences seem to embrace Rachel’s conversational ramblings and curiosity.  It is her  display of  mental curiosity that belies the sameness of so much 24/7 cable coverage, of which MSNBC had often been a prime villain, so narrow its focus in the past and how hard it finds beginning every hour with something fresh.


Maddow has an authenticity that seems be attracting followers, but her love of history and the tales that make it up have long marked her methods (I discovered that reviewing her book, Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power, in 2012.) But in fairness she is not alone in the elevation of MSNBC in terms of personalities mixed with the news.



Andrea Mitchell proves it's not always about
the new face in the crowd
(Let me pass on “Morning Joe.” I can never talk rationally about that show largely because of the same talking heads and Mika Brzezinski providing a tak-tsk balance to Joe Scarborough despite their marriage. I find the formula tired – and Willie Geist a strange third rail. But no one can deny that D.C. listens to them.)

MSNBC daytime was soundly rebuked a few years  ago for relegating to weekends -- or dumping or being dumped by -- its better known black anchors (Melissa Harris-Perry who left in a huff, Al Sharpton largely exiled to Friday guest shots and  weekends and the versatile Joy Reid,  now everybody’s favorite fill-in).  But even its advertising has shifted to a youth theme citing bright personalities -- Katie Tur, Kasie Hunt, Craig Melvin, Hallie Jackson and Ari (“The Beat”) Melber, who mixes legal chat and rap knowledge in his attempt to attract young viewers while keeping older liberals engaged.



Ari Melber seeks to add the views
of hip-hop generation.
Midday certainly can’t be called left – not with pioneer broadcaster and rigorous news hound Andrea Mitchell often sandwiched among Stephanie Ruhle and Ali Velshi, both business wonks married to explanatory journalism.

And a real find has been Nicolle Wallace of “Deadline.”  Long removed from the Bush White House and Sarah Palin, she speaks candidly and laughs winningly about the difference between being a political mouthpiece and a demanding journalist. 



Nicole Wallace leads MSNBC's parade
of disgruntled Republicans.
She is also  a leading figure in MSNBC’s emergence as refugee center for Republicans disgusted by what Trump has done to the party they have mostly abandoned.   Most articulate among them is Wallace’s former John McCain cohort, Steve Schmidt, but he is frequently joined by the likes of Michael Steele, David Jolly, Rick Wilson, George Wills, smirk-happy Bill Kristol and even a sometimes Trump defender who doesn’t seem to know just where his mental processes will land,  Hugh Hewitt.

(I’ve left out another escaped Republican and frequent MSNBC guest, Charlie Sykes, because MSNBC does not understand how his presence hurts its image in Milwaukee where I live.  For decades on WTMJ (which now survives only because of its sport programming) and in founding puffery sites like Right Wisconsin, Sykes was resident ridiculer of the governor he labeled Diamond Jim, of rail initiatives, of the Deep Tunnel sewer project, of Mayor Tom Barrett, of welfare recipients and frankly of every Democrat or liberal initiative that strayed into his sights.  The fact that he is now used as a positive voice for conservative sanity on cable news, without a single mea culpa for his Limbaugh past, annoys TV viewers here no end. I keep wondering if the Milwaukee area is an exception to MSNBC’s general ratings rise.


(Sykes also strikes me as the perfect model for Washington Post essayist Carlos Lozada’s brilliant analysis of how the Never Trumpers were once the Only Trumpers. “Only with the rise of Trump did they even think to interrogate the conservative dogma they'd long defended,” wrote Lozado. “Only with Trump did they begin to reconsider their roles in feeding a frenzied base.” It’s understandable the Never Trumpers are finding a warm home at MSNBC, but caution please!  They could turn again.)


The network doesn’t always require an anti-Trump tape as audition material, as it once did. But I am not much enamored of “MTP Daily” and one of the network’s hosts with two first names who strike me as wishy-washy, Chuck Todd succeeding David Gregory. But Todd recently redeemed himself with a segment on climate change that flat refused  to do the kneejerk cable “on the other hand” dance of offering a word from climate-change deniers. Nope, it’s real, Todd said – and bravo!


Not that there isn’t a solid liberal bloc in MSNBC prime time, led in by a somewhat paternal veteran voice, Chris Matthews and “Hardball.”  Mathews at his shrillest sounds a lot like Trump and his tendency to interrupt guests and pursue his own tangents is notorious, but his energy is welcomed by many viewers.


The real solid left stuff follows -- a chatty but pertinent Chris Hayes, then Maddow, then Laurence O’Donnell whose hatred of things Trump knows no bounds.  They are followed (10 p.m. Central) by a show that was supposed to be a throwaway, “The 11th Hour With Brian Williams.”  Intended as the bone to help restore Williams’ reputation, it has now become a ratings leader with so much news breaking late in the evening, aided by Williams’ quick wit and warm tones.


Studious and nimble, Maddow doesn’t mean to
play the news so close to improvisation – she plans assiduously but she is also willing to throw stuff out when something better comes along.  This is a freshness in cable news long needed.


She is probably deeply chagrined that she became an Internet “meme” for her unexpected tearing up on the air over babies imprisoned at the border, but it was that unusual break in the fourth wall that confirmed to viewers her interest is human.


Moreover, there is teeth behind the changes at MSNBC.   Wallace, a former White House communications director, bluntly announced that  “Deadline” would no longer carry Sarah Huckabee Sanders press conferences but monitor for actual news as opposed to blather (finding very little of course).  Maddow has made it clear that she will cover Trump’s actions, but not his words and certainly not his rally claims. 


Those may be a small sign of the maturity that viewers desperately want from cable news, which has given Trump way too much airtime.  In fact, a CNN media insider recently questioned whether the networks should follow tradition, as they did January 8, in giving Trump airtime over his “border crisis” without evidence that he is not simply attempting to distract the public from the investigations closing in on him.   High time that cable news grows up.


About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He became the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet and consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with archives at milwaukeelabor.org.  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for Urban Milwaukee.  


3 comments:

  1. This is a thoughtful analysis of a complex issue. I only wish that you had not seen fit to mock Chuck Thomas by implication because he has two first names. It was his mother and father, after all, who foisted that dull, unfortunate name upon him. Parents who do that ought to be horse whipped, in my opinion.

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  2. Think you meant Chuck Todd but point taken. Didn't go after all two first names such as Craig Melvin. Just tempted because Chuck Todd turned out so much like David Gregory!

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