When MSNBC anchor Nicolle Wallace’s husband picks up the phone, he’s apt to greet callers with “Hello—The Resistance!”
“That’s just at home,” Wallace told The Daily Beast about lawyer and former diplomat Mark D. Wallace—like Nicolle, an ex-operative on behalf of Jeb and George W. Bush—who these days seems to be channeling the Donald Trump-averse ethos of the lately emergent cable outlet where his wife hosts a highly rated 4 p.m. program.
Nicolle Wallace, a self-described “former Republican,” has yet to claim official membership in The Resistance, but since well before the 45th president’s inauguration, MSNBC had already become a self-reinforcing safe space for viewers who are alarmed by the endless melodramas and ominous idiosyncrasies of Trump’s political persona.
“I think we are being blunt and authentic in our coverage of this White House,” Wallace said about the channel on which she has hosted her own hour-long panel show, Deadline: White House, since last May.
In February and March of this year, her program began to attract more total viewers on certain days than both Fox’s Your World with Neil Cavuto and CNN’s The Lead with Jake Tapper, regularly beating the competition in the money-making 25-54 age demographic, according to Nielsen.
In April, Deadline: White House was scoring record total viewership in its time period for MSNBC—an average of 1.3 million, representing a 71 percent spike over April 2017.
“I think there’s incredible journalism that co-exists with outrage,” she continued. “We are sort of the news version of free-range chicken. We are walking around, pecking at the news, pecking at the rawness of what we’re living through, pecking at the outrage, and no one tries to shove us in a coop and tell us what to do.”
Poultry metaphors aside, Wallace and her fellow on-air personalities—notably Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski in the early morning and running throughout the day’s schedule to the 8-to-11 p.m. prime-time block of Chris Hayes, Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell—have benefited disproportionately from Trump’s topsy-turvy presidency.
MSNBC is basking in robust ratings even as it once again finds itself grappling with a controversy surrounding one of its marquee names—in this case, weekend morning anchor Joy-Ann Reid (about whom more in a moment).
While Fox has managed to retain its historic overall ratings edge, MSNBC in recent months has been stoutly competitive with Rupert Murdoch’s Trump-friendly cable channel, especially in revenue-rich prime time.
CNN, which continues to be solidly profitable, has been lagging far behind MSNBC in total viewers, and also falls short in the weeknight prime time 25-54 age demographic on which advertising is sold—although it enjoys a longstanding overall advantage in the key demo during the day and on weekends.
This year to date, CNN is only the eighth most-watched channel on basic cable (behind Nickelodeon and ESPN, among others), compared to Fox News’s first-place and MSNBC’s second-place rankings in the latest Nielsen numbers.
What’s more, both Fox and CNN have actually lost audience share compared to their 2017 viewership—a drop from 1,665,000 average total viewers throughout the seven-day week to 1,432,000 for Fox (minus 14 percent) and a drop from 809,000 to 715,000 for CNN (minus 11 .6 percent).
MSNBC, by contrast, has reaped substantial year-over-year gains (from 791,000 last year to 1,006,000 currently, or plus 27.2 percent) and these days consistently challenges Fox’s prime-time lineup.
Surprisingly, one of MSNBC’s more loyal viewers is right-wing firebrand and anguished former Trump supporter Ann Coulter, who hate-watches the cable outlet when not tuning in to her favorite television show, HLN’s Forensic Files.
“The fun of MSNBC is that it’s a closed system, there’s no one who’s not on the same conspiracy theory page. So they get to make reckless charges all day long and the ones that don’t pan out are just quietly swept under the rug,” Coulter emailed The Daily Beast. “The conspiracies have gotten more heated in the Trump era — and these too are just quietly dropped when it turns out they were all out of their minds.”
An MSNBC spokesman declined to respond to Coulter’s impromptu TV review.
Chris Hayes, whose show All In launches MSNBC’s prime time at 8 p.m., attributes the channel’s current success in part to a combination of “reporting and voicyness”—i.e., the distinctive and occasionally quirky personalities of such colleagues as Katy Tur, Stephanie Ruhle, Ali Velshi, and Ari Melber.
“Marrying those two can be really hard,” Hayes told The Daily Beast, adding that, if effective, the combination “removes some of the plexiglass that tends to be between the reporter and the audience.”
Hayes continued: “The general level of interest in politics in America is higher than it has been in a very long time… In the face of everything that is happening in the world, and they might feel scary or shocking, there is a desire for knowledge, a thirst for information, and a push toward depth” that Hayes attempts to provide. “I think it’s that as much as ideological comfort.”
“Often in TV news, where audience habits are notoriously slow to change, the trick is not to chase viewers but instead to wait for viewers to find you, and to make sure that you have a coherent slate of seamless programing up and running when they arrive,” television news analyst Andrew Tyndall emailed The Daily Beast.
The pool of MSNBC’s potential viewers consists of the 54 percent of the electorate that disapproves of Trump’s presidency, and would be expected to gravitate to like-minded hosts, Tyndall argued.
“The Hayes-Maddow-O’Donnell bloc works not just because of its ideological coherence (a reliable destination for political junkies of a liberal persuasion) but because of its intellectual consistency,” he wrote.
“They all strike a nerdy, wonkish tone, with O’Donnell ending the evening with a splash of sardonic humor, even outright sarcasm,” and MSNBC profiting from “an upsurge of political enthusiasm and hunger for ideological information that this nerdy bloc was able to deliver.”
Media analyst Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, told The Daily Beast that Maddow and O’Donnell in particular are succeeding by “systemically developing the plotline that is tracking the move to unseat Trump and to make sure there’s a sense of how all this investigative data fits into a coherent narrative that suggests that he’s guilty.”
Jamieson added: “They’ve got a natural audience that is receiving many too many signals for an ordinary person to process in the course of living a reasonable life. If a news outlet finds a way, through an opinion/talk format, to sum up the day’s news about Donald Trump and his eccentricities as president—but, more importantly, the progression of the investigation into his potential wrongdoing—those people who are very upset about Trump being president are finding a place where, in relatively efficient fashion, they can catch up and also satisfy their need to be reinforced in their beliefs that Donald Trump should not be president.”
MSNBC’s not-so-secret sauce clearly shares ingredients in the recipe that has worked so well for CBS Late Show host Stephen Colbert, whose nightly mockery of President Trump has helped him regularly beat Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show.
However, the official version of MSNBC’s success, as related by the channel’s longtime president, Phil Griffin, has little to do with primal hatred.
Instead, it starts when former NBC News President Andy Lack rejoined the network in April 2015 after a 13-year hiatus—initially with the mission of saving the shattered career of his tall-tale-spinning friend, Brian Williams.
Having launched the disgraced Nightly News anchor on the road to rehabilitation (and ultimately to his own late-night MSNBC show, The 11th Hour with Brian Williams), Lack and Griffin worked to revamp MSNBC’s daytime schedule.
They ditched the opinion shows in favor of newsy urgency, and integrated the long-separated news operations of MSNBC and NBC News—certifying the union by prominently placing NBC News’ Peacock logo on MSNBC’s sets.
Meanwhile, they began beefing up their combined rosters of straight-news, political and investigative journalists, along with a hiring spree of outside journalists—notably from The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and The Washington Post, including contributors who regularly share their newspaper scoops on the air—and other experts offering political and policy analysis. (Unlike CNN, MSNBC has no Trump loyalists on its payroll.)
“We were ready for this moment,” Griffin told The Daily Beast. “We anticipated the incredible election of 2016 and were prepared when Donald Trump came in and it turned into this amazing look at what kind of country did we want to live in?”—the “core question,” Griffin said, that Chris Matthews was always asking when Griffin was executive-producing Hardball for CNBC in the late 1990s.
“We’re addressing those issues in depth, in a country that really has been disrupted,” Griffin added. “Donald Trump was one of the major factors that disrupted it, but there are real issues out there, real divisions, and we’re really set up to address those issues.”
Yet, in their relentless critiques of all things Trump—including Scarborough’s speculation last November that the president is “completely detached from reality,” “mentally unfit,” and suffering from “early stages of dementia”—MSNBC’s programs have arguably contributed to an atmosphere of heightened political disharmony that former president Barack Obama assailed in a recent Netflix interview with David Letterman.
“One of the biggest challenges we have to our democracy is the degree to which we don’t share a common baseline of facts,” Trump’s predecessor told Letterman.
“What the Russians exploited, but it was already here, is we are operating in completely different information universes. If you watch Fox News, you are living on a different planet than you are if you listen to NPR… At a certain point, you just live in a bubble and I think that’s why our politics are so polarized right now.”
Obama didn’t mention MSNBC. But a political coverage veteran at CNN framed the rival cable outlet’s success in harsh terms: “They picked a team and they’re the Fox News of the left now, and they’re even doing conspiracy theories if they have to, to make sure it’s going the way the audience wants it to go. I don’t know what that means for the future when this fever breaks some day—in a year or two years or three years or whatever…”
This person, who was not authorized to speak for CNN and thus requested anonymity (while voicing views that are widely shared at MSNBC’s competitor), added: “They’re not as bad as Fox, because they have more facts on their side than Fox does, but they’re doing the same thing. They’re doing a show for an audience that is just hateful of this administration and wants it destroyed—and they feed that feeling.”
The uproar surrounding Joy Reid, meanwhile, has supplied an unwelcome counterpoint to an otherwise rosy scenario.
For a while last week, Reid’s television career appeared to be hanging the balance—and her Daily Beast column has been placed “on pause” for the time being—since her widely debunked assertion, notably by The Daily Beast, that a bigoted string of homophobic musings on her long-defunct blog (revealed April 24 by Mediaite) was actually fabricated and inserted by unidentified hackers intent on trashing her reputation.
By most accounts, Reid managed to save her job this past Saturday morning with an apparently heartfelt rejection of those and additional ugly sentiments discovered on her blog and various Twitter posts, even as she no longer insisted “unequivocally”—as she had asserted to Mediaite last week—that hackers were responsible.
“I spent a lot of time trying to make sense of the posts,” she told viewers of AM Joy. “I hired cyber security experts to see if somebody manipulated my words or former blog and the reality is they have not been able to prove it.”
In a tortured discourse reminiscent of Ronald Reagan’s notorious 1987 speech admitting that his administration, despite previous denials, traded arms to Iran for the release of American hostages—“My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not”—Reid also said: “I genuinely do not believe I wrote those hateful things because they are completely alien to me, but I can definitely understand based on things I have tweeted and I have written in the past why some people don’t believe me.”
Reid’s statement has been greeted skeptically by some journalists.
The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald demanded: “If it turns out Joy Reid is falsely denying authorship of these horribly bigoted articles & fabricated a tale about nefarious hackers invading the Wayback Archives to add these passages to her real articles, what should happen? What will happen? Do any liberals care if it’s true?”
“Somewhere out there is a hacker — or perhaps an entire collective — specializing in retroactive-digital-homophobia-archival-insertion intrusions,” Wemple wrote witheringly. “This time they victimized Joy Reid. But tomorrow they could go after anyone in the industry.”
MSNBC executives—who’ve been aware of the toxic blog posts since Reid alerted them in December, the same month she apologized to married former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist for insinuating in 2008 on the same blog that he was a hypocritically closeted gay man—have yet to issue any official statement on the flap, and have shown zero appetite to investigate Reid’s inconsistent, and possibly deceptive, explanations of the obnoxious prose posted under her name.
But after an outpouring of public support for Reid from both inside and outside MSNBC—notably from former Attorney General Eric Holder and prominent members of the LGBTQ community such as Billie Jean King and Rachel Maddow—they are hoping the worst is over.
MSNBC declined to comment to The Daily Beast on Reid’s situation.