MSNBC’s Trump-Russia Ratings Fizzle: ‘Time to Pivot to 2020’
The Mueller report and its potential implications have driven the network’s coverage—and monster ratings—for two years. Now it’s ended with a whimper, leaving execs in a bind.
Attorney General William Barr’s short letter claiming Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation found no clear evidence of collusion between Russia and President Trump’s 2016 campaign left some MSNBC personalities dumbfounded on Sunday.
Several hours before Barr’s letter was released, former intelligence officer Malcolm Nance predicted on MSNBC that the report could “technically eclipse Benedict Arnold” in its level of treasonous activity.
But when Nance returned to MSNBC several hours after Barr’s letter was made public, the network contributor did little to hide his displeasure about why the investigation hadn’t resulted in more criminal indictments.
“We’ve seen these things occur and in any other standard, these people would’ve been arrested, they would’ve been polygraphed, and would’ve been brought to trial,” he said.
Over the past two years, Nance has been one of MSNBC’s most outspoken personalities commenting on the network’s most important story: Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference. Hosts like Rachel Maddow have seen their ratings notably increase as the investigation unfolded, while other anchors like Ari Melber have built major elements of their shows around interviews of witnesses of the investigation to get their perspective on Mueller’s probe.
But the release of Barr’s summary letter threw a wrench into the narrative that has driven the network’s coverage and called into question what the primary narrative would be for the network going forward.
Over the past several days, MSNBC and other media outlets have been the targets of criticism from Trump supporters and others who felt the network’s journalists and commentators had spent too much time obsessing over the Mueller investigation and drawing conclusions that were not borne out by Barr's summary.
The White House shared a meme mocking Maddow’s and host Chris Hayes’ coverage of the investigation. Conservative news outlets and prominent politicians also criticized former CIA director John Brennan, who predicted earlier this month that there could be further indictments and suggested there may be evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Within MSNBC, there’s an acknowledgement that the Trump-Russia narrative on which the cable network—and especially its primetime star Maddow—built monster ratings has fizzled for the moment.
Insiders also claim not to be surprised that the conclusion of the long-awaited Mueller report—or at least the Trump-appointed attorney general's summary—was a whimper, not a bang for an outlet that has invested so much time and energy, in primetime and throughout its dayparts, in the notion that Trump is unworthy of the Oval Office and might at some point be forced to give it up.
And it’s also possible that the Mueller disappointment drove loyal viewers away in much the same way that people avoid looking at their 401(k)s when the stock market is down. Maddow, who has consistently vied for the first or second top-rated cable news program, was sixth on Monday evening, down almost 500,000 total viewers from the previous Monday, as was MSNBC’s second top-rated program in primetime, The Last Word With Lawrence O’Donnell.
Conversely, “It was obviously a big couple of nights for Fox,” said one network insider, claiming, however, that nobody at MSNBC is panicking.
Many top on-air personalities at the network argued Monday night that the public should not jump to conclusions until it has Mueller’s full report, not a brief, vague summary written by Trump’s attorney general.
On her program Monday night, Maddow listed a number of unanswered questions from from the Barr letter.
“Can we expect President Trump and the Trump White House to finally accept the underlying factual record that Russia did in fact attack us?” Maddow asked. “I know, I know, I’m just getting crazy. But the Barr report has given us this whirlwind of questions. The Mueller report, if and when we see it, should answer most of them. But tick tock, how long do we have to wait?”
Many of the network’s top figures defended its coverage of the Russia story.
Though MSNBC president Phil Griffin did not return The Daily Beast’s request for comment, he said in a statement that the Mueller investigation was a “huge story” and that the network was going to “keep doing our job, asking the tough questions, especially when it involves holding powerful people accountable.”
On Tuesday, MSNBC host Joe Scarborough delivered a lengthy monologue admonishing Trump supporters and media critics who used the Barr summary to discount major reporting by The New York Times, The Washington Post, and others on the Mueller investigation. He also acknowledged that while there were some “bad actors,” they didn’t represent the responsible journalism done around the report.
“What was the media supposed to do at that point? Shrug it off? No. You know the answer,” Scarborough said, noting the instances where individuals in Trump’s orbit had lied to law enforcement officials.
“Were there bad actors?” he continued later in the show. “Yeah, and guess what? We know who they are. We won’t have them back on our show.”
According to network insiders, viewers can expect to hear less about Trump’s alleged collusion with Russians—which Barr has declared an investigative dead end—both from the cable outlet’s anchors and its paid contributors.
Several MSNBC employees who spoke to The Daily Beast following the release of the report said although Nance appears regularly across numerous shows on the network, many producers already had reservations about bringing him on, given his penchant for over-the-top rhetoric related the investigation.
But until Mueller’s full report is released, there is no sense that there will be any major changes at the network or evaluation of its coverage. Nance and Brennan, both contributors, are expected to be back on the air in the coming days.
The hope now is that Trump’s conduct as president, along with the ramping up of the 2020 presidential campaign, will prove powerful storylines that will give MSNBC the opportunity to regroup. Hayes led his show Tuesday night with an interview with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg about the Trump administration’s decision to pursue yet another repeal of Obamacare.
“This stuff ebbs and flows,” said one network insider. “I think we’re ebbing.”
Asked what they thought of Monday’s ratings and the path forward for the network, another network source replied succinctly.
“Time to pivot to 2020,” they said.