How MSNBC’s Leftward Tilt Delivers Ratings, and Complications

Ronna McDaniel, then chair of the Republican National Committee, whose hiring by NBC prompted a newsroom rebellion, at the GOP Primary Debate at the Reagan Library, in Simi Valley, Calif., Sept. 27, 2023. (Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times)
Ronna McDaniel, then chair of the Republican National Committee, whose hiring by NBC prompted a newsroom rebellion, at the GOP Primary Debate at the Reagan Library, in Simi Valley, Calif., Sept. 27, 2023. (Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times)

MSNBC placed a big bet on becoming comfort TV for liberals. Then it doubled down.

Time slots on the cable network once devoted to news programming are now occupied by Donald Trump-bashing opinion hosts. The channel has become a landing spot for high-profile alumni of President Joe Biden’s administration including Jen Psaki, who went from hosting White House press briefings to hosting her own show. On Super Tuesday, when producers aired a portion of a live speech by Trump, Rachel Maddow chastised her bosses on the air.

The moves have been a hit with viewers. MSNBC has leapfrogged past its erstwhile rival CNN in the ratings and has seen viewership rise over the past year, securing second place in cable news behind the perennial leader, Fox News.

Sign up for The Morning newsletter from the New York Times

But MSNBC’s success has had unintended consequences for its parent company, NBC, an original Big Three broadcaster that still strives to appeal to a mass American audience.

NBC’s traditional political journalists have cycled between rancor and resignation that the cable network’s partisanship — a regular target of Trump — will color perceptions of their straight news reporting. Local NBC stations between the coasts have demanded, again and again, that executives in New York do more to preserve NBC’s nonpartisan brand, lest MSNBC’s blue-state bent alienate their red-state viewers.

Even Comcast, NBC’s corporate owner, which is loath to intervene in news coverage, took the rare step of conveying its concern to MSNBC’s leaders when some hosts and guests criticized Israel as the Hamas attack was unfolding on Oct. 7, according to three people with knowledge of the discussions. An abrupt course correction to that coverage followed.

This account of the tensions roiling NBC and its corporate overseers is based on interviews with more than two dozen people with knowledge of the company’s inner workings, almost all of whom insisted on anonymity to share details of internal discussions.

NBC declined to make its top executives available for interviews. The chair of the NBCUniversal News Group, Cesar Conde, has said he wants his division — which encompasses MSNBC, CNBC, a digital streaming service, Telemundo and journalistic stalwarts like “Nightly News,” “Meet the Press” and “Today” — to be a big tent.

Yet his recent efforts to include more conservative voices on the airwaves generated newsroom suspicion and ultimately led to an embarrassing rebellion over the hiring of Ronna McDaniel, a former Republican Party chair who aided Trump’s attempt to overturn his 2020 election loss.

MSNBC hosts, for their part, view their role in the political debate as more important than ever. They dismiss the accusation that MSNBC is a “Fox News for Democrats” and say their message — that Trump’s candidacy represents a unique and clear threat to democracy — is an urgent one for the electorate to hear.

And executives inside NBC’s corporate suites at Rockefeller Center say they are confident that viewers know the differences between the company’s various news brands. Any related challenges, they argue, are of a high-class sort — because their cable channels give NBC an advantage in relevance and revenue over its original Big Three competitors, ABC and CBS, which have no cable presence.

“Our strategy is built on our distinct, complementary brands including NBC News, CNBC, NBC News Now, MSNBC and Telemundo,” the NBCUniversal News Group said in a statement. “That has driven our performance as the nation’s leading news organization with the largest reach.” (Comcast does not disclose the news division’s earnings in its reports to Wall Street.)

The tensions inside NBC are, in some ways, a microcosm of the challenges facing many traditional news organizations as the country hurtles toward a tense presidential election: how to maintain trust and present neutral, fact-based reporting in a fractionalized era when partisanship carries vast financial and cultural rewards.

But the company’s challenge is also unique. It must juggle a broadcast news operation bound by traditional standards of impartiality and a cable channel increasingly bound by the partisan preferences of an intensely loyal viewership. How NBC navigates these dueling imperatives will have important implications for Comcast, a Philadelphia-based conglomerate known for its aversion to the political spotlight.

It will also have consequences for coverage of the presidential campaign. Where MSNBC’s cable news opinion-makers sustain and galvanize the Democratic faithful, the NBC broadcast network reaches millions of the potentially persuadable voters critical to both parties, which have sought to turn NBC’s internal tensions to their own advantage.

Left, Right, Left

MSNBC has caused corporate headaches since its inception.

NBC formed the channel as a joint venture with Microsoft in 1996 with the hope that it would thrust “all the value of NBC News into the cable world,” as Tom Rogers, a former NBC executive who helped found the cable network, described it in an interview.

But critics mocked the new 24-hour channel for its informal approach to news, mixing NBC’s biggest stars with younger personalities on a set reminiscent of Central Perk on “Friends.” It was almost immediately outflanked by Fox News, which followed MSNBC to market that same year and rose to the top of the cable news ratings as the first 24-hour TV channel with an overt political appeal.

MSNBC struggled with its identity. It moved to the left ahead of the Iraq War — and later moved right by hiring new hosts such as former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough. Soon it shifted leftward again, as host Keith Olbermann hit a nerve with his strident anti-Bush — and often anti-Fox — commentary.

But when Andrew Lack, a veteran producer, took over NBC’s news division in 2015, he decided the channel needed to tone down its partisan image. Under Lack — who oversaw MSNBC’s creation in an earlier NBC stint — the cable network bumped the Rev. Al Sharpton from the weekday schedule, hired former Fox anchor Greta Van Susteren and added more straightforward news programs, including a daily version of “Meet the Press,” NBC’s flagship political show, with Chuck Todd.

Todd was game — but would come to believe that his MSNBC duties ultimately hurt the “Meet the Press” franchise, several people at NBC said in interviews. The daily version of the show fell increasingly out of step with MSNBC’s partisan slant even as Republicans used its association with the liberal cable network to deny interview requests from the flagship Sunday edition of “Meet the Press.”

Then, Trump’s ascent shocked the Democratic base and spiked viewership of Maddow and other left-leaning hosts, whose programs became a kind of televised safe space. MSNBC’s ratings surged.

Conde Faces the Messiness

Conde succeeded Lack in spring 2020. A Wharton-trained business executive who sits on the boards of Walmart and PepsiCo, he came up through the corporate side of news, having led a turnaround at Telemundo after serving as the president of Univision Networks. Accordingly, Conde was expected to impose a more disciplined and neater corporate sensibility to the division.

He was almost immediately confronted by the messiness he had inherited.

Within a few weeks of Conde’s ascension, Trump attacked NBC when it announced the hiring of a new contributor: Lisa Page, a former FBI lawyer who became a lightning rod on the right for her role in the investigation into his campaign ties to Russia. After an initial MSNBC appearance she did not show up again.

A few months later, NBC faced criticism from the other direction when it booked Trump for a prime-time interview on the night of a presidential debate that he had boycotted. (Biden was appearing at the same time on ABC.) Maddow chastised her bosses about it on the air.

That sort of partisan tumult has often riled another important constituency for Conde: NBC’s affiliated regional stations, which the company relies on to carry its major news programs to markets throughout the country.

The stations tend to be deeply embedded — and deeply trusted — in their communities. Many of them operate in red states or counties and chafed whenever MSNBC, which Trump regularly calls “MSDNC,” drew conservative ire.

Over the years the affiliates, many of which would have been thrilled to see MSNBC’s leftward tilt abandoned entirely, increasingly urged NBC executives to better distinguish its content from the NBC journalism like “Today” and “Nightly News” that they carried on their stations.

At one point after Conde took over, executives talked about the possibility of doubling down on partisanship and stripping MSNBC of news altogether, defining it as a pure opinion channel. The company would use the new NBC News Now streaming service, started under Noah Oppenheim when he was NBC News president, for 24-hour news, according to two people with knowledge of the conversations.

That idea fizzled. Conde was not prepared to entirely abandon news, but he began to better distinguish the various parts of his news division — which effectively moved MSNBC and NBC News further apart.

In the Lack era, Oppenheim of NBC News and Phil Griffin, the longtime chief of MSNBC, often worked closely as they managed a collection of stars who worked for both networks, like Todd, Craig Melvin and Hallie Jackson.

Creating more distance between the cable and broadcast outlets, Conde and Griffin’s successor, Rashida Jones, moved Todd, Jackson and Melvin off MSNBC to work exclusively at NBC News and NBC News Now. MSNBC’s daytime block of hard news shrank to six hours from eight, as the cable network extended by an hour each two opinion shows with loyal followings: “Morning Joe” featuring Scarborough and his wife Mika Brzezinski, and “Deadline: White House” with Nicolle Wallace as host.

Nothing did more to signal that MSNBC was more tightly embracing its partisan direction than Jones’ decision to hire Psaki and another Biden aide, Symone Sanders, straight from the White House.

It was the kind of revolving-door hiring that liberal pundits used to criticize when it happened with Fox News and the Trump administration.

It also created an awkward situation for the NBC News White House team, which was caught off guard when word that Psaki was in talks for the job leaked while she was still serving as White House press secretary.

A tense, televised confrontation followed in the White House briefing room when Kristen Welker, then NBC News’ co-chief White House correspondent, asked her future colleague: “How is it ethical to have these conversations with media outlets while you continue to have a job standing behind that podium?”

Chasing a Broad Appeal

At the same time, NBC News was going through its own changes.

Early last year, Oppenheim left his post running NBC News, and Conde split his job in three. In a jigsawlike structure, one executive now oversaw “Today,” another “Nightly News” and NBC News Now, and a third “Meet the Press,” “Dateline” and news coverage across numerous shows and platforms.

Conde said the new setup would provide “growth opportunities,” with each show acting like its own megafranchise. “Today,” for instance, includes an e-commerce business and online sites dedicated to cooking, wellness and books.

He gave his deputies another brief: making additional efforts to ensure that news coverage reflected a wider range of political viewpoints.

Conde wanted to get Republicans back onto shows.

That was in line with an industrywide recalibration. After four years of combat between the press and Trump, media companies have sought better ways to reach Trump supporters who feel alienated from mainstream news. Television executives were also concerned that Republican elected officials were shunning their shows in favor of the congenial confines of right-wing media.

It was especially thorny for NBC, as Trump continued to yoke NBC News to MSNBC while accusing them, along with Comcast, of committing “Country Threatening Treason.”

A chance for a fresh start seemed to come last September when Welker succeeded Todd as the moderator of “Meet the Press.”

According to several people with knowledge of the internal discussions, Conde and Welker agreed that she should make booking both Trump and Biden for interviews a priority. Biden declined; Trump accepted.

But when Conde said she should schedule the Trump interview for her debut episode, Welker disagreed. Questioning the mendacious former president can be a high-wire act for even the most experienced TV interviewers, and Welker did not think it was a wise way to introduce herself to viewers. She acquiesced only after coaxing from Conde and several of his deputies.

Welker worked to fact-check Trump in real time while also eliciting an admission that he ignored his own campaign lawyers when they told him there was no evidence the 2020 presidential election results were rigged. Trump steamrolled ahead with a litany of lies nonetheless. The interview was panned on social media — complete with a “#boycottmeetthepress” campaign — but was deemed a success by Conde.

Conde and Rebecca Blumenstein, a former editor at The New York Times whom Conde hired as one of his top deputies, also worked aggressively to secure a Republican primary debate in fall 2023, pitching McDaniel and other Republican officials in person.

They succeeded, but only after accepting terms that unsettled some journalists within the company. NBC agreed to include a moderator from a right-wing media company, Salem Radio, and stream the debate live on Rumble, a video site that frequently hosts pro-Nazi and other extremist content. (NBC executives have defended the decision, noting that Rumble was already the party’s official streamer and had no editorial input.)

The debate received good marks in the press. And in general, red-state affiliates felt that Conde was doing a better job of bringing balance to NBC News, according to an executive at one company that owns affiliates.

Reverberations Continue

Each network was now set on its own distinct course: MSNBC toward more partisan and progressive opinion, and NBC News toward Conde’s commitment to “presenting our audiences with a widely diverse set of viewpoints and experiences,” as he put it.

But each tripped over the limits of its approach in an election landscape already littered with ideological tripwires.

When Hamas staged its terror attack against Israel on Oct. 7, MSNBC mixed breaking news of the attacks with discussions about the historical backdrop of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. The coverage reflected views on the left — and presaged the pro-Palestinian demonstrations that would soon grow in number — but it struck many others as discordant, or even offensive, given that the violence was still coming into view.

“I love this network, but I’ve got to ask: Who’s writing your scripts? Hamas?” Jonathan Greenblatt, the Anti-Defamation League CEO, asked two days later on “Morning Joe.”

Some of the blowback came from within.

In a call with Conde, Michael Cavanagh, the president of Comcast, who oversees NBC, shared concerns about that initial coverage, according to three people with knowledge of the discussions. Conde harbored the same concerns, according to a person briefed on their conversation, and he directed MSNBC to be more circumspect and to focus on facts, not opinions, in those initial days.

Five months later, Conde thought he had achieved a milestone at NBC News in his efforts to integrate right-wing perspectives into its programming. At the recommendation of Blumenstein and Carrie Budoff Brown, who oversees political coverage, Conde hired McDaniel, the former Republican Party chair, as a contributor who could offer on-air commentary.

If the hiring was in service of Conde’s goal of adding balance, it came as an unwelcome surprise to NBC’s ranks of correspondents, hosts and anchors. Welker had booked McDaniel for her next episode of “Meet the Press” — as a guest, not as a colleague. In the interview, she grilled McDaniel about her role in Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 election result, actions that many at NBC and MSNBC viewed as disqualifying for a job there.

Todd, appearing as a guest on that day’s episode, unleashed a live, on-air denunciation of his bosses after the interview that left the control room in stunned silence. His rebellion carried over the next day on MSNBC, from “Morning Joe” up through “The Rachel Maddow Show.” Under pressure, Conde broke the deal with McDaniel, a move that only served to upset the Republicans he was trying to attract.

In the aftermath, NBC’s public stumble turned into a point of contention on the presidential campaign trail. The Republican Party said it was weighing an attempt to restrict NBC News at this summer’s convention, while Trump yet again bashed “Fake News NBC.”

Aides to Biden were also perturbed about the McDaniel hire, viewing it as part of a broader attempt by NBC News to overcompensate for MSNBC’s decidedly pro-Biden stance. In private conversations with NBC correspondents, Biden aides have argued that “Nightly News,” whose huge audience is of critical political importance to the campaign, was taking it easy on Trump and treating Biden too harshly.

Executives at NBC dismissed these complaints, saying the partisan brickbats simply come with the territory. They believe that each campaign will use anything at its disposal to pressure news organizations for more favorable coverage.

The company pointed to comments made by Conde after the McDaniel imbroglio: “We will redouble our efforts to seek voices that represent different parts of the political spectrum.” It also shared data intended to show strong performance across its cable, broadcast and online operations.

The message was clear. Regardless of any turbulence, NBC has no plans to change course.

c.2024 The New York Times Company