It's Okay for MSNBC to be the Liberal Network, But for God's Sake Own It

The key to the problem isn't the existence of a liberal network, it's the existence of a liberal network that isn't entirely sure whether it wants to be liberal in the first place.
Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews, Lawrence

After observing how Bill O'Reilly reacted to David Corn's allegations that O'Reilly lied about his coverage of the Falkland Islands conflict, I hope NBC News feels vindicated in its response to Brian Williams. Why? Because O'Reilly's desperate flailing and hilariously short fuse are making Brian Williams and NBC News look like the adults in the room.

Taking Williams off the air was absolutely the right move because this is how a serious news anchor and his serious news division should behave in the big boy leagues. Conversely, O'Reilly taking the bait and vocally protesting the Corn allegations is amateur hour, and only lends more visibility to the Mother Jones bombshell. Good job, Bill.

O'Reilly, on the other hand, reminds me of how smear-merchant Chuck C. Johnson behaves whenever The Daily Banter or Little Green Footballs publishes articles that expose how completely hackish and incompetent he is. His first reaction is almost always to throw a temper tantrum on social media, not realizing that it only makes things worse for him. For example, when he asked us to remove licensed photos of his face, we replaced his photos with, shall we say, lessflatteringimages. Or when rumors circulated that Johnson allegedly pooped on the floor of his college dorm, Johnson inexplicably kept the rumors alive when he threatened to sue anyone who repeated them, stupidly amplifying the story. This is what O'Reilly is doing. He's pulling a Chuck Johnson.

On the other hand, while NBC News has done an admirable job with handling the Brian Williams fracas, its cable news network is a mess. Before we continue, I hasten to preface that I like MSNBC. When I criticize MSNBC it comes from a place of being a long-time viewer, not unlike how fans of Star Wars or other legendary movies might pick apart mistakes or poor performances in otherwise classic films. I just want MSNBC to be better. And frankly, it's not that difficult but for the fact that MSNBC president Phil Griffin can't seem to figure out what MSNBC is supposed to be.

Specifically, it's okay for MSNBC to be the Liberal Network. It just has to own it, once and for all.

Late last week, Griffin canceled both the Ronan Farrow show and the Joy Reid show. In the interest of full disclosure, I consider Joy Reid to be an e-friend. Despite that relationship, and speaking as objectively as possible, Reid was one of few truly solid hosts on MSNBC dayside. Ronan Farrow wasn't a terrible host, but he might've been a little out of his element. He's a smart kid and I'm sure his on-screen presence would've matured with more time, but Farrow was simply plunked into the wrong context and the wrong format. The rationale behind hiring Farrow was: 1) to exploit his name recognition as the son of Mia Farrow and Woody Allen (and by "Woody Allen," I mean "Frank Sinatra"), and 2) to attract to Millennial viewers. Regarding the latter, how many Millennials watch MSNBC, first of all, and how many Millennials are watching MSNBC in the middle of the day?

MSNBC's top-shelf problem isn't necessarily specific hosts, it's that MSNBC doesn't know how to program to liberals who are generally exhausted by cable news shovel-fights in which nothing is resolved and nothing is ever, ever learned. The cable news segments that are circulated most often in social media are never the segments featuring 12 apparatchiks in boxes screeching about who "won the day." What's shared most often online are the smart, essay-style take-downs -- especially and most importantly the ones with a sense of humor. Lawrence O'Donnell and Rachel Maddow are often featured in these clips because they know how to construct great essays that resonate with the left.

More than anything else, the left will embrace MSNBC when it stops being ashamed of its reputation as the Liberal Network. Imitating Fox News Channel's shallowness and shrieking anger, but with a sometimes-liberal spin, doesn't work. Clearly. MSNBC should be running more hard news stories, first and foremost, but in the form of in-depth investigations, rather than throwaway, easily digestible headlines. It should look to 60 Minutes by way of The Daily Show rather than Hannity by way of Rush Limbaugh as a template; look to Jon Stewart's winning process of deconstructing a news story and then reconstructing it in a way that's both compelling and salient (Maddow is really good at this, by the way).

And for heaven's sake, don't be afraid of being liberal. You can be really, really liberal as long as it's smart, insightful liberalism, and not stupid, superficial liberalism. Regarding the latter, I won't name names, but a few stupid liberals do exist on MSNBC.

If there's one lesson to draw from O'Reilly and Fox News Channel, it's this: they make no apologies for being who and what they are, and that level of confidence works. Audiences can sense it. But if a network is always running away from its reputation, or unsure of which direction it'd like to go, it's a recipe for failure -- as we can plainly see in MSNBC's ratings lately.

There's a rumor circulating that in the wake of canceling Farrow and Reid, Griffin might attempt to pull MSNBC away from being the Liberal Network. Cutting-and-running from its reputation might be the worst decision Griffin could make. First, no matter what Griffin does, MSNBC will always be labeled as liberal. Always. Second, Griffin never programmed a fully Liberal Network (see Morning Joe for three full hours a day). And contrary to some analysts, there's nothing wrong with having both a liberal cable news network and a conservative one. For 200 years, most American towns have had a liberal newspaper and a conservative one. Knowing our collective history, there's nothing unusual or untoward about having the same dichotomy in television -- a liberal network and a conservative network -- as long as they're accompanied by sources for hard news.

In the face of the rapid corporate consolidation of radio and television, the worst thing that could ever happen would be to forfeit the game, leaving zero representation of the left on cable, especially given the juggernaut ratings of Fox News Channel.

The key to the problem isn't the existence of a liberal network, it's the existence of a liberal network that isn't entirely sure whether it wants to be liberal in the first place and, from there, not knowing exactly how to program to its target audience. That's MSNBC's fatal flaw, and at this point it doesn't look like Phil Griffin is up for the challenge.