MSNBC Takes a Wrong Turn

Mar 10, 2003  •  Post A Comment

MSNBC may think it’s being sly as a Fox by hiring a fleet of conservative commentators and jettisoning unabashed liberal Phil Donahue. But the network, which has traditionally featured relatively balanced news coverage, may not be prepared for the can of worms it has opened with its sudden shift to the right-especially with the hiring of Michael Savage.
The hot-button San Francisco radio host, whose MSNBC show was scheduled to premiere March 8, arrives at the network on the same wave that brings former House Majority Leader Dick Armey and former Congressman Joe Scarborough, both staunch Republicans and outspoken conservatives, to the perennially third-ranked cable news channel. The moves, along with the ouster of Mr. Donahue after an unexpectedly brief run for his low-rated talk show, appear to be inspired by the recent ratings success of the strongly conservative Fox News Channel.
Mr. Savage has been the lightning rod for most of the negative attention MSNBC’s shift to the right has attracted. Almost daily a new group seems to add its name to a growing list of organizations that are angered by the prospect of Mr. Savage having a forum on national television. These groups have vowed to fight his hiring with whatever weapons they have at their disposal, including pressuring advertisers and lobbying executives of MSNBC’s parent corporations.
Extremists such as Mr. Savage always present a sticky problem for those who support free speech, as TelevisionWeek wholeheartedly does. While we are disturbed by many of the views he has expressed, and by the venom with which he presents them, we defend his right to speak his piece as he sees fit.
On the other hand, MSNBC’s sudden strategic shift does raise concerns. The bottom line is whether it is a wise tactic for the network, and it appears to us that it is not.
The new focus at MSNBC seems to have arisen not from any underlying philosophical shift but purely out of an interest in pumping up ratings. The move sets an ugly precedent, pushing a cynical agenda that is unbecoming and clearly out of place at a news network.
The reality is that this strategy could easily backfire. By embracing the Fox model, MSNBC has effectively diluted its own identity and undermined its credibility, turning its back on the admirable track record it has forged with its news programming even while mired in the ratings cellar.
There have been rumors that MSNBC could disappear if ratings and revenues don’t rise. That would seem to be what is driving this move. The danger is that the new direction could cost MSNBC whatever audience loyalty it has been able to build, while conservatives will see through this thinly veiled attempt to lure them away from Fox. MSNBC has opted to risk alienating its own core audience in the hope of syphoning off a piece of the much larger Fox News Channel audience. That isn’t the way to build loyal viewership and in the long run could hurt more than it helps.