It’s been a promising few months for left-leaning news network MSNBC.
In February, the once-struggling channel’s ratings leapfrogged CNN, which had long been the second most-watched TV news network. For the week of April 10, MSNBC drew more than twice as many prime time viewers as it did the same week last year, a whopping 106% audience increase no doubt fueled, in part, by a galvanized Democratic base in defiance of the new Trump administration.
The (liberal) news gets better. In March, Rachel Maddow, the network’s star personality, topped the prime time ratings list for a full week, averaging more viewers than even the seemingly insurmountable Bill O’Reilly. And thanks to O’Reilly’s history of grabbing a lot more than ratings, as of mid-April, he is no longer a threat to Maddow atop the rankings.
Given the current climate—a hungry Democratic base, a still-fractured GOP, and the disgraceful firing of conservative TV’s most-watched star—it would seem like MSNBC is set to finally assume the mantle as America’s most-watched cable network, right?
Not even close. In February—the same month that MSNBC overtook CNN—Fox News Channel drew more viewers than both networks combined. The week of April 10 marked the conservative network’s fifteenth consecutive seven-day stretch atop the rankings.
No Bill O’? No problem. Here are three reasons why MSNBC will never beat Fox News’ ratings.
Democrats Haven’t Forgiven the Media for 2016 Election Coverage
And for good reason: outlets like MSNBC helped put Donald Trump in the White House.
Throughout the election, MSNBC put profits over responsible reporting, riding the tantalizing Trump train-wreck to ratings windfalls. Too often, commentators essentially handed Trump the mic and disappeared while he lied and insulted his way to first the GOP nomination and then the presidency.
This grand sellout started even before primary votes were cast, as evidenced by an aptly titled December 2015 Mediaite piece: Why the Hell is MSNBC Airing Live Trump Rallies?
The coverage was nearly as ridiculous when Trump wasn’t on screen. Leading up to November 8, MSNBC’s pundits were gloating and smug, even as Hillary Clinton’s double-digit lead dwindled to within polling error margins.
After all, how could a candidate so confident that she barely bothered to campaign in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania possibly lose? On November 4, Lawrence O’Donnell gleefully interviewed a political scientist—no doubt cherry-picked from a sea of so-called experts—who put Hillary’s chances of winning at 99%, even after James Comey’s late-October surprise helped tighten the polls.
Of course, MSNBC wasn’t alone in its miscalculations. Even apolitical organizations like Moody’s Analytics predicted a Clinton landslide.
But when the television bullhorn of an entire political party is wrong on such an enormous, consequential scale, its reputation takes an outsized hit. For the foreseeable future, many liberals won’t feel like tuning in for another oh-so-confident prognostication from the likes of Chris Matthews or Joy-Ann Reid. It’s hard to blame them.
Liberals Can Get Their Fix Elsewhere
Left-leaning viewers have the luxury of choosing from a wide selection of smart, humorous political shows. Real Time with Bill Maher, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Samantha Bee’s Full Frontal and, The Daily Show with Trevor Noah give liberals something conservatives lack: savvy, entertaining options outside the realm of “straight” news coverage.
The chasm has only grown wider since Stephen Colbert took over The Late Show. It’s one thing to win Comedy Central and TBS; liberals now have an influential, talented mouthpiece on major network television.
Meanwhile, conservatives have…Fox News. And maybe CNBC, if cheering on unfettered capitalism counts as conservative. There aren’t a lot of sophisticated conservative comedians these days (what’s Dennis Miller doing lately?), which says more about the modern-day Republican Party than it does the “Hollywood liberal elite.”
The greed, thinly-veiled bigotry and science denial that define the modern-day GOP simply aren’t conducive to high-brow political comedy. Fear-mongering and funny don’t mix, leaving the conservative movement almost entirely consumed by Fox News. It has more viewers because they have nowhere else to go.
Sophistication and Spin
A 2016 report from the Pew Research Center revealed a wide partisan gap between highly educated and non-highly-educated Americans. In short, the percentage of college and post-college graduates who identify as “consistently liberal” has grown sharply over the last two decades. Coincidentally, that timeframe spans the existence of both Fox News and MSNBC, each founded in 1996.
Without getting into indefinable liberal vs. conservative IQ Wars, it’s safe to say that the more educated someone is, the more likely they are to discern spin from straight journalism. It’s also inarguable that Fox News and MSNBC both thrive on confirmation bias meted out to like-minded viewers.
Less educated media consumers aren’t as likely to notice when their news is saturated with partisanship that frequently borders on intellectual dishonesty and even outright falsehoods. Liberals may not be unequivocally smarter than conservatives, but the education advantage that liberals possess almost certainly makes them savvier viewers and less susceptible to politically slanted spin, especially its most transparent examples.