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During its first years of production, MSNBC underwent a series of identity crises as the fledgling network struggled to compete with both CNN and Fox News. Once FNC became the ratings champ thanks to its conservative sensibility and hiring of loud advocates for Republicans, the network shifted to become the network of the opposition to then-president George W. Bush, particularly during his second term.
One would think that in light of the success MSNBC found in promoting anti-Bush voices that it would be doubling down on the strategy now that Donald Trump, an even more unpopular Republican, is in the White House. Instead, the very opposite thing is happening: MSNBC is hiring right-leaning commentators and former Fox News anchors.
Sources say that NBC News president Andy Lack is primarily responsible for the shift. He has already reined in the powers of MSNBC chief Phil Griffin, the former Keith Olbermann producer who oversaw the network’s leftward move in the mid-2000s. The shift appears to be based in part on the idea that with Republicans controlling both houses of Congress as well as the presidency, having too many overtly anti-GOP commentators is a liability for NBC reporters attempting to get access to cover stories.
From a hiring standpoint, MSNBC’s movement away from progressive commentary began when Lack placed Brian Williams — the former “NBC Nightly News” anchor who was removed from his show after he was accused of exaggerating his exploits as a war reporter — as the cable network’s “chief anchor” and the host of a late-night news program.
The moves continued in September 2016 when MSNBC signed Greta Van Susteren to a 6 p.m. ET show after she exercised a clause in her contract which allowed her to leave Fox News after its former chairman, Roger Ailes, resigned under pressure of several sexual harassment lawsuits. Van Susteren’s program debuted in January.
The NBC raiding of Fox News’ talent continued when it hired Megyn Kelly away from her primetime program in January. It’s not currently known to what degree she will appear on MSNBC as the NBC brass have her slated for a Sunday evening show as well as a morning program to air after the primary block of the “Today” show.
In April, MSNBC announced it had hired Nicole Wallace, a former senior adviser for Bush and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to host a show airing at 4 p.m. Eastern time. The network has also brought on former Fox News contributor George Will after his contract wasn’t renewed by the right-leaning channel, thanks in part to his persistent criticism of Trump.
MSNBC’s shift away from its one-time “Lean Forward” slogan and overtly progressive tilt has also led to the cancellation of several programs hosted by black commentators, including a daily show hosted by Joy-Ann Reid, a weekend program formerly hosted by Melissa Harris-Perry, and a weekday program formerly hosted by activist Al Sharpton. Both Reid and Sharpton were moved to weekend slots.
The channel’s move away from the left appears to still be ongoing as MSNBC has been reported to be engaging in talks with Hugh Hewitt, a talk radio host known for his rigid adherence to the Washington GOP. On Sunday, HuffPost reported that MSNBC has not been negotiating with Lawrence O’Donnell to renew his contract, which expires in a matter of weeks, despite his apparent desire to renew it and that his 10 p.m. program is the second-most-popular show on the network.
“Thanks for your support,” O’Donnell told fans on Twitter last Friday. “We need it.” In April, he complained that his bosses were not promoting his program enough.
MSNBC’s recent veer toward the right is a back to the future move, according to Cenk Uygur, a one-time network host who says he was ordered to stop criticizing Democrats. He cited MSNBC’s past difficulties with onetime anchors Phil Donahue and Ashleigh Banfield as proof that the corporate stance of the network is only to chase ratings and not actually to advocate for progressive viewpoints.
Donahue hosted a program on MSNBC for about six months early during Bush’s first term. His show appears to have been canceled in part because the former daytime talker was adamantly opposed to the second U.S. invasion of Iraq.
According to an internal memo about his show, Donahue was seen as a “difficult public face for NBC in a time of war.” The document claimed that he “seems to delight in presenting guests who are anti-war, anti-Bush and skeptical of the administration’s motives.”
Banfield faced similar problems at MSNBC due to her skepticism of the war. In 2009, she told a now-defunct Connecticut webzine that the network took away her office workspace for 10 months and later moved her into a closet after she criticized cable news networks for being too accepting of the former Bush administration’s claims as well as too gung-ho about the invasion.
The executive who oversaw Banfield at the time denied her allegations, according to the website. A spokesman for NBC did not respond to a request to comment for this article.
“We know for a fact that they are for war and they want to shut down left-wing voices,” Uygur told Salon in an interview. “We know for a fact that this is what permeates the regime at MSNBC.”
Uygur believes MSNBC’s recent shift away from the left is primarily due to the network’s corporate parent Comcast wanting to get in better with Republicans so that they will support efforts to repeal so-called net neutrality regulations which have placed some limits on how cable companies can deliver internet services.
“Comcast wants to end net neutrality and who else wants to end net neutrality? The right wing does. Hey, wouldn’t it be better to do marketing for the right wing then? That would make Comcast untold billions of dollars,” Uygur said.
“The general corporate interests of the parent company are far, far more important than the slight financial gain that MSNBC might have from better ratings,” he said.
How far will MSNBC’s shift continue and how will it impact viewership? Thus far, things have not negatively impacted the channel’s ratings. MSNBC’s top host Rachel Maddow’s program now routinely finishes at the top of the cable news heap and the network’s other shows have continued to do well. It remains to be seen what might happen what further moves toward the center will bring.