December 23, 2013

The highlight of the MSNBC daytime programming on Friday, Dec. 13 concerned not relations with Iran, not the Republicans’ intra-party warfare, not the budget, but chickens. Afternoon host Tamron Hall did a segment on the trials of J.J. Hart, a 3-year-old autistic child in DeBary, Fla., who enjoys playing with chickens in his back yard. J.J.’s parents had acquired the animals as a therapeutic measure, insisting that interaction with the pets helped him developmentally. In a much-covered struggle, however, the family tangled with local authorities over the legality of keeping such animals in the yard. It lawyered up, and Hall scored an interview with the whole group.

As the on-air discussion proceeded, J.J. sat on his father’s lap, cradling a chicken that showed no interest in hogging the spotlight. It just stood there, soaking up the caresses that came its way. Maybe it flapped its wings once or twice. After noting the adorability of J.J., Hall remarked, “I’m equally impressed with how disciplined this chicken is.”

What a relief. The chicken segment hit the MSNBC airwaves at around 2:40 p.m., after hours of repetitive programming: talk about those Republican Party wars, talk about the 2016 presidential campaign, talk about how women are saving Congress, talk about politics, more politics and more, more politics.

The Erik Wemple Blog’s look at MSNBC’s programming on Dec. 13 stems from a commitment to fairness and balance. In March, we watched a full swath of Fox News daytime coverage with the objective of measuring the network’s commitment to reporting and fact-checking its frequent claims that coverage from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. is objective. (It’s not, but Fox News does do a lot of hard news in the daytime hours).

In response to the Fox News daytime audit, some readers of this blog wondered whether a comparable look at MSNBC would ever surface. Here it is, with a small caveat: These reviews are designed to take place on slow news days, the better to gauge the true personality of the channels. On Dec. 13 just after 3 p.m. EST, however, reports pointed to a shooting at Arapahoe High School in Colorado. MSNBC handled the coverage admirably, tossing to an affiliate station in Colorado and knitting in reporting from NBC justice correspondent Pete Williams and correspondent Tom Costello, among others.

Switching back and forth between the affiliate station and the mothership, Team NBC/MSNBC ladled out facts only as they became firm. The collaboration received a nice plug from Fox News breaking-news czar Shepard Smith, who at 3:36:23 credited the NBC station in Colorado with breaking the news that one student had sustained a gunshot wound at the school.

Though MSNBC’s daytime stuff brims with softness, the network’s president, Phil Griffin, tells the Erik Wemple Blog that his folks come to play when something big happens. “I will tell you — when it counts,” says Griffin, referring to big news events of 2013, such as the Boston Marathon bombings, “take a look at our coverage and compare it to our competitors: We stand up to any of them.”

MSNBC’s immediate coverage of Arapahoe lasted about an hour, long enough to apprise viewers that the situation had stabilized. The departure from normal programming, we decided, was not long enough to scupper our evaluation of MSNBC dayside; the tendencies before and after the breaking-news coverage provided plenty of grist for analysis.

Our analysis of the network’s daytime programming kicked off with Chuck Todd’s “Daily Rundown,” a splurge on politics and political analysis. On Friday, for instance, Todd concluded his show by breaking down Mike Huckabee’s prospects in the early primary states in the event of a presidential run in 2016. The message: 2016 cannot possibly come fast enough for a ratings-conscious cable channel.

Todd’s show gives way to “Jansing & Co.,” hosted by Chris Jansing, who years ago worked for a local news station covering the Erik Wemple Blog’s native stomping grounds in the Albany-Schenectady-Troy area of New York State. Jansing leads a lot of discussions on politics, as does her next-door neighbor, Thomas Roberts, in the 11:00 a.m. hour. Both programs produce their share of quiet and forgettable fare.

The noon hour brings some energy to the offerings, as “Now” host Alex Wagner rounds up panel after panel of commentators out of whom she sometimes pries interesting thoughts, all the while making sure the audience knows exactly what she thinks about each little topic. Exuberance from the host, though, carries “Now” only so far. Guests, however intelligent and impeccably prepared, tend to be separated by a fraction of an ideological furlong.

From there, things get drab. “Andrea Mitchell Reports” rests on its namesake’s fame and reportorial bona fides, which are substantial. Less awesome are her anchoring skills. Tamron Hall’s show comes next, in the 2:00 p.m. hour. It’s fine.

The formula for MSNBC’s 3 p.m. roundtable show “The Cycle” comes directly from “The Five,” a smash hit over at Fox News. Where Fox News ganged up four conservatives against a single, strong-willed liberal (Bob Beckel), MSNBC initially teamed up three liberals against a single, strong-willed conservative (S.E. Cupp). After Cupp left for CNN’s “Crossfire,” MSNBC called in Abby Huntsman, then of the Huffington Post, to replace Cupp as the panel’s most pivotal member. She isn’t there yet, which leaves the show’s liberal majority without an unruly threat from the right. Maybe that’s just the way MSNBC wants things. “She’s growing into that role,” says Griffin of Huntsman. “I think she does a great job.”

The 4 p.m. slot at MSNBC, once held down by the Sarah Palin-trashing Martin Bashir, will soon become the turf of Wagner, the opinionated nerve center of “Now.” The move should ensure that the network’s programming will march more and more leftward as the day matures. Here’s how Griffin puts the situation: “As the afternoon progress, there’s a little more analysis.”

Sure, if you call what Big Ed Schultz says “analysis.” He roars onto the air at 5 p.m. That’s when the Erik Wemple Blog checked out. Eight hours of MSNBC, punctuated by commercial-break dashes to the bathroom and to the refrigerator to grab lunch, render even the heartiest of bloggers powerless to digest an hour of “The Ed Show.”

Some observations on MSNBC dayside:

Commentary!

The March 2013 findings of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism in March weren’t kind to MSNBC. A content analysis conducted by Pew determined that programming on the network — over a three-day sample — followed an embarrassing split of 85 percent commentary to 15 percent reporting. Competitors fared far better, as the chart below illustrates:


The standard used by Pew in calculating its numbers is unforgiving. Via Pew: “An individual story was considered commentary or opinion if 25% of the time if that story included opinionated statements. Otherwise, the story was coded for being a factual reported piece.” Consider the implications here for any cable network or, indeed, for any medium that relies heavily on interviews. So long as the interviewee spouts off for one-quarter of the duration, that’s commentary; if the interviewee sticks mostly to the facts, that’s reporting. “The majority of interviews on cable do fall into the opinion category, especially those round-table discussions with ‘political experts’ who share their thoughts on issues, or interviews with people that have a vested interest in expressing a political point (such as with activists or many politicians),” notes Paul Hitlin, senior researcher at Pew Research Center’s Journalism Project, via e-mail.

Whatever the case, Pew applied the same standards to each of the networks, and MSNBC’s competitors emerged looking a lot more reportorial. Detractors of MSNBC have delighted in citing the network’s commentary skyscraper in the Pew chart. For a network that likes charts, it’s a bad chart.

The Erik Wemple Blog lacks the requisite staffing to apply the Pew formulation to all the segments from Friday. That’s not to say we can’t appreciate how Pew arrived at its number. Over the course of the day, the network turned in a heap of pure-talk programming — chatty undertakings in which the host presents some facts and then folds in some guests to analyze them, with the guests consisting of a blend of MSNBC contributors, MSNBC.com reporters and an always plunderable volunteer corps of (quite often left-leaning) think-tankers and policy analysts. It’s wall-to-wall paneling, classic cable news.

Hard-news reporting accounted for much less of the programming.

Attaching numbers to the two baskets is nothing short of a methodological morass. No one will challenge our conclusion that banter between Thomas Roberts and Chris Jansing about her hairstyle doesn’t count as news programming. But what about a softball interview with a lawmaker? Or a one-on-one Chuck Todd interview with a think-tank executive?

So we settled on two formulations: A strict constructionist methodology that treated anything approaching panelly, issue-oriented stuff in the “talk” basket and the rest in the “news” basket. This approach yielded a split of around 210 minutes of talk and 50 minutes of news.

The loose constructionist methodology credited MSNBC with news coverage for every segment that included a newsmaker or elected official, no matter how lame the segment may have been. This approach yielded a nearly one-to-one split between the two categories. Neither methodology accounted for the Arapahoe coverage, which clearly would have tilted the numbers in favor of reporting.

In any case, the core of the hard stuff stemmed from MSNBC’s partnership with NBC News. For instance, Mitchell did a segment on preparations for the funeral of Nelson Mandela with NBC News foreign correspondent Richard Engel, who was on the ground in South Africa. Hall chatted up NBC News national investigative correspondent Michael Isikoff about the fate of CIA contractor Bob Levinson in Iran and spoke with NBC News Capitol Hill correspondent Kelly O’Donnell about Congress. All those segments were quite good.

Choose your explanation as to why MSNBC doesn’t seed more of its coverage with such reporting and scale back the volunteer lefty blather:

1) Volunteer lefty blather is cheap;

2) Volunteer lefty blather appeals to the base;

3) Volunteer lefty blather is cheap and appeals to the base;

4) Serious reporters don’t engage in cheap and indulgent lefty blather;

5) Serious reporters deliver too little differentiation with arch-competitor CNN.

Of course, don’t criticize MSNBC’s news-commentary blend without expecting a bit of a backlash from Griffin. No. 1: Mitchell alone “advances stories in her hour in ways that few daytime programs do in all of cable,” says the network president. No. 2: MSNBC relies extensively on the NBC News Washington bureau — as well as the staffers from MSNBC.com — whenever there’s news popping, he says. No. 3: When NBC types are busy with other things, MSNBC brings on talent from The Washington Post, the New York Times and others. As for the talky nature of MSNBC dayside, “there are some shows that we lean on panels more than others,” says Griffin.

Washington

MSNBC is headquartered in New York, along with the network colossus with which it share some initials. Its programming heart, however, resides a couple of hours south on the interstate.

In our Dec. 13 viewing hours, MSNBC aired around 170 minutes of content that we’ll call political — chiefly, segments on gun-control legislation, voting rights, the splintered Republican Party and so on. That was about twice the amount of non-political content — the chicken family, interviews with family members of Newtown victims, Beyonce’s December surprise, etc. In the initial count, we threw foreign affairs into the non-political column; if you consider that coverage political, the numbers skew even more lopsidedly toward MSNBC’s political obsession.

When asked about this monotopicalism, Griffin went into something of a lecture: “I’ll tell you, I think we are evolving the channel a bit,” he told the Erik Wemple Blog. “Look, politics is at our core,” he added, noting that MSNBC reaches a diverse audience that reflects “America in the 21st century” in ways that competitors do not. In the coming year, says the network president, MSNBC will be covering more technology and “things that are really changing America.” The idea, he says, is to “broaden out so we’re not as limited by election cycles.”

Puff

The tone and message of Dec. 13′s edition of “Now” were set by the first line by host Alex Wagner: “Dear John Boehner and Paul Ryan, don’t forget to send thank-you notes to Nancy Pelosi and Patty Murray.” The zinger stemmed from the host’s view that the women of Capitol Hill had piloted the budget compromise announced earlier in the week.

The whole one-hour show was devoted to discussing the role of women in politics and media. Good topic, so-so execution.

In the show’s key segment, host Wagner spoke with House Minority Leader Pelosi. “Interview” would be too generous a description for this session. Have a look at the questions that came from Wagner. (Note: The italicized questions are ones that Wagner explained to viewers that she’d asked Pelosi, as a lead-in to the answer from Pelosi; the quoted questions are ones that Wagner posed directly to Pelosi in the taped interview. Answers from Pelosi are short-handed in parentheses):

What made you jump into the political swamp to begin with? (Cared about the issues)

Are you surprised by the recent onslaught of legislation specifically targeting women coming from your Republican colleagues in Washington? (No)

What is it, do you think, that keeps them on this anti-woman crusade or that wants to rewind the clock so many years?” (Disrespect)

“What shocks me about this platform that you’re talking about– the three pillars of the House Democratic economic agenda for women — pay, work-and-family balance, child care: These shouldn’t be partisan issues. And every man in Congress has or had a mother that had to in some way deal with these issues. Do you ever say to Speaker Boehner, ‘Listen, you had a mom, you come from a big Catholic family in Ohio. You understand the importance of family planning.’ Do you ever engage with them as sort of humans and…” (No)

“Let me ask you, do you consider yourself a feminist?” (“Of course.”)

“Could you tell us just from personal experience what it has been like shattering the glass ceilings that you have?” (I shattered the marble ceiling, bucko.)

“When you started out, I mean, some of the things that are said about are really deeply personal, they’re sexist, they’re misogynist. How have you built your armor in … your career.” (“Eat nails for breakfast.”)

Bolded text added to highlight MSNBCitis, defined as the propensity to ask a liberal why those horrible conservatives do the odious things that they do. Though the Erik Wemple Blog hasn’t completed the required analytics, our impression is that Wagner is not as hardened a perpetrator of MSNBCitis as was former colleague Martin Bashir, whose violations this blog chronicled upon his recent exit from MSNBC for unspeakable comments about Sarah Palin. Here’s a Bashir classic:

Bashir: Why do people like [House Speaker John] Boehner and others like Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) … Why do they continue to act as if the American public is actually behind them when the polls generally show the exact opposite?

Democratic Rep. Steve Israel: Well, they keep saying, listen to the American people. What they really mean is, listen to our echo chamber…

Wagner’s invitation to speculate on the nefarious motives of the Republicans should count as a campaign contribution to Pelosi. Such a question, after all, packs two great PR opportunities for Pelosi. First, she gets to accept a great premise — that the Republicans are on an anti-woman crusade. Second, she gets to do something that’d never be allowed in a court of law, or even in a more rigorous journalistic environment, which is to attach her own speculation to the motives of an entire group of people.

A hard-edged interview with the minority leader is clearly not what the “Now” team had in mind for this special women-in-politics show. The idea, it appears, was to allow Pelosi to tell everyone what a tough woman she is. Okay, but why not showcase Pelosi’s rough-and-tumbleness by challenging her, by pressing her on her political vulnerabilities? And why not showcase Wagner’s own interviewing muscles? We know, after all, that she has them, if this interview with Ron Paul is any indication.

Interrupt!

Good for MSNBC host Chris Jansing. In an interview with Democratic Sen. Bob Casey, Jansing asked an important question about U.S. foreign policy toward Iran. She noted that Casey has been an advocate of sanctions against Tehran, though he seemed to have softened his stance a touch after a recent session with Secretary of State John Kerry. Once Jansing posed the question, though, she supervised something of a filibuster by the senator:

No, I still believe we’ve got to have sanctions on the table and continue to use it as a very constructive and, I would argue, effective tool to bring the Iranians to the table, the regime to the table and, in fact, to continue the engagement. But how we do that is another question, and a lot of us are trying to figure out the best way to do that. But I don’t think we should ever take it off the table and I do believe that despite a lot of back and forth and good discussions with the administration, very helpful discussions, I think the idea that we can just take it off the table and put it on the shelf until these six months transpire is a mistake. But there are some good discussions about how to do it, the nature of sanctions — and I think there’s a fairly consistent belief that having sanctions in place, new sanctions in place, but to suspend or hold in abeyance the imposition of them is probably the right way to go. But this is a very critical time. We have to get this right, and we’ve got to be very thoughtful about how we do it. I’ve spent a lot of time in the last week and a half talking to experts, talking to the administration, getting both classified and non-classified briefings and I have more work to do and I hope people in both parties approach it that way.

Everyone decries the lack of civility in cable news: Hosts are nasty and prone to drumming up imaginary conflicts, fond of starting on-air fights in the hope of going viral. Perhaps Jansing could have channeled a bit of that tradition and asked Casey something along the lines of, “Excuse me, sir, what on earth are you actually saying here?”

Instead she asked, “Well, Sen. Bob Casey, you guys getting any sleep at all?” (“Limited.”)

Maybe Jansing just isn’t an interruption-prone anchor. But don’t tell that to Joe Watkins, a Republican strategist who also appeared on Jansing’s show that day. The topic was gun violence, pegged to the then-imminent one-year anniversary of the Newtown massacre. Jansing opened the discussion by introducing Watkins and Mark Hannah, a Democratic analyst type.

First question went to Hannah: Were Democrats outmaneuvered over the past year by the gun lobby? Hannah offered a perfectly fine response, delving into the difficulty of building public support for further gun controls. By the metrics of database ShadowTV, Hannah started his answer at 10:31:22 and ended at 10:32:16 — nearly a minute of explication, uninterrupted.

The baton then went to Watkins, who started his remarks at 10:32:39. “Nobody wants to have happen what happened in Newtown ever again, or in Colorado or anyplace where there’s been some kind of a mass shooting — Washington, D.C….,” started Watkins, almost as a throat-clearing exercise.

The ellipses are included in the quote above because Watkins was just getting started. But no: Jansing stopped him at 10:32:47, when Watkins wasn’t even 10 seconds into his opening salvo. Jansing big-footed: “You say that, but nothing’s done to change. Can I just show you some numbers…”

Sure you can, you’re the host — it’s your job to cut off the Republican guy!

Music

MSNBC critics have hammered the network for liberal bias. MSNBC critics have hammered the network for bad editing. MSNBC critics have hammered the network for spreading Obama propaganda.

But where are the MSNBC critics when it comes to music? We’re talking about those little techno-percussive ditties that bridge the spaces between segments and commercial breaks. If MSNBC isn’t afraid to borrow from Fox News on programming (see “The Cycle,” above), why not do so on tunes as well?

Wonkery

Whether it’s Jansing leading a panel on gun control, or Ari Melber leading a panel on voting rights, or Alex Wagner leading a panel on women’s progress, or Andrea Mitchell interviewing someone on North Korea, or Chuck Todd doing a “Deep Dive” segment on the budget, credit the MSNBC crew with this much: It cares about its policy.

Let’s take a little deep dive on the segment titled “Deep Dive” on Todd’s show. The peg for Todd’s teach-in was the budget deal reached by Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Paul Ryan. In cueing up the segment, Todd aimed at the “painful reality of what the Murray-Ryan does and does not accomplish.” Here’s how Todd addressed the budgetary issues:

As we’ve pointed out, this is a do-no-harm deal, an agreement that more or less moves the fiscal furniture around while putting off any risk of a battle over government funding for at least two years. And that’s about all it does. Take a look at it. According to the CBO, the deal cuts $85 billion from the budget through a mix of spending reductions and new revenues over ten years — a little bit backloaded, by the way. The deal also raises congressional spending caps by a total of $62 billion over that same period. So if you subtract the new spending from the cuts, you are left with 23 billion in total deficit reduction from now until 2023. Now compare that number, $23 billion, to the CBO’s estimate for total deficits over the next ten years. That number is $6.3 trillion. So, if the debt reduction in this new budget deal seems like a drop in the bucket, it is, because Ryan and Murray have managed to shave just four one-thousandths of a percent off the deficit. You can triple-check our math on that one. Not only that, the budget doesn’t deal with the exploding cost of entitlements, either. And while it likely avoids battles over budget funding, it doesn’t do anything about the threat of another fight over the debt limit — hint, hint. Remember, Congress suspended the debt limit back in October. It kicks back in potentially on Feb. 7 with a limit of around $17 trillion. At that point, the Treasury will immediately have to begin using those so-called extraordinary measures to allow the government room to keep borrowing. Maybe they are able to do that again and delay anything until May or June, but after that, we could be facing a debt limit fight all over again.

Cable news has a lot of time to do many different things; it’s on 24-7, after all. In addition to all the terrible stuff, it uses that infinite time span to deploy good old Todd to analyze the federal budget. And behold how glorious the analysis is: tight, elegant, detailed — everything you need.

The budget breakdown is precisely the sort of analysis that MSNBC President Phil Griffin hailed in the aftermath of the 2012 presidential election. That was an ascendant time at the cable network, for its coverage of the Romney-Obama race had elevated MSNBC’s ratings. After the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism — always dogging MSNBC! — issued a study saying that both MSNBC and Fox News had moved to partisan extremes in the runup to the election, Griffin pointedly told the Erik Wemple Blog, “We do honest analysis with — yes — a point of view, but it’s honest. And our folks called out Obama when he failed, but they weren’t cheerleading.”

What you see is what you get

As discussed at the start of this post, Fox News promotes its dayside as the equivalent to the news pages of a newspaper, whereas its opinionated evening hosts are its answer to the editorial section. Though this claim comes off as blarney to anyone who knows right from left, it’s an animating, foundational piece of the Fox News catechism.

MSNBC, not quite as much. As Mediaite’s savvy MSNBC watcher Noah Rothman pointed out in 2012, the cable net had “claimed to have a longstanding network policy that their dayside lineup is composed entirely of straight, nonpartisan news.” Such a description works better for certain parts of the network’s lineup — like Todd and Mitchell’s shows, for instance — than it does for others — like the full-throated liberal “Now” and the late “Martin Bashir” program.

A year ago, Rothman asked MSNBC whether it had gone avowedly liberal during its daytime programming and didn’t get a response.

Griffin tells the Erik Wemple Blog that “MSNBC does have a sensibility all day long, but there’s no question that prime time has a lot more analysis.”

More from Griffin: “I think the one thing you can say is that at MSNBC we’re honest to our viewers, we correct mistakes, we don’t put out slogans that are meaningless — ‘We report, you decide’ — and we’re not going to say if we want a candidate to win, that candidate is going to win,” he says.

The upshot is that MSNBC brass is not claiming that its dayside work is straight-up-the-middle reporting. Only in the cesspool of cable news is not lying about the premise of your programming a selling point.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.