After distinguishing itself as television’s Official Benghazi Network over the past three years, Fox News late Thursday afternoon ditched Benghazi. As this blog noted in an astonished post, the network bounced around various other news topics — including Donald Trump and Wikileaks — as former Secretary of State and presidential hopeful Hillary Rodham Clinton took questions from Rep. Trey Gowdy’s (R-S.C.) special Benghazi committee over a nearly 11-hour spell.
So why did Fox News turn away from live, unfolding Benghazi content? A network spokesperson explains that Fox News doesn’t commonly cover hearings and speeches from start to finish — and that after a lengthy hearing, the network felt its viewers wanted analysis of the proceedings. Also according to the spokesperson, Fox News was prepared to break in to its programming with correspondents and producers who were tracking it.**
Fair enough — the Erik Wemple Blog wasn’t disappointed to find the lively co-hosts of “The Five” doing their thing, as opposed to another round of Benghazi committee questioning. Yet the move to cut away from Capitol Hill raises the question of whether Fox News was hesitant to expose its viewers to the live-on-the-spot unraveling of many Benghazi themes that it has pushed on air.
Even though the hearing proceeded right into the heart of primetime news programming, MSNBC and CNN stuck with the proceedings. “We didn’t want to cover it in sound-bite form,” said Rashida Jones, managing editor for daytime programming at MSNBC in an extensive interview with the Erik Wemple Blog. MSNBC used the hearing to propagate its recent shift toward hard news in daytime programming, placing former NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams in the anchor chair from 9 a.m. till 5 p.m., and relying heavily on NBC News talent including Chuck Todd (analysis), Kelly O’Donnell (Capitol Hill) and Andrea Mitchell (experience!).
Along with booting lefty point-of-view programming from its dayside lineup and bringing back Chuck Todd in a daily role, NBC News/MSNBC also recently changed its leadership structure as part of a companywide effort to knit together the newsgathering forces of the daily cable channel and the network news operation. Those leadership moves — which installed Pat Burkey as executive producer of MSNBC afternoon coverage and Izzy Povich in the same spot for the morning* — enabled MSNBC to hammer out a seamless plan for the entire day’s work. Prior to the changes, says Jones, the planning was more show-based, elevating the prospect that MSNBC would present a choppy, inconsistent approach to a big news event. “We’re now looking at coverage across the day more broadly,” says Jones, who adds that this management approach enables the network to place one person — generally, Williams — in charge of news coverage across several hours.
Jones and her high-ranking colleagues are the folks who have a “rolling conversation” throughout the day about when to deploy Williams. (As we write this, Williams is breaking into MSNBC coverage to update viewers on the U.S. commando killed in ISIS hostage rescue mission.) The Erik Wemple Blog has long wondered what the guy does all day long when there’s no big news. “He was on from 9 a.m. till 5 p.m. and there might be other days when nothing is planned to happen where we have no plan to have him on and then we have him on for five hours,” says Jones. Which raises a question: What does Williams say when a friend asks him, “What’s your new work schedule?”
In her office, Jones has nine monitors showing news feeds across the mediascape. “There were moments when every single box looked the same. Those are not fun moments,” she says, deploring the scant opportunities for MSNBC to differentiate itself when outlets are all broadcasting the same feed. So why would viewers tune into MSNBC, when they’ve been habituated to check in with CNN for live stuff? “I think the opportunities are during the breaks, when we have a chance to have panels and conversation” about the news, says Jones. Vis-a-vis the broader contest against CNN, Jones says MSNBC has “dug in our heels on the idea that we’re going to cover the news and cover it aggressively…It’s a matter of consistency and being able to deliver that as much as we can on a level that we haven’t done before.”
And when the new-look MSNBC veers a bit from its new persona, people notice. Social media people mocked a recent segment in which MSNBC host Kate Snow invited a food magazine guy to compare sandwiches to Democratic presidential candidates (Clinton = Subway). “Our primary focus is hard news, but we also will look for opportunities to focus on stories that are interesting and talker alker stories and we’re still trying to find that balance, and the balance is changing day to day,” says Jones.
CNN didn’t respond right away to a request to interview Washington Bureau Chief Sam Feist about the hearing coverage. This is what we do, Feist likely would have said. CNN in August postponed a big Anderson Cooper look-back on Hurricane Katrina in favor covering a Donald Trump speech.
*Correction: Original version switched the jurisdictions of Burkey and Povich. **Also, original version had quotes attributed to a Fox News spokesperson that have been changed to paraphrasing.