A question hangs over the hosts of the first Democratic debate of the Trump era: Which version of NBC will show up? Is it the network of Lester Holt or Rachel Maddow?
A teeming field of candidates is heading to Miami next week, with a cast of moderators almost as crowded as the hopefuls onstage.
More than 300 staffers from NBC News, MSNBC and Telemundo will join them. NBC has received requests from more than 1,100 journalists to cover the event and granted accreditation to 600 of them.
They arrive at a moment when MSNBC is viewed in many quarters as the network of the Resistance, but it also is home to a robust newsgathering operation and staid newsreaders.
The candidates will jockey to speak and distinguish themselves. But with such a large field — a single candidate will be lucky to get 10 minutes of speaking time — some of the biggest stars of the two-night, four-hour affair will be the moderators.
The lineup NBC has planned has already caused some consternation. The table will include: Lester Holt, the anchor of “NBC Nightly News”; Savannah Guthrie, co-anchor of “Today”; Chuck Todd, moderator of “Meet the Press”; José Díaz-Balart, anchor of “Noticias Telemundo”; and somewhat controversially, MSNBC opinion host Rachel Maddow.
Maddow’s network has ridden the probe by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III to solidify its position ahead of CNN but behind Fox News as the second-ranked cable-news network. But her dominance, which has come to define MSNBC despite a robust slate of investigative reporters and other news anchors, has led the cable network into an existential moment.
“This is a channel that’s just figuring out how to exist as a news organization that is also a potential arbiter of a presidential race,” said one senior NBC staffer.
While the NBC audience of Holt on Nightly News and Guthrie on the “Today” show dwarfs Maddow’s on MSNBC, Maddow has become one of the biggest stars in cable news, rivaling Fox News’s Sean Hannity, her ideological (and time-slot) opponent.
Appearing on Maddow’s show has been a key stop for nearly every Democratic presidential candidate.
“It is a station of the cross,” said Jennifer Palmieri, the communications director for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. In that election cycle, MSNBC was a significant political presence, but this time around, “the audience is bigger . . . hungry and really engaged,” she added.
And the battle lines are also clearer, politically and in media. The rivalry between Hannity and Maddow is a case in point. Hannity has long been the No. 1 rated show on cable news, but for a time, Maddow came to vie for the top spot alongside him. Their programs air at 9 p.m., and at one point, both hovered around the 3 million-viewer mark. (It’s fair to say that’s where the similarities end.) Maddow out-rated Hannity in January, during the government shutdown, but Hannity has surpassed her in recent months as Maddow fell to around 2.6 million viewers in May, according to Nielsen.
Recently, ahead of her interview with Hillary Clinton, Maddow mocked Fox News for still talking about Clinton’s emails. When NBC announced Maddow’s presence as a moderator, Hannity derided the decision on his show.
“Here’s what we’re going to do. We’ll have a debate moderated by me, the great one [Mark Levin], Rush Limbaugh, Jesse [Watters] can join us, and Laura [Ingraham] and Tucker [Carlson]. How’s that?” Hannity said, referring to some of the most opinionated voices on Fox.
Nearly four years ago, Fox News hosted the first Republican primary debate of the 2016 election season, moderated by Bret Baier, Megyn Kelly and Chris Wallace. President Trump insulted Rosie O’Donnell, mocked his fellow candidates, and refused to commit to supporting an eventual Republican nominee if it wasn’t him. The event was raucous and impolitic and placed Fox News at the center of the primary.
If it was a low point for decorum, it was a high-water mark for ratings. The telecast drew 24 million viewers, and remains the most-watched cable news program ever.
Now it’s NBC’s turn to introduce a new election season with a huge field of eager candidates. And even though Trump will not be physically in the room, he seems to be doing his best to put himself in the center of things. He promised to live-tweet the event, and in a surprise development, appeared on “Meet the Press” with Todd on Sunday.
For years, NBC’s political coverage was defined by “Meet The Press,” and especially Tim Russert’s longtime dominance as its middle-of-the-road moderator.
In the intervening decade, the network has cast about for its standard-bearer. Back in 2014, in the second half of President Barack Obama’s second term, MSNBC was in the doldrums, deep in third place.
The division between MSNBC and NBC News had grown. All of cable news was lagging, as dysfunction in Washington and the fading promise of Obama’s hope-and-change message drove viewers away from politics as entertainment.
CNN was the go-to network for breaking news, and Fox dominated the landscape.
When Andy Lack returned to the network as chairman, he set about restitching the relationship between NBC and its progressive cable arm. In his view, according to associates, the two entities should feed off one another and utilize a joint group of reporters in the field. Trump’s candidacy in 2015 only added urgency.
After the election, Lack hired a raft of conservatives to try to understand the Trump voter’s mind-set. Greta Van Susteren from Fox joined but was quickly dispatched. But a group of conservative voices stayed: Nicolle Wallace, Charlie Sykes, Hugh Hewitt, Peggy Noonan and George Will entered the MSNBC universe. Even that didn’t bring many pro-Trump voices to the network. Many of the conservatives MSNBC hired were — or became — prominent never-Trump Republicans.
MSNBC also beefed up its investigative reporting ranks, in an effort to take advantage of the unprecedented political moment. The news that broke during the day helped fuel what the opinion hosts such as Maddow could discuss at night.
The hiring spree helped the network, but it has also put a whole new crop of very different personalities inside the NBC tent. Lack has, at times — particularly at moments with controversial news such as the memo by Attorney General William P. Barr summarizing the Mueller report — voiced concern about the tone on some of the programs, and urged hosts and commentators not to get over their skis, according to people who have spoken to him.
“Andy has been frustrated when MSNBC’s doing bashing and not news,” said one such person, who like others interviewed for this report spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about internal NBC affairs. Another person close to Lack said he is a fan of Maddow’s and sees MSNBC’s prime-time lineup as analogous to a newspaper’s editorial section and its daytime lineup as the news pages.
As hungry audiences have sought out the most firmly held opinions on cable news, Maddow’s show has come to define a prominent corner of the NBC family: one casting a big shadow over the Democratic primary race.
Her direct monologues, delivered earnestly to the camera, have led viewers step by step through the Mueller probe, and urged them at times to consider what an on-screen graphic called “the worst case scenario”: that “somebody has ascended to the presidency of the United States to serve the interests of another country.”
She has developed a devoted following, but Maddow’s status as a “Resistance” cable host has drawn opposition from unexpected quarters, including the New York Times, when executive editor Dean Baquet recently objected to sending a reporter to Maddow’s show to discuss a news story, citing a desire to keep Times journalists off opinion shows.
Over breakfast recently with Baquet, MSNBC President Phil Griffin emphasized Maddow’s respect for print journalists and highlighted her treatment of them on her show. As previously reported by CNN, he also objected to the uneven application of the Times’s standard, according to a person familiar with the conversation. Baquet, in turn, acknowledged the difficulty of the situation and that applying the standard evenly might prove challenging, the person said. Baquet and Griffin declined to comment.
For her part, Maddow has not invited a Times reporter on the show since the initial incident. Through an NBC spokesman, Maddow declined to be interviewed for this story.
NBC officials defend her. Maddow “is first and foremost a journalist. It’s not her first rodeo. She did this before in 2016 and has been pretty successful in this area,” said Rashida Jones, senior vice president of specials for NBC and MSNBC. “Our goal was to ensure that we have a group of people who come from different points of view and different perspectives. We have a unique opportunity to bring a big swath of viewpoints in one conversation at one table and we wanted to lean into that.”
Indeed, Maddow moderated a Democratic primary debate alongside Todd in 2016, among other town halls and forums. (She hugged both candidates at the end, drawing heat from some conservative commentators.)
Maddow mostly keeps to herself inside NBC headquarters. She does not schmooze in the hallways, her colleagues say, or insert herself into office politics. She steers clear of corporate events and is laser-focused on programming her hour, they say.
One moment when she weighed in was during Griffin’s contract negotiation. She told colleagues that it was important to her that he stay in the building, according to two NBC staffers, a message heard around the building.
As Maddow’s MSNBC has embraced the audience that came to it in the heat of the Mueller probe, the cable channel faces an existential question: What happens now that the Russia investigation has ended?
According to the website FiveThirtyEight, MSNBC devoted 40 percent more time to covering the Mueller probe than CNN during 2018, and twice as much time as Fox.
The network’s audience seems to turn away in moments of good news for Trump. (A peak in ratings came during Michael Cohen’s testimony before Congress.) But MSNBC’s ratings fell immediately after the election in November and December of 2016. They dipped again after the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh. They also dropped in the weeks after Barr’s memo.
The ratings bounced back each time, but not to the same levels as before. Now, the network, alongside many other news outlets, is looking ahead to the 2020 campaign. But there remains a fear that the ratings for 23 presidential candidates will not equal the ratings for one special counsel.
Still, MSNBC is looking to play a central role in the primary race. The channel recently secured exclusive live TV and streaming rights to the South Carolina Democratic Party Convention, blocking other networks from covering it live, a move that drew complaints from rival Fox News and even C-SPAN.
Both of NBC’s debate nights will have the same format. Holt will moderate the first hour, with Guthrie and Díaz-Balart alongside him. Holt will also appear in the second hour, with Todd and Maddow.
“Having the diversity of perspectives of the moderators has been important, not necessarily because of their point of view. But we are one of the few places to go to get such a diverse set of backgrounds,” NBC’s Jones said.
“Our main focus is on issues that voters have told us they care about,” said Jones, noting that the NBC reporting staff and polling operation have been working in overdrive to home in on the most relevant issues. But there’s still the proverbial elephant, Jones allowed. “There are also many people who care about the current administration.”
Robert Barnett, a powerhouse Washington attorney and political veteran, said there are three audiences for the debate: the people in the hall; the people who watch at home; and the people who won’t watch but will pick up on the secondary coverage and view the “viral moments that will create a degree of impression often much more profound and much greater than the two-hour debate itself.”
“Those are the most important people,” given that they far exceed the number of viewers, Barnett added.
The televised debate may be less significant for an individual candidate, but there is the promise of at least a few fireworks, and the hope that it may begin to bring some order to an overweight and crowded field.
“If it does its job, it’ll put a tent on the circus,” Palmieri said. It’s up to the NBC family to be the ringmaster.