Every cable network gave the day over to the Mueller report, but MSNBC arguably had the most riding on it.
The night before, Fox News’s Sean Hannity, the president’s most reliable booster, devoted an entire segment to bashing the cable news “media mob” who had helped perpetrate Mueller’s “baseless, vengeful hoax.” In a mash-up of the worst perpetrators, MSNBC hosts and commentators featured prominently. Hannity zeroed in on the right’s favorite punching bag on this topic, asking, “Can anyone ever believe the Collusion Truther Rachel Maddow again?”
Folks inside MSNBC headquarters at 30 Rock may have had a moment of pause following Attorney General William P. Barr’s first no-collusion summation of Mueller’s work, nearly a month ago, when MSNBC’s ratings plummeted.
The former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly appeared on Glenn Beck’s radio program back then to declare that “these MSNBC and CNN people are in a free fall of ratings descent,” and declared Maddow, in particular, dead on arrival. “The hate-Trump television industry,” he said, “doesn’t know what to do and is panicking.” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders shared a mock March Madness bracket of the top media offenders covering the Mueller report, including Maddow and fellow MSNBC anchor Chris Hayes as two of the worst.
In response to those critiques, Phil Griffin, president of MSNBC, said in a statement, “We’re going to keep doing our job — asking the tough questions — especially when it involves holding powerful people accountable . . . Our journalists, legal analysts and prime time hosts are covering the biggest story in politics and national security with distinction.”
Thursday, with the actual report containing many damaging details about the president’s efforts to interfere with Mueller’s investigation, MSNBC seemed to be back on track.
Melber may not have been as prominent in criticism as Maddow and Hayes, but he had built his show in part around booking Mueller witnesses and giving viewers a blow-by-blow narrative of where the investigation was heading.
Perhaps no other anchor on MSNBC has devoted as much time to talking about Mueller than Melber.
Before he became a television host, Melber was a practicing attorney, and the Mueller story has highlighted that experience. On Thursday night, he welcomed back to his show Sam Nunberg, an early Trump adviser and Mueller witness who had appeared frequently on his show. Nunberg is not a hard person to book on cable news, but he returns to Melber’s show as a fact witness, not a “deplorable” curiosity.
Melber prides himself on booking such guests, who are not staples on MSNBC. “The Beat” averages about 1.6 million viewers, but Mueller-related guests boost viewership by an average of 11 percent, according to the network. In one of his highest rated shows, Melber booked a panel including Nunberg and former Trump aides and Mueller witnesses Carter Page, Michael Caputo, and Jerome Corsi. Nunberg says he helped convince Stephen K. Bannon to appear on “The Beat,” his first of only two appearances on MSNBC.
After his show wrapped, Melber said goodbye to his guests and quickly met with his young staff to thank them. The show, which debuted in July 2017, is younger than the Mueller investigation, and some staffers haven’t known life in television without it.
Melber grants that, “not every mystery has landed at the worst possible interpretation of the facts,” which he says validates his lawyerly approach. “It’ a reminder to keep an open mind.”
Though he hadn’t stopped talking about Mueller all day, in a larger sense, Melber hadn’t stopped talking about the Mueller report for nearly two years.
He has lived off the twists of the investigation, the witnesses who testified, and the support of the higher-ups at MSNBC. In late July 2017, “we picked up on a busy night and haven’t had a lot of slow weeks since,” he said.
Melber is a huge music fan, and he peppers the show with frequent references to hip-hop lyrics. Vanity Fair dubbed him the secret fourth Beastie Boy, and he had 50 Cent on the show to opine on his prediction that Trump’s former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, would flip. “I know the federal guidelines, no matter where they are,” the rapper said, quoting his own lyrics. “When the feds come in the game, loyalty is limited.”
“Tonight did feel like we were wrapping a major chapter,” Melber said Thursday. But the publication of the redacted Mueller report is less of an end to something than the beginning of a whole new chapter of cable news battles over the presidency. Fox News beat both MSNBC and CNN in ratings for coverage of the report, but MSNBC has recently widened its lead over CNN. And there’s only more opportunities ahead as the crowded Democratic field for president vies for airtime.
Melber had initially scheduled to take Thursday and Friday off to head to the West Coast to celebrate Passover with his family. Instead, he changed his flights so he could work Friday and come back in time to anchor another Mueller-related special on MSNBC on Sunday night.
“There’s always some utility to feeling like the stories you tell are going somewhere,” Melber said. “So, you know, Seinfeld said the reasons shows need resolution is that if I want a long boring story with no end in sight, I have my life.”