MSNBC television anchor Rachel Maddow moderates a panel at Harvard University in October 2017. (Steven Senne/AP)
Media critic

MSNBC host Rachel Maddow can speak at length on many topics. The whims and demographics of her cable-news audience, however, are not among them. “I think I may just be lucky that we’re at a time in the news cycle where there is an appetite for that kind of explanatory work,” Maddow told the Erik Wemple Blog back in the early months of the Trump administration, when her eponymous nightly program was posing a ratings threat to the top dogs over at Fox News.

That threat has turned into a full-time menace. Whereas “The Rachel Maddow Show” several years ago finished in the double digits in annual rankings of cable-news programs, it’s now in the tastemaking vanguard. Over the first three quarters of 2018, Maddow sat in between No. 1 Sean Hannity and No. 3 Tucker Carlson in the cable-news elite. Her show finished fourth for all of 2017.

The host’s audience-pulling exploits drove, at least in part, a recent press release from her network: “MSNBC IS THE #1 CABLE NEWS NETWORK FOR WEEK OF DEC. 17, BEATING FOX NEWS FOR 1ST TIME IN 17 YEARS.” Over almost eight years on this beat, the Erik Wemple Blog has come to treat ratings-oriented press releases from major TV outlets like exposed wiring in a flooding basement: Do not touch. There are just too many baskets in cable-news ratings — total viewers, the 25-54 demographic, prime-time ratings, dayside ratings, “sales day” ratings and so on — lending themselves to corporate spin. For even the lamest of cable-news shows, a ratings “win” can often be pried from the data, so long as there’s a crafty PR type at the keyboard. And there always is.

And indeed: Fox News pointed out that MSNBC’s historic win for the “week of Dec. 17” included only Monday-through-Friday numbers — and excluded the weekend, which put Fox News in its normal place: No. 1. Another consideration: Hannity was on vacation that week.

Caveats noted. Still, MSNBC has something to crow about. Its news programming is sharp, energetic and relentless. Its anchors are prepared. Its correspondents are on the scene. Many of the names are the same as always: “Morning Joe” early; Chris Matthews early evening, followed by Chris Hayes, Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell in the prime-time block. Starting in 2015, however, NBC News/MSNBC Chairman Andy Lack and MSNBC President Phil Griffin overthrew a cabal of progressive anchors in the daytime and replaced them with talented newsies — Nicolle Wallace, Craig Melvin, Stephanie Ruhle, Katy Tur, Ali Velshi, Hallie Jackson — who resist blanket characterizations, other than to say that they keep on top of the news.

What a job that has become. Whereas prime-time anchors were once able to plan their programs based on what had transpired by close of business, Trump scoops observe no clock. One of the mantras of Maddow throughout 2018, in fact, is the wonder she expresses at how many times she has had to rip up her scripts because some court document or some White House hiccup emerged from the national news vault in the early evening hours.

Chaos, though, has helped: MSNBC had its best year ever in 2018, with an 11 percent jump in viewership. Though CNN was down, it managed its best numbers for a midterm election year. Fox News being Fox News, it finished as the most-watched network in all of cable, not just cable news. As it turns out, benighted tweets, frequent resignations, multiple federal investigations and a generalized climate of grifting boost the audience for television news.

While newspapers and digital outlets struggle to pay for their staffs, profits exist at Fox News, CNN and MSNBC.

Within this crew of panel makers, MSNBC is distinguishing itself with reporting about the Trump administration without depending on the Trump administration. “I don’t necessarily want to hear from the White House on almost anything,” said Maddow to this blog in 2017, citing the lies coming from the building. So, where to go for news? Federal courthouses, that’s where. Ever since special counsel Robert S. Mueller III started producing indictments and other interesting documents, Maddow has devoured them — all of them. She reads the filings on air, off air and in-between. Often with the help of key reporters on the Mueller beat, she proceeds to detail what’s in them and what’s not in them. There has been a lot of explaining to do.

To appreciate the focus of the “Rachel Maddow Show” on the Mueller legal plume, consider the name of Alex van der Zwaan. Perhaps the most international guy ever conceived, he’s a 30-something Dutch man who was born in Belgium, formerly worked in the London branch of the law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom and speaks Russian, French, Dutch and English. His entry into Mueller’s world came through Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign chairman who made a handsome living in part by making corrupt Ukrainian politicians look okay. Manafort facilitated a report by Skadden that whitewashed the actions of pro-Russia, former Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovych, who had jailed an opposition leader.

For reasons that caused a great deal of speculation, van der Zwaan misled prosecutors about his contacts with a Manafort associate, Rick Gates, as well as an unidentified associate of Gates and Manafort. Summing up the implications of van der Zwaan’s February guilty plea in the case, Maddow said: “This stuff that we learned in this guilty plea today, this all comes out of some very dramatic, terrible and really recent stuff that happened in Ukraine. We know from previous reporting that after Yanukovych got run out of that country — after Manafort’s client got run out of that country in 2014 — Ukrainians started screaming bloody murder about this stuff that Paul Manafort and his client had done to Ukraine, which U.S. law firms and U.S. PR firms may have been involved in greasing the skids for.”

While Maddow busied herself explaining what the van der Zwaan news was, her rival over at Fox News focused on what it wasn’t. Upon van der Zwaan’s sentencing in April, Hannity spewed dismissals: “Now, also tonight, Robert Mueller secures his first conviction — got to give him a lot of credit in this witch hunt. A Dutch lawyer was just sentenced to 30 days in jail, 30 whole days. And he’s being ordered to pay $20,000 fine for lying to the FBI. That’s it? And it had nothing to do with Russia collusion."

So: One cable-news host is mining a sprawling investigation of the president’s top associates and campaign aides; the other is dismissing it out of hand. Which one, do you suppose, has the brighter future?

Fox News and CNN have attracted a great deal of attention in the past two years with high-profile interviews of Trump officials, whether it’s the president himself or White House adviser Kellyanne Conway or press secretary Sarah Sanders or some other appointee. The sessions on Fox News tend to be easier on the Trump folks — though they’re by no means uniformly so — and on CNN, they’re invariably confrontational, bordering on antagonistic. As the Hollywood Reporter noted, MSNBC has had fewer interviews with Trump appointees, though the shortfall is by no means intentional. MSNBC sources tell the Erik Wemple Blog that they routinely make requests to the Trump White House. Rejections pile up.

The result may well be an accidental benefit to MSNBC. Though its reporters routinely abridge the positions of the president on air, the network traffics in a minimal amount of Trumpism from the mouths of Trumpites. And that appears to be exactly what the audience wants. As this blog has pointed out, MSNBC’s daytime crew has begun veering from the cowpath on which all the networks carry live presidential announcements and briefings. For example: Wallace blew off that no-news speech in November by President Trump, and Tur televised Sanders’s remarks at a press briefing only so long as she didn’t require an on-the-fly reality check, and that didn’t take too long. Our posts on those topics have drawn a generous amount of engagement, including a lot of positive feedback for the network. A good chunk of the news-consuming public appears to have decided that the Trump crew has lied far too much to deserve a footing on major media outlets.

Finally, a note on contributor hygiene. Fox News pays contributors, not to mention anchors — Hannity and “Fox & Friends” (though things are changing there) — to defend Trump’s “policies” as well as his misanthropic behavior. Starting in the presidential campaign CNN brought on certain contributors — Jeffrey Lord, Kayleigh McEnany, Scottie Nell Hughes, Paris Dennard (all of whom are no longer with the network) — to do likewise, with embarrassing and anti-journalistic results. MSNBC has sidestepped this brand of clown time by airing the comments of conservative contributors principled enough to bash Trump — like Charlie Sykes, Bret Stephens and George Will — or at least principled enough to publicly agonize over Trump — like Hugh Hewitt. Another emphasis has fallen on reporting; MSNBC has eased up on the I-can-comment-on-any-topic! punditry and commonly hauls in whatever reporter has a big story for that particular day.

Reporting helps with programming decisions, too. When Wallace steered clear of Trump’s falsehood-ridden immigration speech in early November, according to an informed source, she had done some reporting to determine that the president wasn’t going to make any grand announcements. Just falsehoods, as it turned out.

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