Feb 1 2005

Struggling MSNBC Attempts to Out-Fox Fox

His CNN show Crossfire was canceled, but conservative pundit Tucker Carlson already appears to have a new cable news home lined up: a primetime show on MSNBC (USA Today, 12/20/04; Daily Variety, 12/21/04).

With the departure of host Deborah Norville, MSNBC is reportedly considering Carlson to fill the 9 p.m. timeslot. His show would lead into Scarborough Country, hosted by former Republican congressmember Joe Scarborough. This pairing, not balanced by any avowedly liberal or progressive hosts, would arguably make MSNBC‘s primetime line-up more right-wing than Fox News Channel.

This follows a pattern at MSNBC. In 1999, the struggling cable channel added a crew of conservative hosts to its daytime line-up: Oliver North, John McLaughlin and Laura Ingraham (Extra! Update, 4/99). In 2003, MSNBC hired hate radio host Michael Savage for a weekend show (Extra! Update, 4/03); his run ended when Savage expressed some of the bigotry that had seemingly made him a candidate for the job in the first place.

MSNBC‘s only serious attempt at counter-programming was Phil Donahue’s prime-time show. It became MSNBC‘s top-rated show, flying in the face of industry assumptions about the viability of liberal talk shows. Nonetheless, Donahue’s program was canceled in February 2003 for political reasons. Leaked internal company memos explained (All Your TV, 2/25/03) that Donahue would be a “difficult public face for NBC in a time of war,” as his show could become “a home for the liberal antiwar agenda at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity.”

FAIR founder Jeff Cohen explained MSNBC‘s internal policies in a recent speech (11/12/04):

In 2002, I was an on-air commentator at MSNBC, and also senior producer on the Donahue show, the most-watched program on the channel. In the last months of the program, before it was terminated on the eve of the Iraq War, we were ordered by management that every time we booked an antiwar guest, we had to book two pro-war guests. If we booked two guests on the left, we had to book three on the right. At one meeting, a producer suggested booking Michael Moore and was told that she would need to book three right-wingers for balance. I considered suggesting Noam Chomsky as a guest, but our studio couldn’t accommodate the 86 right-wingers we would have needed for balance.

In an October interview with Cox News Service (10/27/04), MSNBC vice president Phil Griffin said the cable channel was “breaking the mold…. We’re not doing things the same old way.” But if the reports about Carlson are correct, MSNBC would be following an old routine: lurching further to the right.