Once known as the lone, forthright voice of liberalism on cable news, MSNBC began a lurch to the center in 2015 with its new chairman, Andrew Lack, going on a conservative pundit hiring spree and shedding the network’s “Lean Forward” branding.
Even so, MSNBC is positioned to have an outsized influence on the 2020 Democratic presidential primary. According to the Norman Lear Center, liberals watch MSNBC at (respectively) three and 10 times the rate of more moderate and conservative viewers. After Fox News, MSNBC is the most-watched cable news network, beating out CNN. What’s more, the median age of MSNBC’s audience is 65 — and older voters turn out in high numbers in primary contests.
To understand how MSNBC may be shaping the 2020 election, In These Times analyzed the network’s August and September coverage of the Democratic presidential contest’s leading candidates — Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren. We focused on the network’s flagship primetime shows: The 11th Hour with Brian Williams, All In with Chris Hayes, The Beat with Ari Melber, Hardball with Chris Matthews, The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell and The Rachel Maddow Show.
In These Times tallied how often the three candidates were discussed and logged whether the coverage was positive, negative or neutral. For example, while poll results by themselves (whether favorable or unfavorable to a candidate) were simply logged as neutral, commentary about a candidate “surging” was logged as positive and “stagnant” as negative. Clips and previews for upcoming segments were not included.
The coverage quickly revealed a pattern. Over the two months, these six programs focused on Biden, often to the exclusion of Warren and Sanders. Sanders received not only the least total coverage (less than one-third of Biden’s), but the most negative. As to the substance, MSNBC’s reporting revolved around poll results and so-called electability.
After the 2016 presidential election, in which the press was criticized for disproportionately giving Donald Trump $2 billion of free media, MSNBC may be repeating history. While pundits get paid to have opinions, MSNBC’s seem to dwell in an alternate reality: As momentum mounts for longstanding liberal goals like single-payer health care and bold climate action, MSNBC’s coverage seems devoted, instead, to narrowing the liberal imagination.
NOT AVERAGE JOE
In its August and September coverage, by total mentions, MSNBC talked about Biden twice as often as Warren and three times as often as Sanders. By number of episodes, 64% of the 240 episodes discussed Biden, 43% discussed Warren and 36% discussed Sanders. A quarter of the episodes only discussed Biden, compared to 5% and 1% that mentioned only Warren or Sanders, respectively.
Biden was also the only one of the three candidates to see his on-air mentions increase, rather than decline, in September, even as his polling numbers steadily went south. Part of the reason was the Ukraine scandal that erupted in September: News broke that President Trump had conditioned the release of aid to Ukraine upon an investigation of Biden’s son, who had accepted a well compensated position with a Ukrainian oil company in 2014. MSNBC gave the story wall-to-wall coverage, pushing up Biden’s mentions. Almost all of this coverage was neutral — stating that Trump was trying to dig up dirt on Biden — but was occasionally positive, as when Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson speculated that the “impeachment dynamic sort of confirm[s] Biden’s aura of electability because he’s the one Trump is most afraid of, so maybe he’s one we ought to go with.”
In August, however — before the Ukraine scandal took off — Biden still received around 2.5 times as much coverage as Sanders and about 1.7 times as much as Warren.
This coverage was not all positive. In total, 11.6% of Biden’s mentions were negative. Generally, this negative coverage focused on Biden’s gaffes and lackluster debate performances, and how they might affect his electability — the quality upon which Biden is staking his candidacy. The shows hosted by Chris Hayes and Ari Melber featured proportionally the most negative coverage of Biden.
The handful of more substantive criticisms of Biden included Chris Matthews and Jason Johnson, politics editor at The Root, questioning how sincere Biden was when he accused Trump of being a white supremacist, as well as primary candidate Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) criticizing Biden’s tough-on-crime record and vote for the Iraq War.
By and large, however, such critiques of Biden were subsumed by positive coverage, presenting him as the safest, strongest choice to take on Trump — or, as Matthews put it, the Democrats’ “designated driver.”
“What happens if you get Joe Biden and a rocky stock market? That’s a bad combination for President Trump,” MSNBC host Stephanie Ruhle said on Brian Williams’ show, contrasting Biden with an unnamed “socialist” whom she implied Trump would successfully redbait.
One common line, deployed in six different episodes by both hosts and guests, was that the contest between Biden (on one side) and Warren or Sanders (on the other) was a battle between the “head” and the “heart” of the Democratic Party — implying Biden was the smart choice.
Guests across all six shows played down Biden’s widely panned debate performances. In a Last Word appearance, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. waved away criticism in other media (including on Melber’s show) of Biden’s infamous “record player” comment. Biden had responded to a question about the legacy of slavery by suggesting social workers be deployed in the homes of African Americans to help parents “deal with how to raise their children” by, for example, making sure they have a “record player on at night.” Dionne joked, “[Biden] had that appeal to hipsters by talking about record players. Aren’t they into vinyl these days?” He added, “People aren’t giving him credit for how he— what he had in mind there.”
The most Biden-friendly shows were those hosted by Lawrence O’Donnell, Matthews and Williams. On August 8, O’Donnell effusively praised a speech of Biden’s that cast Trump as a racist aberration in a long line of good, tolerant presidents, saying Biden had “told the hard truths of American history.” Five days later, O’Donnell lauded a Biden tweet calling for the United States to lead the world in rallying support for protesters in Hong Kong. “That’s the way presidents in this country used to sound,” O’Donnell gushed.
On Williams’ show, the most-watched cable news show in its 11 p.m. slot for five straight quarters, NBC News correspondent Mike Memoli played down Biden’s bizarre statement to an Iowa crowd that “poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids.” Memoli said that, to the Iowans in the audience, the comment “may not have even registered.”
MSNBC’s most pro-Biden host was Chris Matthews, who in 2017 called for Biden to run. Matthews’ guests waved away Biden’s gaffes and talked him up as the all-but-certain winner of the general election.
“Today, I saw a splash of sunlight in what’s been a grim Democratic tussle for president,” Matthews began August 1, before launching into a soliloquy about a Biden press conference in Detroit, where the candidate, “his face toward the sun,” reminded Matthews that “hope” still existed. Matthews lamented that criticism of Biden’s record would only lead to “even more destruction of our national unity.”
When Sirius XM host Danielle Moodie-Mills cautioned that she didn’t think Biden “conjures that kind of action that are going to get people into the streets,” Matthews responded, “Okay, well, that’s your opinion,” and cut to a Biden campaign ad.
Only a few of the 240 episodes discussed Biden’s reliance on big-dollar donations, and none singled out his fundraising from industries such as healthcare and banking that have a strong interest in current policy debates. Melber noted that Biden was struggling among grassroots small donors compared to Sanders and Warren. The other times Biden’s big-dollar fundraising came up, it was in the context of airing criticisms of Warren for having engaged in it herself before swearing it off for this year’s primary.
In terms of policy coverage of the candidates — arguably the most important role played by the fourth estate when reporting on candidates — Biden barely registered.
On healthcare, the biggest campaign issue for a majority of voters, Biden’s “plan to protect and build on the Affordable Care Act” — which his website admits would leave 3% of Americans uninsured — was only occasionally discussed, while being praised for giving Americans “choice” by guests such as ousted centrist Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.).
Meanwhile, Sanders’ “Medicare for life thing” — as Matthews calls it — was criticized as “throwing 149 million people off their healthcare” (Sen. Amy Klobuchar [D-Minn.]) and taking away “choice.” Biden’s deputy campaign manager told Matthews that Sanders’ plan would “mean a tax increase on middle tax [sic] families,” ignoring the fact that independent studies have determined Medicare for All would lower overall healthcare costs. Warren’s refusal to say taxes would go up to fund Medicare for All was characterized alternately as evasive, or a shrewd tactic to “help her sustain” her rise in polling.
This is a far cry from the polls that show the majority of Democratic voters are favorable toward the policy.
While the broader progressive media landscape was chock-full of stories about Biden’s fundraising from powerful interests, his lack of grassroots enthusiasm, his incoherent public statements and his unfair attacks on Medicare for All, MSNBC viewers mostly saw the Biden that his campaign presented: a decent, beloved, steady hand who is the country’s safest bet.
BERNIE & LIZ
Sanders, meanwhile, received less coverage on MSNBC than Biden or Warren. Of the three candidates, Sanders was least likely to be mentioned positively (13% of his mentions) and most likely to be mentioned negatively (21%). The remaining two-thirds of his mentions were neutral.
Sanders received no negative mentions on Maddow’s show (which had the least primary coverage of the six programs analyzed), and only a handful on O’Donnell’s, Melber’s and Hayes’ shows. Rather, 87% of negative mentions came from just two programs: Matthews’ Hardball and Williams’ 11th Hour.
Sanders was especially criticized on 11th Hour after he suggested the negative campaign coverage coming from the Washington Post—owned by billionaire Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos — was related to Sanders’ criticism of Amazon’s labor practices. Williams and a guest both took the opportunity to liken Sanders to Trump, who frequently complains about his media coverage. Williams then quoted a tweet from an anonymous online anti-Sanders troll — sent before the Bezos controversy had even begun — accusing Sanders of not working to defeat Trump in 2016. (In fact, Sanders stumped at 17 pro-Hillary Clinton events in 11 states in November 2016.)
Although Warren was almost as under-covered as Sanders relative to her polling numbers, her treatment was very different. Warren had the lowest proportion of negative coverage of all three candidates (just 8% of all her mentions) and the highest proportion of position mentions (30%).
Criticisms of Sanders and Warren were often paired. Nevada Independent editor Jon Ralston suggested to Williams on August 20 that Warren and Sanders had endangered their chances of winning a general election by backing “things that [the] majority of Americans may not like,” such as Medicare for All.
By that same day, however, Matthews had pioneered a new tone toward Warren. Mere moments after saying voter support for the two was “unchanged since June” and “too close to call,” Matthews declared Warren was “making big strides in her efforts to take over the party’s left lane from Sanders” and “eating his lunch every day.” In a later episode, Matthews and The Root’s Johnson claimed African American women were “leaving Bernie” and “breaking for Warren,” even though a Pew Research Center poll that week showed Sanders’ base to be the least white (49%) of the leading four candidates (including Sen. Kamala Harris), Warren’s was whitest (71%), and all four had about 50% women supporters. (Matthews specified that he meant “African American women who tend to be influencers.”)
Williams highlighted what he described as an “excitement deficit” between Warren and the other candidates, ignoring that Sanders continued to draw large crowds and was the first to reach the benchmark of 1 million individual donations.
Zerlina Maxwell, a Clinton campaign alum and frequent guest, told Matthews that Warren and Sanders shared a “bold vision,” but Warren coupled it with “specific policy proposals” that tell you “how we’re going to get there” — implying that Sanders did not.
Commentators framed the September debate as a showdown between Warren and Biden, often leaving Sanders out. “Any sort of discussion between those two candidates will be one that could help a lot of voters decide who they’re supporting,” said the Wall Street Journal’s Tarini Parti.
After that debate, commentators singled out Warren’s performance with praise. Matthews’ and Williams’ shows saw a pronounced uptick in positive coverage of Warren, with commentators calling her “ingenious” and “the strongest natural talent,” and plotting out future scenarios where she ran away with the Democratic nomination.
As pundits warmed to Warren, they increasingly singled out Sanders for criticism. He “shouted his way through that last debate and came off as a bit of a scold,” said Williams. He was “out of step on the biggest sort of cultural issue in the country right now,” said Deadline: White House host Nicole Wallace, in reference to guns. He was helping Trump’s re-election chances, said former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele on Hardball. Appearing on The 11th Hour, Republican strategist Rick Wilson called Sanders the “communist Ron Paul” and “a recipe for electoral disaster.”
Overall, MSNBC’s primary coverage was devoid of policy discussion. Viewers were told often that Warren “has a plan for everything” — but not what those plans might contain.
Sanders and Warren released, respectively, eight and 10 detailed policy plans over this two-month period, covering topics from investing in rural America, empowering indigenous people, getting to 100% renewable energy and muzzling corporate lobbyists (Warren) to workplace democracy, a Green New Deal, housing for all and a wealth tax (Sanders). Most of these 18 plans were ignored by MSNBC, and only two were discussed in any depth: Hayes interviewed Sanders about his August 22 Green New Deal plan and Maddow interviewed Warren about her September 16 anti-corruption plan. (Biden, for his part, introduced zero plans.)
Instead, MSNBC’s coverage builds around incoming poll results, which may be cause for concern. Social scientists have long been critical of the way polls can shape news coverage, as poll coverage risks calcifying what might otherwise be fleeting shifts in popular opinion. The hosts In These Times analyzed occasionally acknowledged that polls are not always reliable, but relied on them anyway. Only Melber explicitly dismissed polls, saying “they don’t matter right now,” reporting instead on online donation numbers. He was alone in mentioning Sanders’ historic surge in small-dollar donations.
Political commentator Walter Lippmann, patron saint of patrician liberalism, argued in 1922 that, because “the common interests very largely elude public opinion entirely,” they “can be managed only by a specialized class” — in other words, the misguided masses can’t recognize their own interests without guidance from the best and brightest. Lippmann would likely have put MSNBC anchors in this special class, interpreting and shaping reality for the liberal public to, as Lippmann put it, “create consent.” Of course, the anchors on MSNBC’s flagships are part of a larger corporate media system, and the parameters of the consent they create is modulated by the terms of acceptable public discourse. When political actors cross those parameters — including climate crisis activists like the Sunrise Movement, antiwar Catholic Worker protestors like the Ploughshares Seven, prison abolitionists like Critical Resistance and democratic socialist members of Congress like Sanders — the Fourth Estate buttresses the status quo to protect the establishment from any such incursions. So when the Democratic establishment was besieged by small-d democrats in search of a political revolution in 2016, rather than investigate, the mainstream press simply performed as expected — by emphatically promoting a candidacy that turned out to be fatally flawed.
MSNBC has close ties to a Democratic establishment that finds the politics of Biden (and even Warren) more palatable than Sanders’ “political revolution.” In the leadup to the 2016 primary, MSNBC frequently drew hosts and guests from Hillary Clinton’s campaign. According to the New York Times and other outlets, in the lead-up to the race for the Democratic nomination, this same establishment— including former Clinton staffers and donors — has held secret meetings to strategize how to stop Sanders.
Once the primaries are over, the election will be decided by the turnout and preferences of voters who pay little or no attention to MSNBC, or cable news in general. But at the moment, as the Iowa caucuses near, MSNBC has a powerful bullhorn. In 2016, the Democratic establishment backed the “safest,” most “electable” candidate in Hillary Clinton, with disastrous results. It bears asking if they’re repeating the same mistake.
Juan Caicedo, Isabel Carter, Will Kang, Indigo Olivier and Hannah Steinkopf-Frank contributed research and fact-checking.
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Branko Marcetic is a staff writer at Jacobin magazine and a 2019-2020 Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting fellow. He is the author of Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden.