Rebecca Juro

The Post-Olbermann Era: What the New MSNBC Can and Should Be

Filed By Rebecca Juro | January 24, 2011 10:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Media, Politics, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: media, MSNBC, transgender inclusion

Like a lot of lefties, I was a regular viewer of Countdown with Keith Olbermann and I was disappointed, though not really very surprised, keith-olbermann.jpgat the rather sudden announcement of his departure from MSNBC. I enjoyed watching Keith, and I agreed with the vast majority of his positions even if I did have occasion to question his guest and content choices from time to time. For better or worse, Keith's gone now, and MSNBC will continue on without him.

That the network will change in some ways is a certainty. Without Countdown anchoring MSNBC's primetime lineup, the network is betting on Lawrence O'Donnell to fill Olbermann's shoes at 8pm while leaving Rachel Maddow in her 9pm slot and moving Ed Schultz to 10pm. While Maddow and O'Donnell are probably pretty safe bets in those time slots, I do wonder about Ed Schultz. He's on radio midday and he's been on MSNBC until now at 6pm, putting him in direct competition with network news hours. While Schultz certainly meshes well with O'Donnell and Maddow in terms of tone and content, there's no guarantee that his audience will make the trek with him to 10pm, four hours later than the latest he's been on the network until now, just as there's no assurance that O'Donnell and Maddow viewers will stay tuned in for another hour. Schultz may well find a significant portion of his television audience now tuning in by DVR or online stream and podcast.

Probably the biggest favor MSNBC could do right now for both Ed Schultz and Lawrence O'Donnell to promote their shows in their new time slots would to create online show video pages on such as The Rachel Maddow Show has and Countdown used to have and fill them with plenty of choice clips.

As an LGBT mediamaker and sometime critic, one thing I'm hoping to see with the end of Countdown and Olbermann's tenure at MSNBC is an end to using persecuted minorities (that would be us) as objects of humor and derision on the network. For me, and I expect for many of us, this kind of content on Countdown undercut Olbermann's progressive credibility significantly. It's just really hard to see someone as a credible progressive opinion leader when he's laughing along as Michael Musto is making jokes about a homophobic beauty queen having her penis cut off.

Despite such failings, there was and still is much to appreciate about Keith Olbermann and his time at MSNBC. He pretty much singlehandedly set a direction and tone for the network that has served it well and continues to do so. Indeed, as Steve Kornacki suggested in Salon Friday, it's entirely likely that Olbermann has been so successful in setting the course for MSNBC that the network now feels that Olbermann himself is no longer needed to keep it going. Given all the headaches he'd been giving NBC/Universal executives recently, including a brief suspension for donating to political candidates without the network's permission (including Tucson shooting victim Gabrielle Giffords), it seemed only a matter of time before Olbermann and MSNBC would eventually part ways, but how it was done, apparently by notifying Olbermann just hours before airtime that he was about to do his final show for the network, seemed rather abrupt, at least from this viewer's perspective.

Since MSNBC is now reconfiguring not only for the post-Olbermann but also the post-DADT era, it's my hope that MSNBC will finally become as progressive in fact as they're now trying to be in image with their "Lean Forward" campaign and begin presenting transgender people and the issues that impact our lives as valid and viable news and an integral part of the diversity that is America as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act ascends in the Democratic Party agenda as the next long-promised key goal for LGBT American working families.

Rachel Maddow, Lawrence O'Donnell, and Ed Schultz. Three pretty progressive voices. While I've never heard an unkind or ill-considered word about transgender people on any of their shows, I've also heard precious little about us and the issues that impact our lives at all. It's time that changed, that when there's a story that concerns transgender people, that information is included in the story. No one's expecting miracles here, just that we shouldn't have to ask for transgender inclusion on MSNBC or complain that we didn't get it when we should have.

Inclusion and respect for diversity should be the expected standard, just as it is for stories and features relevant to any other minority group in this country. Just as Keith Olbermann should have known from the start not only that letting Michael Musto make transphobic jokes on his show probably wasn't a good idea to begin with but also that his own laughing along with Musto made the offense ten times worse for many in his audience, so too should Rachel Maddow not have to be reminded on-air by her guests to include transgender people in a relevant story.

And hey, it would be nice if Lawrence, Rachel, and Ed ran a feature now and then when important transgender-relevant stories, developments, and progress surface in the news cycle, and they could really break down some barriers by having their very first (as far as I know) transgender guest to talk real issues on one of their shows, instead of transgender Americans being consistently presented to cable news viewers as merely human interest curiosities as other networks have done. For truly progressive hosts and content creators, the possibilities are endless, and given where the bulk of the modern progressive movement is on transgender civil rights and inclusion today, the inclusion of transgender people and viewpoints in MSNBC's coverage of relevant topics and issues should be a no-brainer.

Keith Olbermann's voice guided MSNBC to this point in large part, but now this network needs to find a new identity that will continue to lead them forward without him. Here's hoping that MSNBC and their hosts use this as an opportunity to widen their focus on the progressive movement and the communities that comprise it, particularly those hardest-hit in this economy by the lack of basic civil rights protections and who could use the attention their coverage would generate the most.

Considering how superb a job they did covering Don't Ask, Don't Tell, it's the very least they could do for the other 99.999% of the LGBT American workforce. The very least, indeed.

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What the new MSNBC (under Comcast) can and should be

All this assumes that Comcast will actually give 2 shits about promoting Rachel and Schultz. I doubt that in the long run they will, unfortunately.

Rachel Maddow has covered stories involving trans people and has been very respectful. Here is her piece when Obama nominated Amanda Simpson to a Commerce Dept. position and the "outrage" from Focus On The Family.

Yes Jennifer, but that was just that once, and only after a lot of people wrote in and complained that she'd completely erased transpeople from a feature she'd done previously about the passage of the hate crimes bill. Frankly, I don't think it should have to take that kind of effort to get someone like Rachel (or Ed or Lawrence) to cover us properly.

Great discussion, Becky, but the bottom line is still the same for me: Left-wing message-making can't depend on a huge corporation and the millionaire TV stars it pays and stay left-wing. The entire point of the left is the democratic distribution of wealth and power, and MSNBC operates on and benefits by the exact opposite.

I agree, Alex, but only to a point. At FOX, for example, their hosts are given much wider latitude than Olbermann apparently had as long as they stick to their official right-wing talking points checklist. At MSNBC, their hosts will be able to go as far to the left as they like, as long as they:

A. Keep making the network lots of money with high ratings.

B. Don't piss off any NBCU and Comcast higher-ups.

MSNBC tried to go the conservative route in '03, when they fired top-rated host Phil Donohue for being too far to the left when they wanted to play Iraq war booster, but they quickly discovered that they'll never out-FOX FOX. They then tacked sharply to the left with Olbermann leading the way and that's helped them to overtake CNN as the #2 cable news network.

MSNBC knows they're not going to beat FOX at their own game. They also know that while FOX's audience is made up mainly of older, conservative viewers, MSNBC is successfully reaching out to younger, liberal, tech-savvy audiences, particularly with Rachel Maddow. That may not be enough to overtake FOX at this point but it's a demographic which will serve them well over the long haul if they can keep those loyal viewers tuning in.

So in short, it's really in MSNBC's best interests going forward to keep sailing the course Olbermann set, but also to do what they seem to have been doing over the last few months, which is to seriously set themselves up as the progressive alternative to FOX.

On the other hand, however, there's also rumors that NBC News will take more of a direct hand in MSNBC and impose more centrist journalistic standards on the network. I think they'll quickly discover that if they take too heavy a hand in that, if viewers feel their favorite hosts and shows are being muzzled by NBC or Comcast corporate executives, the viewer loyalty MSNBC has taken many years to build up will quickly vanish, their ratings will drop like a stone, and former MSNBC viewers will begin seeking their liberal and progressive pundits and commentary online exclusively, where most of us aren't making any money and therefore don't have any corporate bosses to answer to about the content of our shows.

In reality, MSNBC isn't competing against FOX in any real way. They're not going to beat FOX in the ratings anytime soon and they know it. They're actually competing against us, online liberal and progressive political content creators, and the surest way to guarantee they lose that battle is to destroy that which MSNBC viewers are already tuning in for now.

I think that's the thing: I watched a bit of MSNBC at Bil and J's place when I was in the US and I didn't see much leftist ideology there. I agree with this:

At MSNBC, their hosts will be able to go as far to the left as they like, as long as they:
A. Keep making the network lots of money with high ratings.
B. Don't piss off any NBCU and Comcast higher-ups.

But I think that those are significant limitations that deeply affect coverage. The fact that the political slant of the various hosts isn't all that far to the left. That's part of why ENDA probably isn't going to get much coverage - while Rachel Maddow had fun draping herself in the flag and going all pro-war with DADT (just so long as they're not mismanaged wars!), ENDA only benefits workers. I don't think the choice of DADT over ENDA was an accident, nor do I think it was fundamentally about the identity of the people affected by each act. It was just about getting a certain audience.

I'd also throw in GE on point B. I'd imagine GE wouldn't benefit from their laborers being given another reason to sue them as ENDA would.

Angela Brightfeather | January 24, 2011 4:42 PM

This is simply a case of COMCAST giving "Big Ed" the opportunity to hang himself and the liberal agenda with an ample supply of rope.

I have always been able to get behind Mr. Olbermann and most of his ideas and positions, but Ed Shultz is someone I have a real problem with because of his constant lauding and lobbying for unions and his "red faced" anger on camera where he loses it. I'm not against unions in certain situations when necessary, but Shultz goes over the edge most of the time by making them the ultimate panacea to the problems of the non-rich and non-famous in America. I also don't like his projected anger, and I am willing to bet that many others don't also, when they are looking for news and views and following a level headed President who does not respond violently or let the conservatives rile him easily in a public.

Giving Mr. Shultz a prime time show across America, seems to me to be giving enough rope to a rabid left winger to hang himslef to me and I think that is what COMCAST is doing by "awarding" Ed Shultz with that time slot. They would have done much better to leave him in the 6:00 p.m., etz, rather than putting him in the prime 10:00 p.m. slot. He has never gotten along with his staff and has been as overbearing with them as he appears on many topics he espouses. Big Ed will get along with the Olbermann crew and their studied method of research as well as mixing oil and water.

Of the four reporters on MSNBC that are now left on the evening shift, I find Mathews to have the ultimate professional nose in smelling out right wing B.S and holding their feet to the fire; Maddow the genius at researching subjects, digging up the truth and attacking the un-truths and O'Donnell as being the guy who is having the most fun right now experimenting with where he likes or needs to go. I see Ed Shultz, Kieth Olbermann's replacement as a calculated choice by COMCAST to poison an otherwise fine lineup of news people, by boiling the whole evening news down to a red faced tirade of the issues between 10 and 11 o'clock.

A Dionne Stallworth | January 25, 2011 3:46 PM

While I agree with pretty much all the comments made by Ms. Juro, I think that Ethan St. Pierre's position of us doing it for ourselves has never been more relevant than it is here.

Most of us, including myself at times, waste too much time believing that common sense is more common than it is or that right will eventually prevail. I no longer proceed from such an assumption. I, for one, will be writing to my all my representatives and physically haul my behind down to meet with them to tell them what I want and what I need. I like Olbermann, Ms. Maddow and the others, but this is no different than the lack of movement of inclusion of us in variety of so-called inclusive legislation.

Well, people - Nobody is safe, unless and until we all are or there is no security for anyone. We either make a stand or accept what the PTBs decide to give us.

I really hope they don't try to make Lawrence O'Donnell the new "face" of the network. That guy is so damn pompous. You can tell he's smart as hell, but I just want him to talk like a normal person.