MSNBC announced Monday that it has hired George F. Will as a
contributor, adding yet another conservative talker to its
rapidly expanding roster of them.
Two weeks ago, the cable news network gave former George W. Bush
adviser Nicolle Wallace a 4 p.m. show. Former Fox News star Greta
Van Susteren took over its 6 p.m. slot in January.
And it has reportedly offered talk radio host Hugh Hewitt a show,
as well. MSNBC is giving out shows to conservative pundits like
Oprah giving out G6s.
Remember when the network embraced its liberal reputation with
the tagline “Lean Forward”? These days it’s running ads
suggesting that people might accuse it of conservative bias—and
it’s only half-joking.
MSNBC isn’t the only major media organization that’s tacking
rightward lately. The New York Times’ opinion section infuriated
its liberal loyalists last month by giving the former Wall Street
Journal never-Trumper Bret Stephens an op-ed column, which he
promptly used to question climate science and criticize
In a sign that demand for prominent conservative pundits has
surpassed supply, the same Hewitt that MSBNC is pursuing also
landed a major op-ed column two months ago, signing on with the
The realignment would make perfect sense if media outlets whose
audiences skewed liberal were struggling in the Trump era.
But it’s just the opposite. MSNBC just posted its highest-ever
quarterly ratings, beating centrist CNN in prime time. The Times
reported record-breaking subscriber growth. The Post is
aggressively expanding amid record online traffic and ad revenue.
The last two have been running PR campaigns aiming to capitalize
on discontent with Trump’s election.
And they’re all getting pushback from the left on each
conservative hire, with some even publicly canceling their Times
subscriptions to protest Stephens.
So what’s behind the conservative-commentator craze? Let’s
consider the possibilities.
1. News organizations are making a play for conservative
Hard as it is to imagine conservatives suddenly flocking to MSNBC
or the NYT op-ed page, some ad copywriters at MSNBC at least seem
to have managed to imagine just that.
It also seems to be the default explanation among industry
observers. Quartz suggested that MSNBC is “courting
conservatives” in a bid to capitalize on the upheaval at Fox
News, whose sexual harassment scandals have led to a personnel
overhaul and may have dented its brand.
The success of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, hosted by former Republican
congressman Joe Scarborough, lends at least some plausibility to
the idea that conservatives are open to flipping away from Fox
News under the right circumstances. (Trump does.) And while MSNBC
fans were hardly clamoring for Greta Van Susteren, she posted
decent enough ratings in her first quarter there.
“People might start accusing us of leaning too far to the right”
is probably not a line we’ll hear from the Times, although with
Stephens joining David Brooks and Ross Douthat on the op-ed
roster, it is starting to look a bit like the Never-Trump
The Post, meanwhile, has long boasted a bipartisan op-ed page,
lending its platform to neocons Michael Gerson, Jennifer Rubin,
and don’t-call-him-a-neocon Charles Krauthammer, along with
Kathleen Parker and, yes, George Will. This hasn’t exactly made
it a darling of the modern conservative movement, but perhaps
it’s at least enough to keep the capital’s Republican old guard
filling out their renewal cards each year.
The problem with this explanation is that these outlets’ liberal
reputations were cemented long ago, at least in the eyes of the
right. They might lure a few center-right channel-surfers and
die-hard anti-Trumpers. But from a pure business perspective,
it’s hard to imagine those gains outweighing the damage these
hires are doing to their liberal bona fides, especially when
their own PR campaigns seem to be targeting the progressive
resistance. MSNBC’s ratings so far seem to bear this out: Its
progressive voices are far outperforming the conservative and
MSNBC liberal hosts doing well, nonideological hosts hired by Andy Lack doing poorly.
New Fox shows struggling.
CNN in serious trouble. pic.twitter.com/DiZ94TdfOx
— Matthew Gertz (@MattGertz) May 9, 2017
2. They’re trying to puncture their audiences’ filter
What if these moves aren’t really about attracting new audiences
but better serving the ones they already have?
In this rather charitable interpretation, which the Times has
repeatedly advanced on its own behalf, left-appealing outlets
understand that ideological echo chambers can lead to
polarization, lazy thinking, and partisan self-congratulation
(or, in liberals’ case recently, self-flagellation).
Progressives may find Stephens’ views on, say, climate change or
campus rape to be obnoxious. Or they may find Will’s views on,
um, climate change or campus rape to be, well, obnoxious. But,
under this theory, it’s important to be exposed to such views
regardless, lest liberals somehow forget that the country is
still run primarily by middle-aged white men who pride themselves
on defending the status quo.
Yet if this were really about ideological breadth, there are
plenty of fresher voices that these outlets could be elevating
over the likes of Stephens and Will. We’ve been hearing from
their Republican-establishment ilk for decades, and they’re just
as out-of-step with the Trump movement as their Democratic
counterparts. Why not hire a populist, or a socialist, or a poor
person from the South? The uniformity of these conservative
additions belies the notion that this is really about
representing a diversity of perspectives.
3. This is really all a big PR scam.
OK, time to get cynical.
Nothing about these hires is going to change the fact that MSNBC
and the Times mostly embody liberal values and appeal to liberal
audiences, any more than Fox News hiring a liberal or two would
change its position in the marketplace. These hires are really
about perceptions, reputations, and plausible deniability.
It’s one thing to lean left as a journalistic organization in the
United States and quite another to admit that you lean left. The
former is common and does not disqualify you from mainstream
media status, even if it does win you a spot on Trump’s “fake
The latter—that is, copping to your true values—is antithetical
to the hoary journalistic principle of objectivity. It’s an ideal
that almost no self-reflective member of the media really
believes in yet that almost everyone is obliged to pay lip
service to, because it’s the premise on which news organizations
have sold themselves to the public over the past 150 years.
You can see this in the famous Fox News slogan “Fair and
Balanced,” which is a punchline to those in the know but which
many of its viewers actually believe. “All the news that’s fit to
print” is also disingenuous, at least to anyone familiar with the
story-selection process at a national newspaper, yet it remains
on the Times’ front page to this day for similar reasons.
MSNBC and the Times, in this view, aren’t really courting
conservative audiences, nor are they trying to challenge liberal
ones. Rather, they’re courting nervous advertisers who crave at
least a veneer of nonpartisanship so as to avoid alienating half
Perhaps more than that, they’re gathering ammunition with which
to fight back against charges of liberal bias. The likes of
Stephens, Van Susteren, Hewitt, and Will may not change many
minds or attract many new ones. But they make for handy shields
that their employers can hold up whenever they’re accused of
becoming too insular: If we’re so liberal, why do we have so many
prominent conservatives on staff?
If that’s the strategy, the backlash from the left starts to look
less like a downside and more like an essential part of the plan.
The furor over Stephens’ column, for instance, sets the paper in
very public opposition to its lefty readers. Don’t be surprised
to hear Times higher-ups remind us of it the next time they’re
accused of liberal pandering.
4. We’re looking at this all wrong.
What if the reason this question is so hard to answer is that
it rests on a backward premise? Perhaps MSNBC, the
Times, and the Post aren’t really beating
down the doors of conservative pundits at all—it’s the
conservative pundits who are beating down theirs.
Over the course of the Republican primary campaign, most
conservative commentators abandoned their previous principles
and hopped on the Trump train, some more convincingly than
others. Those who didn’t have largely been cast out of the
Stephens and Will, in particular, have stuck emphatically
to their anti-Trump stances, while Hewitt’s election-eve
conversion wasn’t enough to make people forget his earlier
calls for Trump to withdraw. Wallace, for her part, broke with
the party’s Sarah Palin wing after the 2008 election, while Van
Susteren fled Fox News along with several other of its top
female journalists in the waning days of Roger Ailes’ evidently
In a Trump-led Republican party, all five of these
conservatives find themselves on the outside looking in. This
can’t fully explain why mainstream media organizations were so
eager to snap them up, of course. But it may at least
illuminate the trend’s origins.
5. They’re just picking the best opinion journalists
for the job, regardless of ideology.
Ha! Just kidding, that’s not really a possible explanation. I
mean, have you read a George
Will column lately?
Powered by WPeMatico