Update of the previous post: TRUMP REPEATEDLY PRESSURED MSNBC TO FIRE LAWRENCE O’DONNELL HOST OF “THE LAST WORD”, IS IT WORKING?
MSNBC will renew Lawrence O’Donnell’s contract, which was due to expire today. At least for now, the network’s increasingly conservative tilt—new show hosts include Greta Van Susteren, Nicolle Wallace*, Hugh Hewitt, and, on sister network NBC, Megyn Kelly—will not be bleeding into the primetime liberal line-up of Chris Hayes, Rachel Maddow, and O’Donnell. At the end of Wednesday’s The Last Word, O’Donnell congratulated an intern starting a new job next week and added, “You know where I’ll be next week? I will be sitting right here talking about the James Comey hearing and everything else that happens next week and everything that happens for the next couple of years.” Later he confirmed by tweet that he won’t get bumped from his 10 pm perch: “Yes I will be saying hi to Rachel @maddow at 10 pm for the foreseeable future.”
*(Some of us here at the Examiner have been enjoying Nicolle Wallace’s show, she has great enthusiasm for gleefully busting fellow Republicans for their hypocrisy supporting Trump.)
Though O’Donnell will remain at MSNBC, it’d be a mistake to think that protesters were overreacting. MSNBC, long considered the liberal answer to Fox News, is doling out valuable TV time to any conservative Never Trumper or ex-Foxer who bats an eyelash at them. The former Fox anchor Van Susteren has been hosting an hour-long weekday show at 6 pm since September. Wallace, a former communications director for George W. Bush and a top adviser for the McCain/Palin ticket (which she famously didn’t vote for) took over the 4 pm slot from Steve Kornaki just a few weeks ago. Right-wing radio host Hugh Hewitt—who never-Trumped for a nanosecond—will reportedly get his own show on Saturday mornings. And to top it off, climate-change denier George Will, recently booted from Fox News for opposing Trump, has signed on as a contributor to MSNBC and NBC, where former Fox News star Megyn Kelly will debut her Sunday night show this weekend. In September, Kelly will also take over the third hour of NBC’s Today show.
O’Donnell supporters aren’t crazy to believe that MSNBC could be as ruthless as the next corporate media outlet. Just the day before O’Donnell announced his good news, we learned that CBS had fired Scott Pelley as the anchor of its nightly news show. Pelley has been outspoken about Trump—saying stuff like “It has been a busy day for presidential statements divorced from reality”—something unheard of for a network-news anchor. (Pelley will remain with CBS, however, returning full-time to 60 Minutes.)
MSNBC, of course, has its own history of unceremoniously shedding talent. In February, Tamron Hall quit both NBC and MSNBC after being told—just minutes before going live on air for her daily MSNBC news show—that Megyn Kelly would be bumping her from Today. That followed the purges of 2015, when Andrew Lack, the MSNBC executive, let go of, or moved to obscurity, some of the channel’s more progressive daytime voices—Ronan Farrow, Alex Wagner, Al Sharpton, and Ed Schultz—in an effort to make MSNBC look more like NBC and its straight-news approach. In early 2016, Melissa Harris-Perry quit her weekend show over disputes about editorial control. “They wanted us to cover politics in the narrowest sense,” Harris-Perry said at the time.
But even if Lack lusted for a more centrist prime time, it may not have made business sense to ax O’Donnell, as a number of the protesters pointed out to me. During the month of May, MSNBC earned its highest prime-time ratings ever, topping CNN and Fox in the desirable demographic of 25- to 54-year-olds for the first time in 17 years. And in terms of total viewers among MSNBC shows, also for the month of May, O’Donnell has had ratings second only to Maddow. Like CNN and Fox, MSNBC has Trump to thank for the ratings boost, but it has improved over the last year at far higher percentages than its rivals.
We don’t know what concessions either side may have made, but for now MSNBC issued a statement that portrays O’Donnell as just one of the five amigos: “Each weeknight, Chris Matthews, Chris Hayes, Rachel Maddow, Lawrence O’Donnell, and Brian Williams provide insight and perspective that lets you know you’re in the know.”
But in truth, many viewers consider only some of those hosts to be the last bastion of progressive TV news. “Lawrence O’Donnell and Rachel Maddow are essential to what’s left of my sanity,” Beverly Bullock told me at the rally. “A true, honest, crusading press is needed more than ever. The press is the only sector that’s really standing up for our country.”
And as much as anyone may or may not love O’Donnell, for some, the anxiety is not really about him. Claire Dillingham, a semi-retired teacher who attended the rally, said, “This is what I’m scared of—not of this or that individual losing a job so much as the whole attempt to tell the press to ‘Shut your mouth.’”