Maddow: Network News Not Going Anywhere

MSNBC star talks about life after Olbermann, and how other big personalities will do in new places
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What do you think about the network evening newscast? Cable news gets all the buzz, but the networks still get much larger viewing numbers. Do you think the day will come when the ratings flip-flop?


I'm not a great media analyst. I know a lot about what I do; I don't know a lot about the business in general. But I do think that the much-heralded death of network news is a long way off. Brian Williams' numbers are pretty spectacular, as are the Today show's. Nothing that's happening in cable is competing with those numbers. I think you're right to phrase it in the "buzz" being about cable news, but what happens on the network side is very healthy. I think that anybody who underestimates the staying power of network news has been proven wrong a lot in the past few years and probably will continue to be proved wrong for a long time.


With Keith Olbermann going to Current TV, Glenn Beck leaving Fox News, Katie Couric liking moving to syndication-have we reached a point where personalities can stand alone as brands?

I don't know. It will be interesting to see where all those people land. The only precedent for that was when we saw some major media figures in talk radio leave and go into satellite. That was years past, but you can sort of look at that, maybe, as the beta, as the pilot project for this. It will be interesting to see if people who work in visual media can make their own way off the network platform. Cable in its own way is off the network platform, and that's proved to be a successful business model. So it will be interesting to watch. It's hard to know where those three figures that you mentioned are going to end up, but I'm particularly interested to see if any of them will really test the idea that the Web is a place where you can make a big media splash. Can you do it without broadcasting? Can you do it just by uploading? It will be interesting to see.


What do you feel is your opportunity for growth at MSNBC? With Keith gone, are you comfortable being the face of MSNBC?

Luckily, the network doesn't need a face. I don't think the network needs just one person. I don't think I would want to be that; I actually don't think any of us who work here would want to be that. The thing is, I've been here at MSNBC two-and-a-half years; this is a very, very welcoming, comfortable, supportive place to work. And my big goal in my career-as, admittedly, a person who's not much of a planner-my vision, what I'm trying to do is to stay here and to do good work. I really like working here. My deal with MSNBC includes editorial freedom to cover the news as I see fit, as long as I'm doing it in a responsible way that attends to NBC News rules that we're all bound by. We don't get talking points. We don't get told what to cover; we don't get told what not to cover. And that freedom to make an hour of primetime broadcasting every day with this great staff that I have, and the resources that we have both here and able to tap into NBC, I really feel like I won the lottery. The best thing that I could aspire to would be to do this for a while and do it well. And so most of my aspirations are about doing it in a sustainable way and trying to succeed. I wouldn't want to be anywhere else doing anything other than this right now.


This new Lean Forward ad campaign has you and other anchors making your point of view pretty explicit, with the message that your perspective colors the way you approach the news. How involved were you in developing this campaign, and is it important to you for people to know your viewpoint?

I wouldn't describe it as the implication being our [perspective] colors the way MSNBC approaches the news. I think what is true about our primetime lineup in that we are trying to, if not reinforce, at least be transparent about, and be open with our audience about, [the idea that] our hosts are real people who have fully formed political viewpoints and fully formed opinions about the world. And that is something that we are open about. So while you can get-from the entire spectrum of MSNBC news-factual, authoritative, fact-checkable information from any of us, if you are tuning into one of the primetime shows, we are hoping that you will get to know and like those of us who are hosting those shows as whole people.

None of us are an authoritative voice of God. We're not generic people; we're real people who have ideas and passions and come from somewhere, who believe the things we believe for a reason. And I think that's the implicit understanding that people have about what cable news is now. You're watching shows that have the host's name in the title often, and you're watching that host's take on the news because you're interested in that person as a person and you believe them. That sort of deep connection between us hosts as people, and the people who like our shows, is something I think we're really proud of.

As far as my involvement in creating the campaign, I don't do marketing, I do my show, but I'm really happy that they decided to do it this way. It was shot documentary-style, it was unscripted; we just essentially talked for a long time, they shot us talking about what we believe, shot us in conversation and then cut it up in ways that might make good appropriate-length spots. I feel very comfortable with it; I feel like it really represents us as people, and that's what people are trying to get out of us as hosts.


How has that transparency of hosts being real people evolved since you started at MSNBC? Do you consider yours a news show or an opinion show?

Well, I approach it as a news show; my show is all about the news. But I'm honest about who I am; I'm honest about the fact that I'm a person who has liberal beliefs, but that doesn't mean that you can't get factual information from me. You can take the factual basis of what we are doing to the bank absolutely every day. We run corrections when we get stuff wrong; we have a real commitment to the truth. We are an authoritative source for news. I think what is true across cable now-and it's not just us, we're not breaking any new ground here-what's true across cable, across primetime cable in particular, is this idea that you were allowed to know where your host was coming from, both our specific level of expertise in any subject matter that we're talking about [and] a personal background in terms of what brings us to our various interests, and we all have editorial control in these primetime hours not only about what we say about any particular topic but what stories we think are newsworthy. That's why cable news feels so different than network news, or even than what's on many of the cable channels during the daytime. As hosts we are really allowed to editorially shape what happens in our hour, including deciding what stories make our shows. It makes for a very different feel and a very different conversation.


In the 2010 election, the messaging in the media was all about jobs and the economy, but the laws that came out of it are about social issues. Do you think we're going to see the same thing in 2012? How are you approaching the election?

I think that it's been interesting to watch the difference, the sort of yawning gap between what, in particular, the Republicans campaigned on and what they have said they value and how they have behaved with governing authority. In a difficult economy it is very easy to get people to fear other Americans, to pick enemies among our fellow citizens, to try to look for scapegoats for economic pain that we're all feeling. And that is a really ripe environment for social-wedge issues, and I think it's instructive that after John Boehner really got attacked from the right for having come up with a deal to avoid the government shutdown, by coming up with a deal with President Obama, he got really attacked from the right for that. And then the next thing he did, he immediately pivoted and said that we're going to spend $5 million to defend the Defense of Marriage Act and go after gay marriage. When in doubt, or when making difficult economic decisions, it's always convenient to have sort of a social issue to scapegoat at that time.

The 2010 elections were really successful for Republicans at the state level. They got control of the House in Washington, but at the state level, a lot of state legislatures and state houses went red. And what has happened in the states since then, what those Republicans in the states have decided to focus on, the kind of legislation they have passed, is telling. It's very different than what the Republican party's national image is. Because there isn't a national Republican figure yet who's going to be facing off against President Obama. The only real evidence in politics we have to contrast his record with is the record of Republican executives in the states. And it's not widely understood that it's been mostly about abortion, and making budgets worse by giving corporate tax breaks and tax breaks to people who already have money, and dramatically cutting services, and not fixing the budgets, and doing mandatory drug testing, and abortion restrictions, and anti-gay initiatives, and English as an official language, and Sharia law and this stuff that nobody really thought the '10 elections were really about.

E-mail comments to amorabito@nbmedia.com and follow her on Twitter: @andreamorabito

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