The MSNBC panel was awaiting former president Donald Trump’s Fulton County Jail mug shot, when Rachel Maddow asked her audience to register the gravity of the moment. “I’m saying we should slow down here just for a second, because this is serious stuff for the nation, for who we are as a country,” she said last week, as MSNBC aired the photo—the first of any current or former United States president. “This is not something to take lightly. Our constitutional republic depends on the very basic concept of rule by law, not rule by man,” Maddow continued. It was fitting that Trump looked so angry in the mug shot; despite being the fourth indictment and arrest this year, it was Trump’s first. “He’s embodying…the avatar for the rage that he has traded off of to become president in the first place,” Joy Reid said.
But not every moment was that earnest on MSNBC that night. Over the course of the segment, which followed everything from Trump’s plane landing in Atlanta to his motorcade to and from the jailhouse, the MSNBC panel—Reid, Maddow, Chris Hayes, Lawrence O’Donnell, and Nicolle Wallace—oscillated between analysis, weighty reflection, and, well, schadenfreude. O’Donnell mused, was the “strawberry” hair color listed in the booking information Trump’s own description? Maddow cast a cheeky glance to her colleagues when she read his listed height: “six-foot-three.” Then came Trump’s weight—listed as 215 pounds—sending the table into hysterics.
MSNBC’s talking heads had been given the license to have a little fun. Even when Maddow and others were reflecting on the sheer weightiness of this newscycle—that even a former president can be held accountable under the criminal justice system—a viewer could tell: This panel was relishing every part of it. And, it seems, the viewers are relishing in it all too.
MSNBC has emerged as the network of choice for viewers looking for coverage of Trump’s criminal charges. The timing of Trump’s arrest in Georgia—Thursday night—didn’t correspond with Maddow’s regular Monday slot, but the network brought her on anyway; it was an evening ripe for the heavy hitters, after all. The tactic seems to be working. The network has seen a bump in ratings recently, reportedly beating Fox News in prime-time ratings for a full week in early June amid coverage of Trump’s second indictment, on charges related to classified documents. The network continued to bear the fruits of Trump’s legal woes earlier this month, which has been MSNBC’s most-watched in more than two years. When Trump was indicted for the fourth time, over his efforts to overturn the 2020 election results in Georgia, MSNBC prevailed over Fox News for the top three spots in the cable lineup, Forbes reported, citing Nielson data. More viewers turned to MSNBC from 9 p.m. through 3 a.m. than Fox News and CNN combined. Maddow’s 9 p.m. program, which happened to feature a previously scheduled interview with Hillary Clinton, drew 3.9 million viewers, and was the number one show across all of television, including broadcast. MSNBC beat Fox News in prime time again the next night. “While most of the country is experiencing some level of fatigue over Trump’s legal battles, MSNBC’s viewership has increased with each subsequent indictment,” Axios’s Sara Fischer noted.
MSNBC’s approach—and success—is in spite of the broader recalibration toward nonpartisan media that newer outlets like Semafor and The Messenger have said they see a market for. CNN, too, made an apparent attempt to overcorrect for its breathless coverage of the Trump White House. The result, largely ushered under now ex-CEO Chris Licht, has at times been over-sanitized, leaving viewers unsure of what the network is offering.
“CNN has definitely lost a ton of audience to MSNBC,” one CNN producer tells me. “One of Chris Licht’s great legacies was basically telling the audience we built during the Trump era: You’re not welcome, we don’t work for you. I don’t know if that’s ever going to be undone, and this new lineup is certainly not a strategy to attract this audience back.” CNN is maintaining its focus on hard news, both in its latest streaming effort and newly cemented prime-time lineup. “We now have a decade of data telling us that cable news viewers don’t want news in prime time,” the producer adds. “So this completely ‘blinders on, we’re gonna double down on news in prime time and hope for the best’—it just doesn’t make any sense to me.”
Meanwhile, MSNBC has seemingly only doubled down on being the premier news source for the Trump resistance. For two years, the network’s coverage and numbers were largely driven by Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. “In addition to breaking pieces of news related to the probe—working in tandem with journalists from NBC News—MSNBC’s anchors, and, in particular, its opinionated progressive evening hosts, turned the Russia story into a gripping daily soap opera that not only helped grow the channel’s audience, but kept it coming back for more,” my colleague Joe Pompeo wrote back in 2019. A person close to MSNBC’s strategic thinking credits the network’s ratings to more than just the recent indictments, pointing to both the network’s consistency with viewers and expanded footprint across digital, audio, and streaming. Following Trump’s departure from office, the mandate for hosts has been to keep it nice, as Semafor reported—opinion without snark or bombast.
Now MSNBC is approaching what could be the apex in Trump political coverage: his indictments, trials, and another presidential run. The network appears particularly well-positioned to take on this story with its stable of legal analysts, including former top Mueller prosecutor Andrew Weissmann, former acting US solicitor general Neal Katyal, and former US attorney Joyce Vance. It helps that NBC News has also been a central player this political cycle and appears well-sourced with both Trumpworld and Ron Desantis’s camp; NBC nabbed the first network interview with the Florida governor after he launched his campaign, and has been nabbing scoops on him as well as on the Biden administration.
Timing, too, is on their side; MSNBC is firing on all cylinders just as its competitors face a period of instability. Fox News is still figuring out its future without Tucker Carlson and girding for more defamation suits, while CNN is rudderless, with temporary management attempting to pick up the pieces post-Licht’s tenure, as the company searches for a new CEO.
Over at MSNBC, things are comparatively low drama. I’m told that MSNBC president Rashida Jones has an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality that has been well-received by top talent.