In many ways, MSNBC’s block of Monday night coverage was a moment the network had been building up to for the past two years, the crucial must-watch episode. Last Friday, Robert Mueller turned over the results of his titanic Trump investigation to Attorney General William Barr, and on Sunday, Barr released a summary of the report that was a painful gut punch to a vast swath of MSNBC’s liberal audience. The key sentence: “The Special Counsel’s investigation did not find that the Trump campaign or anyone associated with it conspired or coordinated with Russia in its efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election.” Almost as an afterthought, partially drowned by the cacophonous gloating of Trumpworld, was this: “While this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”
In the face of this near-catastrophic setback, the MSNBC resistance bravely soldiered on. On the air that night, Ari Melber engaged in a spirited grilling of Trump attorney Jay Sekulow. Legal analyst Neal Katyal cautioned Chris Hayes not to view Barr as the final word on whether Donald Trump obstructed justice. Lawrence O’Donnell emphasized that “no one in the news media . . . has read a single sentence of the Mueller report.” Rachel Maddow, hands down one of the Mueller saga’s most voracious and detail-oriented chroniclers, kicked off her show with a monologue diving into 15 questions the Barr report left her with. “You knew it was gonna be this kind of night, didn’t you?” she began.
This sentiment also prevails at the corporate level. “We’re going to keep doing our job, asking the tough questions, especially when it involves holding powerful people accountable,” network president Phil Griffin told me through a spokesman. “This is a huge story. The president of the United States was the subject of an investigation by our own government. That probe has produced 34 criminal indictments so far. And we know the Russians interfered with our election. Our journalists, legal analysts, and prime-time hosts are covering the biggest story in politics and national security with distinction.” Similarly, on Morning Joe on Tuesday, Joe Scarborough defended the media’s coverage in a feisty monologue: “I pose this question to everyone watching, either now or later on the Internet: What would you have had the media do over the past two years, when Donald Trump lied throughout the 2016 campaign about his contacts with Russia?”
While the mainstream media’s coverage of the Russia-collusion codex has been voluminous overall, MSNBC was able to bite off a distinct, and lucrative, slice of the Mueller madness. 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. Night after night, hosts took viewers down a complex network of rabbit holes, introducing them to shadowy characters like Felix Sater and Alex van der Zwaan, and eliciting bold prognostications from a small army of breathless legal experts and ex-law-enforcement officials. “This Friday is better than next Friday,” former C.I.A. director John Brennan told O’Donnell on Tuesday, March 5. “Because next Friday is the 15th of March, which is the Ides of March, and I don’t think Robert Mueller will want to have that dramatic flair of the Ides of March when he is going to be delivering what I think are going to be his indictments—the final indictments, as well as the report.”
While Brennan later issued an unmistakably sheepish mea culpa, it was predictions such as his that left MSNBC vulnerable to the same criticism that Mueller skeptics, on the right and left alike, are now heaping on the media as a whole: there was too much hype, too much obsessive focus, too much speculation without evidence. MSNBC’s loudest critic has been Glenn Greenwald of the Intercept, who said on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News program Monday night, “It was continuously on MSNBC, which, let me just say, should have their top hosts on prime time go before the cameras and hang their head in shame and apologize for lying to people for three straight years, exploiting their fears to great profit.”
In conversations with more than half a dozen MSNBC sources, I didn’t detect much dissent about the network’s Mueller-Russia obsession. There was the fact pattern, after all: the meetings, the lying about Russia, which the Barr letter doesn’t even attempt to engage with. But there’s also a general recognition inside MSNBC that going all in on Mueller was a crucial and unavoidable programming play. “There was an omnipresent awareness that this was, strategically, a very important story for us,” one source said. “There was no market for skepticism about it. As a business model, they see the ratings, and we were getting rewarded for this every day. When we had a slow day, it was kind of like: when in doubt, call the lawyers on; call the F.B.I. people.”
The ratings don’t lie. Five or six years ago, MSNBC’s viewership was down, and the network was flailing. As with the rest of the news media, the Trump saga has given it a turbocharge. Indeed, MSNBC had its best year ever in 2018, wrapping up with about 1.1 million daily viewers on average, a 121 percent increase from the first quarter of 2016, according to the network. Compared to the first quarter of 2017, right before Mueller got to work, ratings are now up 43 percent, the network’s data shows. In other words, if Trump helped bring MSNBC back to life, Mueller cranked up the electricity running through its veins. One TV executive suggested that Trump and all of the attendant drama is to MSNBC what the Gulf War was to CNN: it made the network central in a way it had never been before.
Maddow, arguably the network’s crown jewel, has seen a marked surge in particular, putting her in contention for bragging rights as the No. 1 show on cable news, depending on whose carefully crafted ratings releases you believe. As The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple noted in December, “Ever since special counsel Robert S. Mueller III started producing indictments and other interesting documents, Maddow has devoured them—all of them. She reads the filings on-air, off-air, and in between. Often with the help of key reporters on the Mueller beat, she proceeds to detail what’s in them and what’s not in them. There has been a lot of explaining to do.”
One way or another, there won’t be as much explaining to do, now that the Mueller circus is leaving town. Sure, there’s still a lot left to be learned and debated about his report in the coming weeks, and there are still the offshoot investigations that are underway in jurisdictions like the Southern District of New York. But the key element of suspense is gone. For MSNBC, what next? “There are shows that built their identity around this,” a journalist there told me. “Where does that go?”
For starters, several sources told me they expect that some of MSNBC’s Mueller stars—the Malcolm Nances and Jill Wine-Bankses and Mimi Rocahs of the world—won’t be called on as frequently. Others said the network’s coverage was already beginning to shift toward a focus on 2020, which has an enormous pack of Democratic hopefuls that are like celebrities to many an MSNBC viewer. (NBC News and MSNBC are hosting the first Democratic presidential primary debate in June.)
But the prevailing view you’d be likely to hear from MSNBC leadership is that, Mueller or no Mueller, collusion or no collusion, the real star of the show is the man in the Oval Office, and that show will go on. “It was never about Mueller; it’s always been about Trump,” another MSNBC source said. “From the second he came down that escalator in June of 2015, it’s always been about him, and that doesn’t change.” Mueller’s conclusions, this person continued, “don’t change the fact that Trump is at the center of everything. He put himself there, and he isn’t going anywhere.”
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