The "new" MSNBC began to emerge in 2005. The network had shed assorted non-news hosts like Michael Savage, Don Imus, Mike Barnacle, and Alan Keyes, people around whom it would be impossible to build a coherent network brand, but there was little sign the people running the network had any clarity about what they wanted. And then, in the wake of the Bush administration's newest failure in response to Hurricane Katrina, on September 5, 2005, Keith Olbermann broadcast a "special comment" full of moral outrage at the amoral callousness of the American government's lack of urgency in helping thousands of Americans whose lives were threatened (a threat that was never posed by Iraq). Here was a former sportscaster speaking from the heart, speaking truth to power, speaking to an abuse of power even as it was happening, and the effect was electrifying. The special comment went viral on YouTube.
Even so, it took almost a year for MSNBC to institutionalize Olbermann's special comments. His next, on August 30, 2006, took Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to task for defending Guantanamo since it had volleyball and basketball courts (but no judicial court worthy of the name). Olbermann had a good run at MSNBC, despite some turbulence, before exiting abruptly in January 2011. Not apparent at first glance, this is the Donohue pattern in extended form: the network's ultimate inability to accommodate a truth teller, albeit a reportedly difficult personality. There has never since been anyone else exercising Olbermann's level of intense integrity at MSNBC (some come close). So "difficult personality" looks like a bogus cover story. Truth telling is more complicated than news and it doesn't fit into most corporate business plans.
While Olbermann has no true successor (and likely never will), his most obvious legacy at MSNBC is Rachel Maddow, who got her audition moment filling in for Olbermann on "Countdown" where she impressed MSNBC exec Phil Griffin. In July 2008, Griffin became MSNBC's president and the next month he gave Maddow her own show, right after Olbermann's, and she's still in the same time slot, where she hasn't noticeably made waves (despite insults from Bill Maher, Bill O'Reilly, Politico, and Alec Baldwin).
Rachel Maddow calls herself "liberal," evokes Phil Ochs song
Michael Arria wickedly quotes Maddow as saying, "I'm undoubtedly a liberal, which means that I'm in almost total agreement with the Eisenhower-Era Republican Party platform." His chapter on "Maddow's World" especially critiques her apparent infatuation with the American military, including her "ringing endorsement of NATO's attack on Libya." Turning to Iran, Arria takes Maddow to task for omitting the CIA coup of 1953 (Eisenhower era!) from the context for Iranian behavior; for misrepresenting what Iranian leaders have actually said about nuclear weapons; and for applauding the sanctions that, by barring drug imports, have aggravated cancer and AIDS in Iran.
Medium Blue's assessments of other MSNBC hosts are equally trenchant, for example:
" Chris Hayes -- "stands in as what passes as the far-left in today's media
" Ed Shultz -- "satisfying those perplexing progressives who pined for a
Democratic Rush Limbaugh."
" Melissa Harris-Perry -- "To hail a centrist President for following in
King's footsteps flies in the face of nearly everything MLK stood for."
" Ari Melber -- his "connection to the ruling class obscured to the naked
eye" (part of a devastating recital of attorney Melber's conflicts of interest).
Whether one ends up agreeing with each of Arria's assessments, he provides sufficient detail (Hayes and Harris-Perry each has a chapter) for a reader to make an informed judgment or to pursue more information. Arria's point is less about the people than about the corporate culture in which they seem to thrive. He makes this clear in his chapter "The Host Is the Message," in which he quotes Phil Griffin saying to Cenk Uygur: "We're insiders. We're the establishment." Whether the quote is apocryphal or not, it describes the apparent reality of news presentation at MSNBC: there are lines you don't cross, but within the lines you're free and independent.
Sometimes a network president is just another messenger