Did MSNBC ever try to disrupt anything important, like a drone war?
Perhaps even more to the point, as Medium Blue argues with more than enough documentation, the question is whether MSNBC as a corporate entity wants to disrupt anything meaningful to the country as a whole. MSNBC's history looks like rather inchoate groping to disrupt the cable news ratings, but not much more. As Arria argues, MSNBC programming predominantly reflects the conventional wisdom of the permanent government on "fundamental issues that impact our world" trade policy, nuclear disarmament, the World Bank, IMF, WTO, the private prison boom, the 'War on Drugs,' corporate welfare, Israel, Cube, drone policy, the global assassination program, etc."
Medium Blue does not attempt a comprehensive analysis of every program and every host on MSNBC, and such an exhaustive approach would likely be exhausting, and could never be timely. Aria's book went to press in August 2013, and so inevitably misses more recent MSNBC performances such as under-reporting on Ukraine and over-demonizing Vladimir Putin, both of which inhibit rational understanding. But Medium Blue is rich with incidents from recent years that encourage the inference that the network's inadequate coverage of Ukraine fits a dismal pattern that seems unlikely to be broken any time soon.
The defining moment for MSNBC came in the 2002-03 run-up to the Iraq war, when the Bush administration was lying and the New York Times was printing the lies on page one as if they were true. Voices challenging the dishonest rationale for war were few, but one of them was on MSNBC, Phil Donohue. "Donohue" first aired July 15, 2002, to good ratings, which soon dropped (to levels also registered on occasion by both Chris Matthews and Joe Scarborough, who remain on the air). In the fall, Donohue emerged as an open critic of the rush to war. By February, "Donohue" was MSNBC's highest-rated show. On February 25, 2003, MSNBC cancelled the show "for poor ratings," a false claim that CBS News reported as fact. "Donohue" was replaced by an expanded version of the war drum beating "Countdown: Iraq" with Lester Holt and the Iraq War proceeded on its course of dismal failure that hasn't ended yet.
MSNBC's legacy, which it has yet to repair despite any "progressive" tendencies, is the common corporate complicity to sacrifice any short-term advantage for the sake of long-term accommodation with the powers that be. MSNBC said as much in an internal memo prior to Donohue's firing. The memo called Donohue a "difficult public face for NBC in a time of war" (which hadn't started). Then the memo clarified that there was no principle at stake, since "Donohue" might provide "a home for the liberal antiwar agenda at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity."
Why can't MSNBC hold onto its best news people?
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.