It took a while, but MSNBC President Phil Griffin has finally admitted and embraced his cable network's hard-left slant. He told the Chicago Tribune that he will try to carve out a niche on the left, hoping some day to rival the Fox News Channel's record-setting ratings.
Not so long ago, Griffin insisted that MSNBC was not "tied to ideology" -- unlike Fox, which simply could not be trusted, he claimed. Griffin even knocked FNC President Roger Ailes's business model, criticizing him for "creat[ing] an ideological channel… I give them total credit. I tip my hat to them. They scored. But it was ideological and opportunistic. It was a business plan."
Griffin has apparently abandoned his disdain for that business plan. He spoke glowingly of Ailes in an interview with the Tribune, saying the FNC president "changed the world" with his wildly successful business model, which went beyond just reporting to create brand loyalty and provide viewers with commentary that speaks to their views and preferences. MSNBC will now be (openly) emulating that model.
Whether Griffin's network can find an ample audience on the left to support the channel remains to be seen. But for now, Griffin and his interviewers at the Tribune see MSNBC as the ideological mirror image of Fox. The Tribune frames the political dichotomy between Griffin and Ailes as an "ideological battle." Griffin's language is more measured:
To be successful in this new age, you've got to create a community… You've got to have a place where people come. They're like-minded. They share ideas. They want news, but they also get their headlines all day long on the Web, on their BlackBerrys, on their iPhones, on their iPads. It's a different universe, and nobody uses one outlet as their only source.
This strategy, of course, is exactly what Griffin criticized so vehemently not too long ago. The job of the cable news channel, as Griffin apparently now sees it, is to give the news an ideological edge that attracts active, like-minded information consumers. Ailes has set the standard on the right with Fox's prime time stars. Griffin now hopes to fill the void on the left.
Objectivity? Neutrality? Impartiality? Griffin paints a news environment in which these buzzwords are linguistic relics of a bygone era in news consumption. When television was the nation's primary source of news gathering, objectivity was important -- if rarely realized.
But in the digital age, news consumers have access to an unprecedented range of sources infinitely more convenient, accessible, and customizable than a television. For a cable channel to cling to the values of the 20th century newsroom while ignoring today's media realities would be financially problematic.
"The media universe has exploded, and it's a different world," Griffin told the Tribune. "I don't go along with this idea that CNN has, that somehow they are doing the Lord's work and we are simply regurgitating what people think."
While CNN does produce some quality reporting, it is unclear that news consumers will continue to search it out there when they can, for instance, get AP headlines on their phones, and then tune into the cable channel providing the most entertaining or inspiring commentary.
It remains to be seen whether Griffin can effectively carve out the lefty niche. It is far from a foregone conclusion, if for no other reason than the United States remains a center-right nation. Indeed, Ailes told the Tribune that Fox "has a bias toward the American people. What do the American people need to know to make an informed decision?" And just today NewsBusters reported that CNN and Fox remain, slogans aside, by far the most trusted names in news.
To tie ratings to a political ideology -- liberalism -- that is increasingly out of style among the electorate seems foolish. While Fox's first quarter ratings were the highest of all time (for any cable news channel), MSNBC's ratings slumped. Meanwhile, President Obama's approval ratings were hovering roughly between 45 and 50%.
Griffin would do well to consider all these facts when pondering the future of his cable network. Americans want news that aligns with their views and preferences. Are there enough on the left to keep the ad dollars flowing? Time will tell.