NEW YORK (AP) — During a recent “Morning Joe” discussion of another development in the four indictments of former President Donald Trump, NBC News reporter Ken Dilanian predicted, “we are in for a real show next year.”
MSNBC is not just counting on that to be true. The network is built around it.
The news outlet is hyper-focused on Trump’s legal jeopardy, with a team of experts ready to dissect every ruling, every filing, every comment. The approach has seen success — even with some Republicans — with potential for more and the obvious questions of what happens when the bubble bursts.
“MSNBC has pretty well-established themselves as the leading anti-Trump network, certainly of late,” said Jon Klein, a former CNN president and news analyst. “Once you’ve chosen your lane, you may as well go for it.”
Certainly, the recipient of its attention has noticed.
In a late September post on Truth Social, Trump complained about “one-sided and vicious coverage” on NBC News and, particularly, MSNBC. He said they should be investigated for “country-threatening treason” and said MSNBC’s endless coverage of Russia and “other things” amounted to a campaign contribution to Democrats.
The network would not make anyone available to talk about its strategy. MSNBC’s prime-time viewership was up slightly over last year in the third quarter, while CNN and Fox News Channel saw double-digit declines, according to the Nielsen company. So far this year, Fox has averaged 2.18 million viewers, MSNBC 1.51 million and CNN 639,000.
Without making clear how many of its viewers are Republicans, MSNBC said its GOP audience increased 24% this spring, compared to 2022, and 37% in a middle America region that includes Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois and Iowa.
The rapid advancement of cord cutting has shrunk the number of available viewers for cable networks, and it’s still uncertain where news streaming will settle. That makes it more important than ever for a network to identify a specific audience it wants to serve. Fox News has made billions of dollars through that strategy.
Emphasizing one story to the near-exclusion of others has happened in spurts before, such as CNN’s all-consuming attention to the missing Malaysia Airlines flight in 2014 and MSNBC during Trump’s impeachments.
This story is unlikely to fade from the headlines anytime soon.
During the first day of Trump’s civil trial in New York on fraud charges Monday, it was the lead story on each one of MSNBC’s shows from 3 p.m. to midnight. Nicolle Wallace discussed it for a half hour in the afternoon, capped off with some caustic commentary from a regular analyst, former Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill.
Joy Reid predicted the trial would “completely shatter whatever remains of the myth of Trump as an extremely wealthy and successful businessman — you know, the original big lie.”
Half of Jen Psaki’s prime-time show was devoted to the topic, with former Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. and former New York U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara as guests. Rachel Maddow, as is her wont, took a circuitous route to the story, comparing former President Jimmy Carter’s effort to eliminate the guinea worm with Trump’s ex-presidency.
“Donald Trump went to court today, and once again New York did not care,” said Lawrence O’Donnell, who nonetheless made the story his chief topic.
It was par for the course on a day Trump’s legal issues made headlines. While not all topics of cable news fascination merit the attention, that’s not the case given the unprecedented nature of what a former president who is seeking that office again is facing, Klein said.
There’s a need to explain complex legal maneuvers, and “the better job you do of it, you’re going to engender loyalty from your viewers,” he said.
To that end, Ari Melber’s 6 p.m. Eastern show, “The Beat,” is often the most-watched on MSNBC. The Emmy-winning NBC News legal analyst with a penchant for rap lyrics is a lawyer who specialized in First Amendment cases and brings a methodical, “follow the facts” style to the issues he addresses.
Like other MSNBC opinion hosts, he’s hard on Trump. Yet Melber is respected enough as a lawyer that some figures in Trump world, like Peter Navarro and lawyer Joe Tacopina, have appeared on “The Beat” to tell their stories.
MSNBC has assembled a team of legal experts that has appeared throughout its lineup and gained trust through familiarity.
They include law professors Andrew Weissmann, former lead prosecutor in special counsel Robert Mueller’s office, and Mary McCord, who worked at the Department of Justice and was an attorney for the District of Columbia for two decades. Together, they host the podcast, “Prosecuting Donald Trump.”
Chuck Rosenberg, who worked at the FBI and was acting administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration at the end of the Obama administration, also hosts a podcast called “The Oath.”
Other regulars are Neal Katyal, a former acting solicitor general who frequently argued before the U.S. Supreme Court and co-authored the book, “Impeach: The Case Against Donald Trump”; Barbara McQuade, a former U.S. attorney in Michigan; and Joyce Vance, a former U.S. attorney in Alabama.
During a recent appearance, Weissmann worried that he was getting lost in the weeds discussing a judge’s options to sanction Trump for speaking out on one of the cases against him.
“You’re in a safe space, Andrew,” host Psaki said. “This is a safe space for nerds.”
It’s all very reminiscent to Ariana Pekary, a former MSNBC producer. During the Trump impeachments, the network would leap on any morsel of news, sometimes blowing it out of proportion. Occasionally producers would leave the first segment of a show’s rundown open until the last possible moment, recognizing something about Trump will probably come up, she said.
Ratings, available in 15-minute increments, proved it’s what the audience wanted to see, she said.
She worried that it was becoming an obsession, and corrosive to the democracy, and said so publicly when she resigned in 2020.
“It’s probably wise as a business model,” she said, “but I think it’s terribly unwise for the country.”
To some extent, MSNBC has also benefitted from wheel-spinning at CNN, which is about to get its third chief executive in less than two years. Viewers have flocked away from CNN in alarming numbers.
During big moments in the story this year, when indictments were announced, MSNBC assembled its top team for special coverage, and the anchors lapsed into the kind of giddiness you’d see from children on Christmas morning.
“The fine line you walk is in not overreaching,” Klein said. “There’s enough in the actual facts that you don’t have to gild the lily and go overboard. That’s when they might risk turning off the independent-minded viewers who don’t like Trump.”
There’s little chance these legal actions are going to be resolved anytime soon and, of course, there’s still a presidential campaign ahead.
“This is their time to make hay,” Pekary said. “The sun is shining on MSNBC with these indictments, and they’re going to make the most of it.”