One of the perks of writing a newspaper column in a large city is that you get to entertain the delusion that the important folks in town read what you have to say, at least on occasion. No one in Philadelphia has more clout than the well-compensated CEO of cable giant Comcast, Brian Roberts, or his best-known lieutenant, the Philly political powerhouse David L. Cohen (who used to like me before I wrote this). Frankly, I doubt those guys have time to read much besides the stock ticker, but I’d love to get through to someone at Comcast with what I’m about to say. You see, they probably think the guy that have running their NBC News division, which includes the cable channel MSNBC, is doing just a whiz-bang job, with MSNBC surging toward the top of the prime-time cable ratings.
I’m here to tell you otherwise. The truth is that Andy Lack is something of a dolt. MSNBC is only popular because viewers are flooding to the people — mainly prime-time’s Rachel Maddow, Chris Hayes and Lawrence O’Donnell — that Andy Lack wasn’t able to get rid of (and he recently, according to reports, almost drove away one of them in O’Donnell). The rest of the day, thousands of people who should be loyal to MSNBC are reaching for the remote so they don’t have to watch Lack recruits like Greta Van Susteren, tainted in the eyes of progressive-minded viewers because of her long association with the late Roger Ailes’ toxic Fox News Channel, or new “pundits” like George Will, one of America’s most prominent climate change deniers. Lack’s role at MSNBC has been largely to tarnish the brand and alienate loyal customers, which, as you know, Mr. Roberts (yes, I’m going to pretend he’s reading this), is the worst sin you can commit in corporate America. If MSNBC didn’t have Maddow — who’s become the voice of sanity in the Trump era for a few million folks every weeknight at 9 p.m. — under contract, Lack’s makeover of both MSNBC and NBC News might have gone down as the worst branding fiasco since the launch of New Coke in 1985.
The funny part is that I’ve been meaning to write this rant about Andy Lack long before the events of this week, when the NBC News chief’s most disastrous move of all — the $15-20 million-a-year hiring of very non-serious quasi-journalist Megyn Kelly from Fox News — is already blowing up on the face of Comcast’s crown jewel. Last month, Lack told Politico that he hadn’t really done a lot of research into Kelly’s history as a prime-time star at FNC, so maybe he didn’t see her infamous and bizarre rant that Santa Claus was white or her frothing coverage that made a couple of weaponized New Black Panthers briefly hanging out outside a North Philly polling place into the second coming of Watergate.
“She is a great journalist, I didn’t invest in her because of her ‘star power,’” Lack told Politico. “Megyn Kelly is a serious journalist, her work on Fox commanded attention because of who she was interviewing, how she was interviewing them, and the information she was getting every night on that broadcast.” Lack’s “great journalist” was given an hour of prime TV real estate on NBC’s Sunday night, where she promptly lobbed more softballs at Vladimir Putin than Jennie Finch pitching in the Olympics finals.
Still, the Putin affair was soon forgotten because Lack’s big-bucks hire promptly lurched into a much bigger disaster: A teaser of what looked like a not particularly confrontational interview tentatively slated to air next Sunday with talk-radio conspiracy theorist and all-around nutjob Alex Jones, who’s repeatedly called 9/11 an “inside job” and famously suggested the horrific school shooting in Newtown was some kind of “false flag operation” so the government could take away your guns. And look, there’s a strong case for aggressive, in-your-face reporting on the threats posed by Jones and his falsehoods (in fact, I’m cited in Jones’ Wikipedia entry for doing that), but this doesn’t seem to be that story. Instead, this has the appearance of giving a huge national microphone to a dangerous lunatic — offending grieving Newtown parents for a couple of ratings points (and this picture of Kelly and Jones making the rounds on Twitter didn’t help.)
— The Hill (@thehill) June 13, 2017
In fairness, Lack’s blindness to Kelly’s lack of real journalistic chops and his lack of concern toward how amplifying Alex Jones might impact civil society doesn’t make him unique in the TV news business; the CEO of CBS said famously last year that Trump “might be bad for America, but he’s damn good for CBS” and just yesterday Lack’s counterpart at CNN, Jeff Zucker, called 2016 “the best year ever” for cable news — because the election of a grossly unprepared and unqualified narcissist with his short stubby fingers on the nuclear button also meant record profits for TV news. The idea that American neo-fascism might be a drag on revenue down the road apparently hasn’t occurred to anyone.
But I single out Lack because he seems to have a special lack of any clue about the moment that America now faces. When Lack arrived at NBC in 2015, the conventional wisdom was that the MSNBC franchise was in trouble, after a year or two in which Obama fatigue and the break time between presidential elections had progressive viewers more eager to catch up on “Breaking Bad” than obsess over politics. And the cable network did have some problems, which Lack attacked with a meat cleaver when a scalpel would have sufficed. He thought the networks’ future was in the bland political center of “on one hand, on the other hand” and so he axed a fiery woman of color in Melissa Harris-Perry while bringing in the tired conventional Beltway wisdom of Chuck Todd and Brian Williams.
The moves that really alienated the progressive base, which had saved MSNBC from the ash heap of television history in the latter Bush 43 years — not just bringing in frequent Trump apologist Van Susteren (who said in February that it was important for Democrats to applaud the president when he addressed Congress) and George Will but the addition to the lineup of Republican Nicolle Wallace, best-known as Sarah Palin’s baby-sitter in the 2008 campaign — came later. The near kicker was when Lack nearly failed to renew his 10 p.m. host O’Donnell — after now-president Trump had spent six years reportedly lobbying NBC to fire him. In the end, it became impossible for even Lack to deny that a few million hardcore Trump doubters desperately want, and need, some outlet in the media.
That’s the bigger issue here. Since the 1970s, a large and powerful media eco-system — from Fox News to Rush Limbaugh to Breitbart and Drudge — was created to accommodate the citizens in Richard Nixon’s so-called “silent majority” who were largely white, conservative and suburban or rural, and who felt the mainstream media didn’t share their values. I know not everyone agrees with me on this, but I’d argue there was nothing inherently wrong with that; my main quibble with conservative media is that they invent their own set of facts.
Flash forward to 2017 and there’s another, not-totally silent majority in this country — the 60 percent of Americans who disapprove of Trump’s presidency, don’t think he’s telling the truth, and can’t understand why The System, on Capitol Hill, in corporate boardrooms and especially in the media capitals, doesn’t share their concern that the nation is drifting into authoritarianism. Rachel Maddow has become the most popular TV news figure in America by channeling that outrage, yet the Andy Lacks of the world remain determined to make sure that progressive minded people don’t have a home. It’s not just MSNBC — look at what the New York Times did recently in boosting its subscriptions by promising truth in a time of Trump, only to use those new dollars to hire climate denier Bret Stephens. News execs like Andy Lack don’t understand the desperation of so many citizens who don’t see know-nothingism on climate or other science issues as “an alternative point of view,” but as a danger to democracy.
The media proved in the 20th Century that it lacked both the gumption and the imagination to stand up to dangerous political movements, and I fear that history is repeating in the 21st Century. A smart TV executive might have watched a Maddow or O’Donnell and seen the potential for a 24-hour network that stood for the truth and for fearless reporting in a time of lies. But that’s not what America got. Instead we got Andy Lack, “both sides” of the melting Arctic icecap, and a prime-time love letter to an architect of “Pizzagate.”
I can get up from my keyboard right now, walk downstairs and see Comcast’s big second skyscraper rising slowly and majestically over the Philadelphia skyline. If the people who occupy those big corner offices are smart, they’ll think about funding more of the journalism that America right needs now — or else those skyscrapers may eventually be surrounded by a city of ruin.