Editorial Media

MSNBC Brass Sinks to New Low of Incompetence by Firing Joan Walsh (Updated)

Jodi Jacobson

This week MSNBC took a step closer to the dark side by canceling without any warning the contract for the knowledgable and widely popular commentator Joan Walsh. This is an utterly unconscionable act, not to mention a stupid business decision, and should be reversed immediately.

Update: As of late Saturday evening, December 23, Joan Walsh reported she was offered a contract at CNN. This does not absolve MSNBC of its actions nor change the fact that the network’s commentary will be poorer and less fact-based with Walsh’s absence.

In the world of media and journalism, it is now commonplace to describe networks, programs, and hosts in terms of “progressive” or “liberal” versus “conservative,” and even in some quarters as “anti-Trump” vs. “pro-Trump.” In reality (a fast-receding concept, I know), corporate cable news media actually divides between fact- and evidence-based programs versus those that spew propaganda and conspiracy theories, with the insipid “both-sides-equal, no-objective-facts” networks in between. On the fact-based side, there are numerous programs on MSNBC. On the “no lie is too treacherous” side, there is Fox News. And in between is CNN.

This week, MSNBC took a step closer to the dark side by canceling without any warning the contract of  Joan Walsh, the knowledgable and widely popular MSNBC political analyst. Walsh has been a regular contributor for more than 12 years, six of them under contract. As the former editor in chief of Salon and a widely respected journalist, Walsh has provided smart, incisive, and thoughtful political analysis based on her own in-depth reporting, wide reading, and examination of facts. Yet, after all this time she received no notice or explanation of this decision from MSNBC beyond “budget issues.”

MSNBC is best known for several programs—such as the Rachel Maddow Show, The Beat with Ari Melber, AM Joy with Joy Ann Reid, All In with Chris Hayes, and Velshi and Ruhle—each of which provides insightful and fact-based journalism and commentary. They do what journalists are supposed to do, which is speak truth to power, no matter who holds it. On the basis of these and other programs providing evidence-based reporting and analysis, MSNBC has been realizing rapid growth in ratings and audiences this year, breaking its own records in year-over-year comparisons and inching closer to the top of cable networks overall. According to AdWeek, for example, “MSNBC managed to accomplish a feat this past month [November 2017] that its rivals could not” by achieving audience growth over the same month last year, a presidential election month. While MSNBC is still slightly behind Fox News in total viewers for the year overall, it saw “huge growth year-to-year, as it witnessed a 55% bump in total viewers and 43% growth in the key 25-54 demographic,” according to Mediaite. On several key measures, MSNBC’s growth outran both CNN and Fox News, which hosts the likes of Sean Hannity and Jeanine Pirro, both of whom are clearly there—and paid a great deal—to spread dangerous lies and conspiracy theories.

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Good journalism is essential to democracy and to our freedoms. But even from a purely capitalist business perspective, you might expect that the corporate leaders overseeing programs known for fact-based journalism and experiencing rapid growth in a highly competitive market would ask how they could further strengthen their brand. At MSNBC, which is owned by NBCUniversal, which is in turn owned by Comcast, they seem determined to run their brand into the ground, and the country along with it. Walsh’s firing is only the latest in a string of highly questionable decisions by NBCUniversal and MSNBC, both of which are run by Andy Lack. In the past two years, MSNBC “lost” Melissa Harris-Perry, Tamron Hall, and Karen Finney, widely acclaimed Black journalists (for reasons many observe had to do with poor treatment, and in the words of one observer, “bleaching,” by management), and instead brought on Fox News’ Megyn Kelly, whose ratings, reported the Washington Post, are dismal and “aren’t even close to those of her predecessors, Tamron Hall and Al Roker, compared to their show during the same time-slot last year.”

Earlier this month, in response to a smear campaign by the known conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich, MSNBC precipitously canceled progressive radio host Sam Seder’s contract as a political analyst, only later reinstating his contract after public outcry. (I wrote about that episode here.) Meanwhile, the network has hired Trump apologists Hugh Hewitt, the stuck-in-the-eighties Peggy Noonan, George Will, and Megyn Kelly among others, making it as the New Republic noted “whiter and more conservative.” As The Intercept‘s Ryan Grim wrote last May in HuffPost, Lack has made “quite clear his plan to move the cable news network away from its bedrock liberalism and toward a more centrist approach personified by Brian Williams.” And then there was Andy Lack’s close relationship with the disgraced former anchor Matt Lauer, whose predatory behavior toward women at NBC was widely known.

Canceling Walsh’s contract would seem by all objective measures to be a bad business decision given the deep well of respect and popularity she garners from millions of viewers, and evident if only by virtue of the fact that within hours of the news becoming public, the hashtag #KeepJoanWalsh started trending on Twitter. There must be some reason that Walsh is one of the few analysts who regularly appeared on virtually every popular MSNBC show, from TRMS to All In, AM Joy, The Beat, Hardball and MTP Daily. You don’t get invited and re-invited onto highly rated shows for 12 years and running unless you are adding a great deal to the discussion.

As a non-answer, “budget issues” can’t be anything but bullshit. If you have the money to pay George Will, Hugh Hewitt, Peggy Noonan, and Megyn Kelly—none of whom reflect the brand for which audiences tune into MSNBC, and none of whom in my opinion can credibly be called fact-based reporters or pundits—then you unquestionably have the money for one of the network’s most widely and highly respected journalists. If you just received an enormous windfall in the billions from United States citizens via a tax break shoved through Congress by the GOP, then you have the money for Walsh’s contract.

And if you have any business sense whatsoever, you find the money for someone who is a key contributor on political issues from a fact-based and feminist perspective, especially during a year when women across the country are leading the charge in a political sea-change, running for office at unprecedented numbers, and challenging patriarchal, misogynistic, and racist practices across the private and public sectors from journalism to entertainment to corporations to government to universities to unions and beyond. If your only interest is in market economics never mind good journalism, then you would keep Joan Walsh. As Jess McIntosh noted on Twitter:

So forgive me if I think there may be other things at play. There is, for example, as Grim reported, the well-known fact that Lack has long wanted to turn MSNBC into Fox Lite, something that makes no sense economically nor of course from the standpoint of good journalism. There is the fact that Lack is responsible for making the network “whiter,” and that the female anchors, journalists, and analysts he has recruited for the most part parrot unequivocally right-wing talking points. There is the fact that Lauer worked for Lack for a long time and they were close friends, all the while Lauer was allegedly constantly preying on women and has been accused of raping one but Lack “didn’t know.”

Why would Lack fire Walsh? Could it have something to do with the fact that Comcast, the parent company of NBCUniversal, stands to make billions from the death of net neutrality, greatly reduced competition, and greater control of media and is paying back the Trump administration by getting rid of some of Trump’s most credible critics? Could it be that networks such as NBC and MSNBC are purposefully seeking to look more white, more conservative, and more male—knowing that Trump vilifies fact-based journalists such as Walsh, as well as women and people of color, and that the administration has shown its willingness not only to further enrich the most wealthy but to play favorites on which rules and regulations will apply to which corporations depending on who Trump deems to be “fair” or “loyal?” Could it be that Andy Lack is so craven and power-hungry that he will do anything to curry favor with Trump? Could it be that he either shares or is seeking to reflect the misogynistic, white nationalist, racist, xenophobic fervor of the Trump administration, and Walsh is one victim of an effort to signal “shared values”?

I can only guess at the answers since MSNBC won’t provide any. Rewire several times contacted and asked for comment from NBCUniversal and MSNBC while writing this article, but despite promises of a statement forthcoming by the deadline provided and then an extension they failed to reply. We are therefore left only with what an educated analysis suggests: MSNBC management has a problem with women and people of color, and is under pressure to pay back the Trump administration or curry its favor.
If nothing else, this is an era of renewed focus on accountability, ethics, and what is right. MSNBC has acted in utterly unaccountable ways, and Walsh’s firing is just the most recent evidence. If MSNBC management has any sense at all, it will reverse what is a horrible decision based on really bad optics. And as for Andy Lack, if I were his boss and he showed such consistent and unerring stupidity, I would fire him. At the very least, as I’ve argued before, he should resign.
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As a the president and editor in chief of a nonprofit journalism outlet, I can’t stand idly by while journalism and reporters are attacked and fired for no reason by corporations that increasingly control the media space with taxpayer dollars. This petition, in the spirit of one started by Ryan Grim of The Intercept when Sam Seder was fired, calls on MSNBC to reinstate Joan Walsh immediately. Please sign and share: https://actionnetwork.org/petitions/tell-msbnc-rehire-joan-walsh

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