As a sports fan, I think I know what is going on, and so I would recommend my fellow leftist allies to hold their schadenfreude for a bit longer before really having fun with it. Before I get into my theory, let’s recap the new developments on cable TV. Per The Daily Beast:
Maddow, who has consistently vied for the first or second top-rated cable news program, was sixth on Monday evening, down almost 500,000 total viewers from the previous Monday, as was MSNBC’s second top-rated program in primetime, The Last Word With Lawrence O’Donnell.
Conversely, “It was obviously a big couple of nights for Fox,” said one network insider, claiming, however, that nobody at MSNBC is panicking.
First off, this is objectively funny. It’s one thing to cover the twists and turns of a complicated legal and investigative drama that has captured the attention of the nation. It’s another to turn your network into a 24/7 fire hydrant of Robert Mueller cosplay where there reportedly was “no market for skepticism.” MSNBC eschewed any and all basic journalistic standards in favor of an “all Mueller all the time” strategy from the moment the special counsel was appointed. Their reward was Fox News-like ratings, and tons of “is MSNBC on the rise?” chatter to go along with it. This collapse in the wake of the Mueller letdown is poetic.
Turns out that when you willingly turn into a one-trick pony, and that trick gets stale (or rebuked), people have less of a desire to continue watching that trick after the magic has been destroyed. Now, I think I can explain what is happening here, as every sports fan has gone through this.
For example, at the beginning third of the hockey season, my beloved Colorado Avalanche were one of the best teams in the NHL. Their top line was scoring at a record pace, the power play was a legitimate revelation, and they were tons of fun to watch. Fast-forward a couple months to the end of December, and the Avs basically inverted their record, and became one of the worst teams in the NHL until February. Over the last month, they have stabilized, and find themselves in the thick of the playoff chase in the last weeks of the season.
I can confirm that I watched Avalanche games at a much more consistent rate at the beginning and ends of the season than I did during the middle where they were losing damn near every night. That’s almost surely what is happening with MSNBC’s ratings right now. Mueller fans lost and they don’t want to watch their Mueller programming after a big loss. That’s sports for you—and that’s why I would caution leftists at taking this immediate collapse as a harbinger of things to come for the “liberal” cable news network. Things change, and there is a new, legitimate controversy coming over the horizon—as Trump’s Attorney General’s unlawful assault on the Affordable Care Act is proof that we should not accept Bill Barr’s four-page summary of the Mueller Report at face value.
Now, this is not another leftist pointing and laughing at “centrists” column (also, most liberals are quite liberal, and our political dialogue would improve by at least 50% on the left if we banned the slurs, “centrist” and “Bernie bro”). In fact, I count myself as a leftist and something of a Mueller fan. I knew that prosecuting this stuff would be incredibly difficult given that the 2008 financial crisis was the latest demonstration in America’s complete and total inability to prosecute anyone in power. Where I differed from my more cynical leftist allies, and drifted more towards the MSNBC “Mueller’s got something” hypothesis, is that I just assumed that when you combined the largest surveillance state in the history of mankind with the dumbest group of people to ever hold power in America (and a man at the top whose businesses are by his son’s own admission, flush with Russian cash), some easily provable crimes would pop up. At least on the collusion angle, Robert Mueller has said it’s not true—that he could not “establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”
And that’s ultimately why MSNBC’s ratings are tanking. A better source gave viewers better information, rendering MSNBC’s speculation stale and outdated. Sure, Mueller punted the obstruction of justice question to Congress (and by doing so, I would assert that he gave more legitimacy to that potential crime, since he essentially said that determination goes above his head—and if there was no serious evidence supporting obstruction of justice, there would be nothing to send to Congress), but the de jure collusion angle is basically dead. Robert Mueller said so.
Which sucks. We know that some level of de facto collusion took place, because Don Jr. released e-mails saying he would “love” to collude with “the government of Russia” against a former Secretary of State. A judge also said that a connection between the Trump Campaign and the Russian government was established when Paul Manafort (whose lawyers accidentally revealed this to the rest of us) handed off sensitive campaign polling data to Konstantin Kilimnik—a Russian military intelligence-trained right-hand man of Manafort’s in Ukraine. The problem with prosecution here isn’t the Trump Campaign’s lack of rampant criminality and corruption, but that the United States justice system is set up to protect that kind of rampant criminality and corruption if its perpetrators are powerful enough.
While there was plenty of fodder to piece together for a choose-your-own-conspiracy adventure, now that the ultimate arbiter on the topic of Trump’s Russia connections has ruled that “the evidence does not establish that the President was involved in an underlying crime related to Russian election interference,” there is little mystery left for MSNBC to exploit.
MSNBC became a cable news juggernaut the last two years by stoking people’s fears through a modern McCarthyite lens. The notion that Russia is controlling this country became something of an article of faith among a significant chunk of MSNBC’s analysts (like hyperbolic former intelligence officer, Malcolm Nance, who said that the Mueller Report could “technically eclipse Benedict Arnold” just before it was released). MSNBC took legitimately shady connections that have lasted decades (reminder that in 2015 Trump Taj Mahal paid what was at the time, the largest fine ever by a casino, over “longstanding anti-money laundering violations” that it admitted to), and turned it into a bankrupt President Putin narrative. Many of MSNBC’s viewers got caught up in the hysteria, only to watch the MSNBC-anointed demigod tell them that everything MSNBC said about collusion is either BS or legal enough.
MSNBC has earned this week’s awful ratings by pivoting away from news and towards conspiracy, and if they want a future untethered to the legal twists and turns of a special counsel investigation that was run by a Republican and overseen by Republicans, MSNBC better start acting more like the news network they purport to be.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.