Why did MSNBC lose the ratings war during the Boston bombing coverage? The answer depends on your political leanings. If you're conservative,
the network was "outrageous" in failing to cover the Islamist angle. If you're liberal, MSNBC was "resolutely non-partisan" and lost out to Fox's "sensationalism."
"Left-wing liberal cable news networks are dying," Rush Limbaugh proclaimed, after the Boston manhunt week in which Fox News had their best ratings since Katrina, while MSNBC ended the week in nineteenth place, far behind than CNN, which normally trails MSNBC. The Fox ratings spike shows that "radical left liberals" are a minority, Limbaugh claims, and that MSNBC is alienating potential viewers with its "liberalism and radicalism."
Is Limbaugh correct - did MSNBC's partisanship lose them viewers during the Boston manhunt?
Yes, says Mark Finkelstein of Newsbusters, a conservative site that tracks the liberal media. Americans didn't want MSNBC's partisan coverage, and may have been driven to Fox because it was more balanced, he claims. "It wouldn't surprise me if some of [MSNBC's] more moderate viewers drifted off" during the network's post-Boston coverage, said Finkelstein. "In times of crisis people are looking for hard news and facts."
The network came under fire from the right for post-Boston commentary like Melissa Harris-Perry's widely decried claim that the Tsarnaevs' Muslim faith was no more relevant to the bombings than Ben Affleck movies. (Politix asked Harris-Perry for comment but she didn't respond.) Fox host Bill O'Reilly ripped into MSNBC for trying to "denigrate the serious issue of Islamic terrorism."
"To me the most outrageous moment was the [MSNBC] guest saying their Chechen background had nothing to do with the bombing," Finkelstein says. Regular MSNBC viewers might well think "these are not the people to go to for coverage of Islamist terrorists," Finkelstein adds. "Fox isn't going to have any qualms about covering Islamist terrorists."
Others disagree. MSNBC's lack of partisanship and balanced reporting likely lost them viewers, argues Murtaza Hussain, analyst for the English edition of Al Jazeera. MSNBC ratings dropped during the manhunt because the network was"deliberately tamping down the fear factor compared to their competitors," while Fox was "more sensational."
"What [MSNBC hosts] were doing was resolutely non-partisan," Hussein argued. "I don't think they were acting partisan during the crisis at all. They didn't push the story of a brown-skinned suspect. Not doing that is not necessarily left-wing, unless being right-wing is associated with bigotry."
MSNBC's ratings will bounce back, suggests Hussein, now that the network can return to opinion and commentary rather than breaking news. "The fact is that unfortunately the way psychology works is that straight news when it's competing with very extreme news it won't be as appealing," Hussein said.
But perhaps partisanship had nothing to do with ratings during the manhunt week. MSNBC's "weakness lies in the depth of its practical journalism field," says Dean Barnett, a registered nurse from Colorado and hopeless infomaniac. Fox has more of a reputation for breaking news. "I'm always interested in what Chris Hayes or Ezra Klein has to say about the news, but I prefer Shep Smith for real time reporting," Barnett said.
Alternatively MSNBC may have lost out due to its own co-network NBC. "NBC led all the broadcast companies with a significant ratings victory. In primetime on the Friday of the manhunt week, NBC averaged 9.3 million viewers," according to the New York Times. That's compared to 3.2 million who watched Fox, 2.9 million who tuned into CNN, and 1.7 million who watched MSNBC.
In general, has MSNBC gone "too far left"? It's certainly moved left recently, says Finkelstein, citing "outrageous" Melissa Harris-Perry segments on abortion "where she referred to unborn children as 'things.'" Longstanding MSNBC hosts have moved left over the years, he said. "Matthews used to be an old-time Democrat" but "he's got very much harsher in recent years." It's a strategy to gain ratings, or "a function of staking out his turf in the MSNBC world," Finkelstein added.
MSNBC isn't "too far" left unless you're a conservative, suggests Barnett. "What Matt Kibbe of Freedom Works calls leftist might be just right of center for Chris Matthews," he adds.
Would a shift to the left herald the decline of MSNBC? No, it will help them grow, most say.
Limbaugh is wrong to draw sweeping conclusions based on a single week's news, argues Jesse Holcomb of the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism. "It was a fascinating week [but] I wouldn't say it necessarily indicates some kind of a sea change in dynamics of the cable news scene," he said.
Viewers recognize that the network's partisanship is a business decision, and MSNBC may go further left to increase audience. "Each outlet plays to a certain market niche," says Barnett. But, he adds, "Fox's demographics are working against it. As its audience ages out, Fox will change its editorial policies to match an increasingly younger but still conservative market. This shift will allow MSNBC to move even further left as its relative position changes. It may be that someday Fox will resemble today's MSNBC while the smaller network morphs into something completely unimaginable today."
So we may yet see MSNBC go even further left, and their ratings may rise as a result.