Is MSNBC Winning in the Ratings by Ignoring Trump?

President Donald Trump attends a meeting on the global drug problem at the United Nations (UN) with White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders a day ahead of the official opening of the 73rd United Nations General Assembly on September 24, 2018 in New York City. The United Nations General Assembly, or UNGA, is expected to draw 84 heads of state and 44 heads of government in New York City for a week of speeches, talks and high level diplomacy concerning global issues. New York City is under tight security for the annual event with dozens of road closures and thousands of security officers patrolling city streets and waterways.

Trump and Sarah Sanders began losing their audience early in 2018. | Spencer Platt/Getty Images

As 2018 came to a close, MSNBC celebrated a breakthrough in cable news ratings. For the first time since 2000, the network topped Fox News in total viewers for the Monday-Friday week. That win came during MSNBC coverage leading up to the government shutdown that started December 21.

While Fox News sponsors were fleeing the network due to Tucker Carlson’s offensive immigration comments, MSNBC hosts went about their business covering the ongoing Robert Mueller investigation of Donald Trump and related posturing by the outgoing Republican House majority.

In other words, MSNBC was doing news broadcasts. They weren’t copying and pasting Trump tweets or giving airtime to Trump campaign operatives paid to parrot White House talking points.

If this approach of avoiding lies from the president and his paid staff members doesn’t sound innovative, you haven’t watched cable news lately. It may be the biggest reason for MSNBC’s move to the top of the ratings.

‘A minimal amount of Trumpism from the mouths of Trumpites’

How tired have Americans grown of lies coming from Trump and his White House? It’s somewhere between utterly exhausted and deceased.

If the results of the Democrats’ midterm romp weren’t enough evidence, take a look at some surveys. In an NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll from mid-December, 62% of respondents said Trump wasn’t telling the truth about Russia. But that’s normal for the president these days.

In the seven weeks before the midterm elections, Trump averaged 30 lies a day. It’s hard for normal people to wrap their head around that number — especially coming from the person who’s nominally in charge of the country. However, if you watch CNN panels or just about any Fox News host, you can multiply those lies by about 50 times per day.

As Erik Wemple pointed out in his Washington Post media blog, “Fox News pays contributors [and] hosts to defend Trump’s ‘policies’ as well as his misanthropic behavior.” In other words, no matter how ridiculous Trump lies on certain days, these people earn their money by defending the nonsense on national television.

Of course, the same applies to spokeswomen Kellyanne Conway and Sarah Huckabee Sanders. People grew tired of fact-checking these two in 2017, so having them on the air in 2019 would be an exercise in pointlessness. To its credit — even if it’s not always intentional — MSNBC doesn’t give them airtime.

Wemple described it as “a minimal amount of Trumpism from the mouths of Trumpites.” Then comes Wemple’s kicker: “That appears to be exactly what the audience wants.”

MSNBC gets better ratings than Trump rallies. Fox News noticed.

Lester Holt, Moderator of ‘Meet the Press’ Chuck Todd, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, and Co-Anchor of ‘Today’ Savannah Guthrie speak onstage during Advertising Week 2015 | D Dipasupil/Getty Images for AWXII

Among the many debates in media circles in 2017-18, the question of whether to broadcast Trump speeches was surprising. After all, the idea of ignoring a past U.S. president’s speeches would have been unthinkable. Yet Trump actually had no need to make the majority of his speeches. They were campaign rallies without a campaign, and the lies piled up fast.

As a result, CNN and MSNBC stopped airing his speeches in June 2018. This move prompted “outrage” from the gang at Fox News. However, a funny thing happened later that summer. By the close of August, Fox News execs realized regular broadcasts by Tucker Carlson or Sean Hannity were getting more viewers than Trump speeches.

The unthinkable came shortly after: Fox quit broadcasting Trump rallies, too. There was plenty of proof in the pudding. According to Politico, by August Trump’s rallies were getting 2.536 million viewers. That was hundreds of thousands of viewers fewer than the 2.8 million Tucker was getting. Soon, Trump got bumped from prime-time.

For Fox News, it may have been a couple months late and a few rallies too many. MSNBC had begun gaining viewers with fact-based, in-depth broadcasts. At this point, Fox News executives might be weighing the pros and cons of actually doing the news on the air. That would be one wild turn of events for 2019.

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