The PJ Tatler

Since When Has MSNBC Sought or Delivered 'Highbrow Intellectualism'?

NRO’s Eliana Johnson has written a fascinating piece on how Rachel Maddow, who was once Keith Olbermann’s mini-me, now pretty much controls what’s going on at religious cable net MSNBC. But one phrase Johnson deploys in the piece jumped out at me. Emphases added.

Behind her back, colleagues call her “the queen,” a not so subtle suggestion that Maddow gets what Maddow wants. And what she wants is a network filled with young wonks such as Chris Hayes, Ezra Klein, Alex Wagner, and Harris-Perry, whose highbrow intellectualism can, she hopes, push the Democratic party, and the country, to the left. On Twitter, Harris-Perry’s show proudly uses the hashtag #nerdland. Alex Wagner’s move to the 4 p.m. hour, where Bashir’s show once aired, has Maddow’s fingerprints on it.

Maddow herself is the highest-paid and highest-rated talent at MSNBC, but beyond her own program, her quest to fill the network with her protégés may be dragging down ratings. Being an intellectual and a true believer is not, it seems, a good thing if you’re in the ratings business. Though Maddow looks askance at populist showmen such as Chris Matthews, Ed Schultz, and Al Sharpton, their shows regularly outperform those of Maddow’s wonky acolytes. In fact, Hayes’s show has created a drag on Maddow’s own ratings as his anemic numbers provide her with a weak lead-in.

Throughout the piece, Johnson uses “wonk” or “wonkish” and “intellectual” to describe what Maddow and her friends are bringing to the network. If words still mean things, those words shouldn’t be used in connection with that crowd. At all.

They all pretend at wonkery and intellectualism, but they routinely show all the intellectual curiosity of slugs. They don’t address the substance of political philosophy or policy, preferring instead to fire off rants and create wedge issues out of nothing. Republicans hate minorities! Republicans hate women! All Democrats are angels, all Republicans are devils! Intellectuals seek out viewpoints other than their own, and are capable of changing their minds when presented with new information. They deal in weighty issues that transcend the day-to-day. Since when have any of Maddow’s acolytes been anything but doctrinaire leftists and hard-bitten ideologues?

MSNBC’s Maddow gang never let thinking get in the way of a good persecution. They would have fit right in in Salem circa 1692, so quick are they to inflame first, and think never.

One of the background quotes in the piece even gives the game away.

Maddow, by contrast, is motivated by ideology. “If you debate for a living, you’re going to lose sometimes. Sometimes your preconceptions are wrong — that has never happened to her one time,” says a former colleague. “She is actually not that interested in reality; she is the most ideological person I’ve ever met. That is not somebody you want in charge of your programming, because she might put on a great show, but she cannot make rational decisions — her agenda is changing America. . . . She really thinks she is changing America for the better. You can’t have somebody like that in charge of your programming.”

That’s not highbrow intellectualism, it’s narrow-minded dogmatic arrogance and, as often presented on MSNBC, blatant zealotry on behalf of one man, not any coherent worldview or philosophy. They don’t do true policy wonkery on MSNBC, they do smears, dog whistles, shameless defenses, insults and bad comedy. Then they apologize and brace for the next crisis their own comments will surely create. If they haven’t gotten themselves fired.

There’s no reason to afford the likes of MSNBC’s hosts more respect than they’ve earned, and the fact is, they haven’t earned any respect at all. They’re overpaid failures who produce the most mockable product on American TV. Ratings — they’re tanking fast. Content — they’re constantly apologizing for saying idiotic things that insult about half the country on any given day. Far from engaging in any intellectual pursuit, Maddow’s MSNBC doesn’t even grasp common sense.

Yet throughout the piece, Johnson keeps referring to Maddow’s madhouse as a collection of “intellectual” “wonks” who dish out “graduate-level punditry.” Maybe if the graduates in question are moving on from kindergarten to the first grade, the description would be accurate.


Ta-Nehisi Coates Brands MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry ‘America’s foremost public intellectual’