With its past tendency to shuttle on-air personalities on and off the air with stunning irregularity, MSNBC has since 2001 been building a reputation as a political weathervane, adding or subtracting its anchors in a sometimes-transparent attempt to address the prevailing political mood.
That mood, based on the November election, is decidedly more progressive today than in previous years. Maybe with that in mind — and the fact that MSNBC is enjoying a comfortable lead in cable ratings over arch-rival CNN — it’s been reported that MSNBC is in talks with Ed Schultz, a syndicated progressive radio talk show host and frequent guest on various MSNBC programs, about a more permanent place in the network’s lineup.
The New York Observer reported Friday that that MSNBC president Phil Griffin is huddling with Schultz “about possibly joining the network on a full-time basis.”
One network source told The Observer that an offer's already been made to Schultz. A network spokesperson denies.
Schultz, the self-described "most listened-to progressive radio talk show host in America," broadcasts from KFGO in Fargo, N.D., and has most recently been a fill-in anchor, subbing for David Shuster on MSNBC’s “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue” program on March 10 and 18. The Observer reported that Schultz’s appearance sparked rumors that Schultz was being prepped for a big chair of his own.
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It wasn’t that long ago — February 2003 — that Phil Donahue, another chat host with a left-leaning agenda, was fired from MSNBC, ostensibly because of poor ratings, but possibly as a result of reaction by MSNBC brass, who issued an internal memo ordering Donahue’s dismissal for being out of step with America’s then-mostly hawkish sentiments about the Iraq war.
“He seems to delight in presenting guests who are anti-war, anti-Bush and skeptical of the administration's motives,” the memo read in part. The memo, leaked to the All Your TV Web site, warned that Donahue’s program could be "a home for the liberal anti-war agenda at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity.”
Since then, of course, everything’s changed. The nation’s in a different place politically. MSNBC had already staked out a position on the left side of the spectrum last year, as the ratings for the network’s prime-time tentpole, “Countdown With Keith Olbermann,” solidified, but there were more shifts coming as the tide turned for Obama during the primary season. You first got a sense of this on MSNBC when “Tucker,” the program hosted by smarmy and tireless conservative apologist Tucker Carlson, was shelved a year ago.
Then came the September addition of “The Rachel Maddow Show,” helmed by Maddow, the whip-smart Air America host and, as a lesbian, a pioneer in mainstream media and champion for gay rights.
If Schultz does come aboard, he would complete MSNBC’s philosophical prime-time shift in its news and commentary programming. There’s a lot to recommend him. As a self-described “gun-totin', red meat-eatin' lefty” who promises “straight talk from the heartland,” Schultz, 55, has a burly, working-class aspect that’s a strong counter to the bluster of Republican voice box and former recreational pharmaceutical enthusiast Rush Limbaugh.
On the air, Schultz isn’t afraid to bring it when necessary, able to conversationally battle the conservatives toe to toe, raising his voice to match their volume when he has to. In his size (he’s a former football player) and his style, Schultz runs counter to the conservative stereotype of the liberal as insubstantial lightweight.
With MSNBC riding its current ratings wave — Portfolio.com’s Jeff Bercovici reported March 20 that MSNBC handily leads CNN, which slipped to fourth place, even behind CNN’s sister network Headline News (HLN) — you get the sense that Schultz will be both a fresh weapon (as MSNBC keeps up its fight against ratings leader Fox News) and another voice in the increasingly liberal media chorus that suits the times, and the electorate.
Image credit: Schultz: Ty Helbach Photography