MSNBC rising: Channel answers call for less ideology, more journalism

David Zurawik called MSNBC "unwatchable" two years ago. Now, he's singing the channel's praises.

In 2015, I called MSNBC "unwatchable" as it hit bottom in its misguided attempt to be the left-wing version of Fox News.

Now, I am watching it sunup to sundown some days — from "Morning Joe" at 6 a.m. to Chuck Todd at 5 p.m. and Greta Van Susteren at 6.

The channel has evolved under the leadership of Andy Lack, who took over as chairman of NBC News and MSNBC in 2015, at the time of my downbeat assessment. He promised a move away from ideology in favor of more down-the-middle journalism, and he is delivering. That ongoing transition is one of the happier stories in TV news these days.

Competition is almost always a good thing for viewers, and MSNBC's move to solid news and analysis from sunrise to the start of prime time offers American viewers two cable choices instead of only one when looking for information that is generally reported and vetted with the same legacy standards that guide the nation's top newspapers and online platforms.

MSNBC's effort to be taken seriously for its journalism is making CNN go harder as the two channels jockey to find and claim their place on the cable landscape in the wake of the election of President Donald Trump.

CNN has been aggressive in its reporting on the Trump administration. It was only a half-step behind The New York Times and Washington Post in reporting on former national security adviser Michael Flynn and conversations he had with Russian officials after the election. No other TV outlet was close.

The channel's commitment to journalistic resources and infrastructure has long been the gold standard in cable news. Putting even more money where its aspirations are, CNN announced last month that it was beefing up its investigative unit with Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalists Carl Bernstein and James B. Steele as contributing editors.

Lack has also been spending money to make MSNBC better, like hiring the hard-working and deeply connected former Fox News host Van Susteren to anchor the 6 p.m. hour.

His big spend was Megyn Kelly, of course, the biggest name in TV news, who is slated for a weekday morning show and Sunday evening newsmagazine on NBC. But don't be surprised if you see Kelly showing up on MSNBC if the news warrants it.

That's one of the things Lack has accomplished that's harder than spending money and hiring talent: He's managed to successfully blend more of NBC News' journalistic resources into the fabric of MSNBC. Perhaps, the highest-visibility example is the success during the election of Todd's "MTP Daily" at 5 weekdays.

Not only is Todd one of the most politically astute journalists on television, his daily presence also brings to the cable channel the power of one of the most iconic public affairs brands in media as host of Sunday morning's "Meet the Press."

Before Lack's arrival, planning between NBC News and MSNBC was hit and miss.

In an interview in 2009, David Gregory, who was the then host of "Meet the Press," told me MSNBC was about to launch a show with him. I was impressed and highlighted that bit of news in my story.

Luckily, I had his words on tape, or I might have been accused of doing fake news when the show we discussed did not appear on the cable channel — without explanation when I asked.

Less noticeable but just as impressive is the way Lack's management team brought the work of NBC political correspondents onto the cable channel during and after the election.

NBC News correspondents like the Johns Hopkins University graduate Hallie Jackson and Katy Tur greatly energized the campaign trail coverage of NBC and MSNBC.

Last month, MSNBC announced that Tur would take over the 2 p.m. hour on the cable channel. Jackson, who has been named a White House correspondent for NBC, anchors the 10 a.m. hour on MSNBC.

Such change is often accompanied by controversy in connection with those being replaced.

Tamron Hall, who co-hosted a 9 a.m. NBC show following "Today" and anchored the 11 a.m. hour on MSNBC, left the network this month in the wake of Kelly's hiring. She had been offered a new multimillion-dollar contract to stay, the network said.

The National Association of Black Journalists has asked for a meeting with NBC to discuss the replacement of Hall and Al Roker, who are black, with Kelly who is white. The term "whitewashing" was used in the group's press release, which also alleged a "history of racially offensive remarks regarding people of color" by Kelly.

But even more complicated than shifting on-air personnel is changing the culture at MSNBC — getting people to think as responsible journalists. Culture change happens incrementally. But you could recently see indications of it on "Morning Joe," the free-wheeling 6-to-9 a.m. show hosted by Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski.

Wednesday's show was wall to wall with revelations in a New York Times article headlined "Trump campaign aides had repeated contacts with Russian intelligence." Michael S. Schmidt, one of the authors of the report, was a guest.

Each time Brzezinski read particular allegations from the story, she noted whether NBC had independently confirmed them.

I can't remember the last time I heard any cable or network newsreader being as precise with language about what was confirmed — and by whom. Usually, it is the opposite.

Such precision in language is the foundation of trustworthy journalism, and Bzezinski seems to get it.

Scarborough does, too. And that's remarkable for the hip-shooting former congressman, who can run his mouth with the biggest gasbags in cable TV.

But he sounded like he was channeling the gods of journalism as well Wednesday when he went out of his way to tell viewers why it was going to be hard for anyone to dismiss The Times story as a partisan attack, as Trump himself often tries to do.

Schmidt "got hammered a lot by the Clinton campaign, because Michael Schmidt was on the forefront of going after Hillary Clinton's email server," Scarborough said. "She lied repeatedly. ... So, what did Michael Schmidt and The New York Times do? They followed the facts."

Like CNN, "Morning Joe" is not without sin when it comes to Trump and the election. Early in his campaign, Scarborough gave Trump all but a permanently open line to call in and talk away unchallenged. And Scarborough himself has flipped positions on Trump so many times, I got whiplash trying to sort them out.

But that's Scarborough. He's a cable original, like Bill O'Reilly. But, lately, he's gotten an injection of old-time journalistic religion.

What got the biggest headline out of Wednesday's edition of "Morning Joe" was Brzezinski announcing that Trump aide Kellyanne Conway had been banned from the show because of her unwillingness to deal in facts.

"We know for a fact she tries to book herself on this show," Brzezinski said. "I won't do it, because I don't believe in fake news or information that is not true. And every time I''e ever seen her on television, something's askew, off or incorrect."

I'm uncomfortable with silencing anyone for anything short of hate speech. But I am glad to see someone in the media saying there should be consequences for trying to use media to mislead the public.

In the end, here is what matters most about "Morning Joe": There is not a better place on morning TV for an in-depth, dynamic, up-to-the-second conversation about American politics.

The show features a format in which experts join Scarborough and Brzezinski for extended periods — not just one interview segment. And when the guests include such journalists as Schmidt, David Ignatius of the Washington Post, Katty Kay of the BBC and "Game Change" authors Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, there is nowhere on morning TV that I would rather be.

Given where I was in 2015 when it came to MSNBC, I am surprised to be saying that.

But given where we find ourselves today, waking to brain-rattling developments on an almost daily basis out of Washington, I welcome having a second cable news channel reporting them with some of the standards I embrace.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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