US News & World Report

By Nicole Hemmer

MSNBC may be ditching its liberal identity — and not a moment too soon.

The news broke late last week in a Daily Beast report about a shake-up at the network after it registered its lowest ratings since 2005. “Going left was a brilliant strategy while it lasted and made hundreds of millions of dollars for Comcast, but now it doesn’t work anymore,” a source from within MSNBC said. “The goal is to move away from left-wing TV.”

The perpetually low ratings at MSNBC have long been a source of merriment for conservatives, who point to it as evidence of the failure not just of a liberal network but of liberal ideas. The conservative website Breitbart dubbed MSNBC “an awkward reminder” of liberalism’s decline. But MSNBC’s shortcomings, like the radio network Air America's before it, are not a function of ideology but of format.

Lay that at the feet of folks like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. As the fake newsmen wrap up their popular shows (Colbert last December and Stewart later this year), they leave a legacy of liberal skepticism not just toward right-wing media but toward political media more broadly. Skewering the staples of cable-news punditry, Stewart and Colbert laid bare its inanity: the endless shouting, the meaningless talking points, the inescapable echo chamber. True, conservative media were most often in the comedians’ crosshairs, but viewers couldn’t help coming away with a distrust of all cable news. A Brookings Institution and Public Religion Research Institute survey last year bore this out: Liberals claimed to trust "The Daily Show" more than MSNBC.

Conservatives and liberals share a skepticism about news. Yet where the right sees liberal bias and seeks to create a conservative alternative, the left finds vapidity and seeks an outlet for ridicule. Shows like Stewart's both reflected and sustained the liberal preference for snark. As Jamelle Bouie wrote for Slate, one of the legacies of "The Daily Show" was to make “outrage, cynicism, and condescension the language of the left.” “As a comedian and talk show host, Jon Stewart has been pretty funny,” Bouie admitted. “But as a pundit and player in our politics, he’s been a problem.”

John Oliver, host of the popular Daily Show spinoff “Last Week Tonight,” builds on that tradition by weaving deeply researched analysis in between sketches and punchlines. In ensuring that his bits are as informative as they are snarky, Oliver is more an heir to Colbert than Stewart. "The Colbert Report’s" long-running gag about super PACs was more than just a funny set-piece. According to a 2014 study from the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, the show did more to inform viewers about super PACs than cable networks, nightly news or talk radio.

This evolution toward more informative comedic news suggests that liberals are developing an alternative to mainstream news sources that is distinct from the conservative model. Whether a sustainable version of informed liberal analysis can emerge from the world of comedy is still to be seen. But the demise of Air America and the decline of MSNBC should put to rest the notion that liberals need a Fox News or Rush Limbaugh of their own.

This article was originally published in the US News & World Report