A while back I had some extensive talks with MSNBC and ultimately we all looked around the room and we all just knew with advertisers to worry about, we’d never be able to make it work.
Beating up on [cable news’] excesses is like riding down the hill after a bloody battle and shooting the wounded.
David Carr, New York Times. Parodying Cable News With a Talk About Race.
On Tuesday night on MSNBC’s “All In,” Chris Hayes had a very direct conversation about race with the Gawker writer Cord Jefferson. Prompted by a news report of a group of young people in Huntington Beach, Calif., who looted and vandalized property, the pair lamented the lack of community leadership and suggested that acting out in that manner was a learned behavior.
It was a joke. Actually, there were two beats to the joke. The young people they were talking about were white. And the whole discussion was a put-on, a satire meant to show how lame the hoary race tropes of cable news have become.
As a comedy bit, it was very well done. Both men were straight-faced and earnest. Mr. Hayes, tapping his inner Bill O’Reilly, did a fine job of bloviating his way through an introduction heavy with outrage: “The story of the white criminal culture is not a story the mainstream media will tell you. But once you scratch the surface, these stories are everywhere you look.”
If you haven’t seen the segment, it’s well worth the five minutes to watch typical cable news tropes turned on their head.
Carr’s analysis of the segment hits the usual notes: cable’s inability (or unwillingness) to present nuance, and its manufactured outrage as it fills a 24 hour news hole. But he also discusses the very real effect of a (mostly younger) audience used to the news as presented by The Daily Show and Colbert Report, writing, “MSNBC was temporarily acting as a kind of self-cleaning oven, parodying the excesses of cable from a very near distance.”
For his part, Hayes tells Carr, “The biggest challenge is to find a way to surprise viewers and subvert expectations. The format is in need of evolution.”
I’ve been thinking lately, do we actually have a black president or a president who happens to be black? There have been very few moments and very few, if any, policies that have made a difference that you might hope for a black president to do.
This moment was like, wow, we really do have a black president who will come out and lay it all out on the line.
Hayes’ problem is not just that his show rejects the drama and contention of heated debates between pundits with opposing viewpoints – a cable news staple. It is that his professorial effort to inform his audience lacks the requisite entertainment value to keep them watching. This is a symptom of buying into a fantasy, propagated by television dramas like HBO’s The Newsroom, which suggests that the trite entertainment value of cable news undermines its purpose.
Before I was in media and before was doing this kind of media, I was a student of political science. I did a doctorate in political science and I studied social movements and how activists bring about change. The one thing that I learned and saw in action, and was never able to prove academically but I believe it with all my heart, is the thing that makes you most likely to win is winning. And that when you are unexpectedly able to achieve something, you not only attract attention, you attract hope—and hope is momentum.