Ridiculing Fox News's Republican bias is nothing new among talking heads —– Steve Colbert famously celebrated the two "making it official" in a 2010 episode —– but when MSNBC's Joe Scarborough openly accused his network of being just as biased as Fox, many viewers were shocked. It turns out, however, that Scarborough is right.
In the Pew Research Center's 2013 "State of the News Media" special report, MSNBC was reported as dedicating a whopping 85% of its airtime to commentary and opinion, leaving only 15% for factual reporting. Fox News, in contrast, split its broadcast much more evenly, with roughly 55% commentary and 45% objective reporting. CNN was reported with a similar 46%-54% split. MSNBC also spends a fraction of what CNN and FOX do on news production, with outlays of around $240 million in 2012, compared to CNN's $682 million and Fox's $820 million.
Not only is MSNBC's airtime biased towards commentary over fact, but its coverage is astonishingly skewed to the left. This partially was on its fullest display during the 2012 presidential campaign, where coverage reflected a clear preference for Barack Obama over Mitt Romney. In the final week before the election, for example, MSNBC provided zero negative coverage of Obama while offering no positive coverage of Romney. Throughout the entirety of the campaign, MSNBC's coverage of Romney was 68% negative, whereas the rest of the combined news network's coverage was only 33% negative. Finally, throughout the campaign, MSNBC aired 23 negatively toned clips of Romney for every positive one —– a remarkable ratio even compared to Fox's eight to one negative-to-positive split on Obama.
MSNBC's leftward lurch is part of a 2010 marketing campaign dubbed "lean forward,", initiated after the network jumped to second place in ratings over CNN. "We've taken on CNN and we beat them," MSNBC President Phil Griffin told employees when announcing the multi-billion dollar campaign. "Now it's time to take on Fox." With the addition of left-leaning anchors such as Rachel Maddow and Ed Schultz, MSNBC has made an all-out effort to climb its way to the top by branding itself as the bulwark of progressive politics.
Ironically, MSNBC's leftwards gamble has cost them viewers. This quarter the network delivered its worst quarterly prime-time showing among total viewers and adults from 25-54 years since 2007, falling 16% in prime-time ratings to come up third behind CNN. Rachel Maddow's audience was recorded as the smallest since its 2006 debut, and Lawrence O'Donnell's Last Word garnered the lowest rating for the 25-54 demographic since 2006.
Clearly, MSNBC's partisan ruse hasn't paid off for the network. More worrying than the fortunes of the network's ratings are the implications for the state of the news media —– as networks grow more partisan in the battle for viewers, they risk pushing each other to the extremes. The fourth estate is facing its most tumultuous period, with audiences gravitating toward Twitter and other individualized sources of news, and news networks risk being left behind unless they stop sinking to partisan extremes and start innovating.