Episode 61: What The Hell Is Wrong With MSNBC, Part II — A Rebuttal

Citations Needed | January 9, 2019 | Transcript


Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.

Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Happy New Year, everyone! We are back. Hope everyone had a wonderful holiday — maybe even a relaxing one. Thank you all for joining us now in 2019. For those of you who may be new to Citations Needed in this new year, you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed and you can support the show through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.

Adam: This episode’s going to be a little bit different than usual, but we’re excited about it. We had an inquiry from a journalist and former host of MSNBC’s The Cycle from 2012 to 2015, Touré, who now himself has a podcast. He reached out to us as a big fan of the show, “but I thought your episode on MSNBC had problems.” Obviously he worked at MSNBC, so that didn’t necessarily surprise us, but we were curious to talk about that because we like to think that we respond to criticism and he suggested coming on the show to talk about it.

Nima: Yeah. Indeed.

Adam: So this episode is going to be part two of our unexpected two-part series.

Nima: (Laughs.)

Adam: Maybe it’ll be three, maybe it’ll degenerate into a 17-part series —

Nima: It’ll just keep going, that’s right.

Adam: Where we want to talk to someone who is, who is going to be defending MSNBC from our criticisms and we’re going to kind of really get into the weeds about that. And I’m excited to do that.

Nima: Yes. So, Touré is going to join us today. He was super gracious about coming on. We are happy to have him and we will basically leave this episode as our conversation.

Adam: Uh, two quick production notes. When we recorded this interview, I had a severe case of bronchitis. I’m now not sick, so if I sound like I’m dying [during the interview], that’s why. But I want you to know that the show must go on. And I, I, that’s the podcaster life. It’s the life I chose. It’s a hard life.

Nima: It chose you.

Adam: It’s true. Salesmen aren’t, aren’t made, they’re born. That’s the same thing with podcasters. Second thing is if you haven’t listened to the first one, we sort of recommend you do, it’ll help clarify what he’s responding to, what we’re responding to —

Nima: That’s right.

Adam: So if you have time, it’s Episode 34: What the Hell’s Wrong with MSNBC?, definitely one of our more controversial ones. So go back, listen to that and then listen to this conversation, which is sort of an attempt to expand upon a lot of those, those criticisms and those ideas and try to get another voice from the inside who is somewhat adversarial to us.

Nima: So stay tuned and enjoy this extended conversation with Touré.


Nima: We are joined today by writer, journalist, cultural critic, TV host, podcaster Touré, who got in touch with us because he really wanted to talk to us about one of our episodes, namely the What the Hell is Wrong with MSNBC?

Touré: (Laughing.)

Touré (credit: toure.com)

Nima: We are thrilled, thrilled to have Touré on Citations Needed today to chat. Touré, thank you so much for joining us.

Touré: Yeah, thanks for having me. I’ve been listening to the show for a few weeks and it’s really extraordinary. You guys are really smart and you’ve opened my eyes several times. I mean, every episode I’m like, ‘Oh my God. Hypocrisy bias. Yes!’ ‘Oh my God. Jake Tapper. Yes!’ ‘Oh my God.’ I mean like you guys are just really sharp and really smart and criticizing the left from the left is really powerful and I think what you’re doing is really valuable and I wanted to have the conversation with you because I thought perhaps the conversation about MSNBC was not necessarily exactly as strong as it could have been.

Adam: Alright, well, that’s all the time we have. Thanks for coming on. Really appreciate it.

Touré: (Laughs.)

Nima: (Laughing.) Yeah. Well, anyway. Uh, so that was great. That was Touré, everyone.

Adam: So just to lay the table here, if you had issues with the MSNBC episode, which we had some interesting feedback on, that and obviously we had our MSNBC informant whose name we shall not reveal. And you had some issues with that. I’m curious as a fan of the show, what would you say were your sort of primary issues with that episode? What did you feel like we were maybe unfair about?

Touré: Well, let me, so my basic case, and I can answer many questions about MSNBC, I mean, you know, your discussion dismissed the notion that this is a business and MSNBC does not air things that people don’t want to see, right? We’re in the business of getting people to watch the shows and if you don’t take seriously the responsibility and the imperative to get people to watch, then we’re not having a real conversation. Right? It’s not public broadcasting, right? We’re trying to get ratings everyday at four o’clock the ratings come out and everybody’s pouring over them. Right? We want to have good ratings. Now, typically MSNBC is third, right, behind Fox and CNN, so it puts a lot of pressure on all of us to try to do better. And one thing that was left out of the discussion is the importance of CNN to MSNBC. Everybody at MSNBC as well as CNN and Fox sitting in their offices watching a four-box, right? A television that’s showing four screens, CNN, MSNBC, Fox and either CNBC or HLN depending on who you are. So one core difference between CNN and MSNBC is that CNN has always, and I used to work there as well, CNN has always had a sort guiding force from above and especially now in the era of Jeff Zucker. He is really guiding what the entire programming does. So you get a sense of it’s a singular sort of 24 hours, right? MSNBC is much more siloed. There are folks above, but it’s really each executive producer and host who are really able to decide what they want to cover, but what that does is it puts a lot of pressure on each executive producer especially. It’s easier to replace an executive producer than a host. Right? And so if your show doesn’t do well, then you are on the chopping block, right? To lose your executive producer-ship and further down the road your hosting job. Now if you mirror CNN and your cut on the story that they’re on, it’s not your fault, the audience just didn’t want to watch that, but if you zig when CNN and/or Fox zags and you cover something different and you don’t do well, then you made a mistake. So it puts a lot of pressure and incentivizes at least paying great attention to what CNN is doing.

Jake Tapper of CNN, Tucker Carlson of Fox News, and Rachel Maddow of MSNBC (credit: variety.com)

Adam: Right.

Touré: So when you, when you understand it like that, like ‘I need to keep my job, I love this place, I love this job, I want to keep it.’ It’s much more difficult to try to do. And you know, one of the things you talked about, why aren’t you more progressive? Why aren’t you covering climate change? Why aren’t you covering Yemen? Why aren’t you covering more union stuff? Especially with climate change the audience tunes out. Chris Hayes did a week at least of climate change. We had him on The Cycle, we had a bunch of climate change segments, the audience disappears and that incentive, I mean we’re not giving the audience things they don’t want to see. If we see the audience is not paying attention when we put on that we can’t cover it.

MSNBC segments on Stormy Daniels vs. segments on US war in Yemen 7/3/17–7/3/18 (credit: fair.org)

Adam: Right. So this was something that our mystery guest brought up and it’s something we try to address in the show a lot, which is this idea of editorial decisions are not ideological or have their own biases, they are simply a matter of ratings. And I want to address this point to the best I can, and we touched on it in the episode on MSNBC, but maybe we didn’t touch on it nearly enough. This line of argument, the sort of, ‘it’s just about ratings and clicks,’ strikes me as the end of media criticism. That we all, we should all just pack it up and go home, right? Because we’ve, we’ve offset any moral responsibility to this nebulous libertarian free market that’s made the decision for us. And this strikes me as a little pat. Um, I don’t doubt that ratings are a huge factor and this is what I told our guest on that episode. They obviously are, but to me saying cable news is about ratings is like saying building a ship is about sailing. Yes, but where are you sailing and why? The ratings are a necessary axiom of all media that’s not public, although that has ratings considerations too. But, you know, Fox News is a huge ratings cash cow, but obviously Fox News has an ideology. They have an ideology both in spite of and because of that need for ratings. So it strikes me as like, while that’s true and I think it’s important that we recognize that and I thought we did a good job talking about that with our guest, but maybe we should’ve done a better job, it seems like a bit of a get out of jail free card. Um, and one thing I’ll note, and I agree, climate change can be a total snooze fest. I don’t disagree with that, but things like, let’s say take war crimes for example. So I wrote an article in FAIR in July of 2018, noting how MSNBC had not covered Yemen in a year. Now the obvious response is, ‘Oh, Yemen’s boring. It’s far away. Nobody cares.’ But in that time they had over a dozen stories about Russian war crimes in Syria, so evidently some people care about war crimes somewhere. They just happen to incidentally care about war crimes done by enemy states rather than the US. So I think the ratings argument is true as far as it goes, but I don’t think it really covers the whole base. What do you, what do you say to that?

Touré: Not really entirely sure how to answer that. I mean the Yemen piece in particular I think falls into a generalized Africa bias, which I imagine you guys will probably get around to doing a show on. Generally, you know, whatever happens in Africa, most Americans don’t care, right? And they just assume Africa is just war-torn, wild, it’s not unusual that they’re all killing each other.

Nima: Yeah. I mean, while Yemen isn’t in Africa, it is very close geographically, it’s less than 20 miles away across the Bab-el-Mandeb strait where the US has an airbase and where they refuel Saudi planes from and many of the civilian deaths resulting from the US and gulf monarchy air strikes have been part of the Afro-Yemeni community.

Touré: Right, but if somebody throws a lit match in Paris, you know it’s team coverage, right? That ‘oh my God!’

Adam: Yeah.

Touré: I mean every single thing. I can’t say every single thing we did was for ratings, but it’s not a get out of jail free card, but we have to work with the audience. If the audience is not interested-

Adam: No, totally.

Touré: Then we have to work with the audience. If we’re not serving them, then they will leave. And every media business does this. Radio, Netflix. I mean like everybody has to serve the audience. I wonder if some of the complaint is off because you’re saying why isn’t MSNBC more progressive and they could be and they try to be, but really I think MSNBC is more Democratic than progressive and obviously there’s a large overlap.

Adam: Oh yeah, no, that, that was, I think that was something we argued that like the, the show for better, for worse, it’s very partisan, but less so than Fox.

Touré: But less so in nature, but they care about things that the Democratic Party would care about and where progressive and Democrats part ways.

Adam: And why does the Democratic Party care about certain things? Right.

Touré: They would choose the Democratic path rather and covering the horse race and covering the things that Democratic Party cares about rather than things that progressives, Amy Goodman stuff, progressive stuff that a Democrats may not want.

Adam: Sure. Yeah. No, I think that’s totally fair.

Nima: Yeah, and I would also note that I think when it comes to these massive media corporations, there is a decision to be made and sometimes it’s made for producers and for hosts, but also there’s this idea of leading, you know, you can lead on a narrative, you can lead on a story, you can lead on an issue and maybe you can’t go, like, full progressive because, right, you’re corporate-owned and you need the audience. Like, I feel like we all understand that environment that these big companies are operating under, but at the same time, if, let’s say Chris Hayes or Rachel Maddow, who have an hour every single night in prime time and they’re unable per what they say themselves to talk about certain issues, they’re unable, there are people have more power in media than these people. And they have to then create their own podcasts to talk about issues that they feel like they’re not able to talk about on television every single night. And it’s not that I think we’re expecting MSNBC or any part of the NBCUniversal family, to actually be left or to even be progressive or to even be, you know, all that liberal. But like it’s the idea of crying out that they are so hamstrung that it’s not really up to them, it’s just like, we’re just giving the viewers what they want and they don’t want to hear anything that is unpalatable to them. And it’s like, well then obviously nothing is ever going to change. And why don’t, why doesn’t MSNBC just like do a better job at being Fox and then they’ll get more ratings? It’s like it just winds up being problematic when that winds up being the excuse.

Touré: I mean, I don’t think it’s an excuse. It is a business. We’re here to try to make money and we are, I say “we” and I probably shouldn’t, but I mean I still feel part of the family and I still appear on MSNBC a lot and I know and love a lot of those folks even though I’m not officially there anymore, but I mean it becomes almost immature to suggest we should talk about it apart from it being a business. I remember when I was first trying to get a show and I had ideas for programs and Dylan Ratigan, who’s show was on the most was like, unless you’re saying here’s the advertisers that I can pull with this concept or with this show or who will, who will follow me, then you’re just saying, ‘Daddy, can I drive your car?’ That’s an immature gesture. And there’s an experimentation process obviously. Right? You know, they put things on and they see how it does. And so it’s not purely like, everything is not known. Right? Like how is the Russia scandal going to play? Oh, they like that. Keep talking about that. How is the Ukraine situation going to play? They didn’t like that, so don’t talk about that. But it’s not like they will be often like, ‘well, let’s talk about it less.’ There is definitely a strong desire and imperative to feel like we have covered a broad variety of news. On The Cycle we would do a domestic, national, like super political DC story and then the B block would quite often be foreign policy, quite often in Africa or the Middle East or in Eastern Europe, you know, and then by the fourth block then we were into, you know, we could do cultural stories because we were not in a national emergency. Now we’re in a national emergency. So the whole thing is like, ‘Trump is completely screwing up the country.’

Adam: Yeah.

Touré: I mean I feel a little like out of breath saying like, you know, if you’re not talking about how we can continue to get audience than it’s not a mature conversation, you know, it’s not an excuse. It’s a business. You don’t see businesses sell, I mean businesses have lost leaders, but that’s a strategy, right? You don’t see businesses stocking products that people don’t want.

Adam: But, but, but you have to appreciate that there’s sort of two extremes, right? There’s the other extreme which is that if it’s just about ratings, you know-

Touré: Well, no, it’s just just about ratings. So they do have deals.

Adam: It’s not just about ratings —

Touré: And they will talk about climate change even though the audience with leave-

Adam: Right. So there’s some percentage, like there’s some, there’s some like, I dunno, let’s say it’s 70 percent ratings, 30 percent, you know, it’s like what we said in film school, some for the meal, some for the real. Right?

Touré: Okay.

Adam: So, some sort of to pay the bills and some things that you care about.

Touré: Okay.

Adam: Um, and I guess it’s the something that we care about is the percentage that we’re trying to interrogate here with an understanding that yes, it’s a business. I think Nima and I would both acknowledge that, but it’s, it’s kinda like when you critique Democratic politicians, they always say, ‘oh, well we have to make this compromise to win.’ And I think in certain cases that may be true, but it’s not, you can’t, it’s not enough, right? You can’t always say that because then there’s no such thing as criticism. Um, so the question is, where do you, how do you distinguish between, you know, someone within MSNBC or a similar corporate media as sort of trying to change, move the needle versus outside people like us who try to say, okay, well here’s some, what we try to do at least, to say ‘here’s some sober analysis as to what objectively is important versus what’s covered.’ Um, and I think you hit the nail on the head when you said that a lot of it is about sort of what’s important in the Democratic Party. And I think that maybe that may be one of the problems, right? Because, you know, Yemen, for example, was Obama’s war. Obama started the war, Trump put it on steroids, but he started it. And so it became, and it was supported by most Democrats at the time. Um, and so it became not sexy in a partisan context and maybe that’s an institutional problem at a place like MSNBC where they’re taking cues from a wing of a party. Specifically that is, that is aligned with military and corporate interest. I mean MSNBC hires how many ex-spooks and how many ex-generals? I mean the, there begins to be a bit of a, of a filtering bias there that I think is important to talk about.

Touré: Mhmm. I mean, yes. And then also of course as I alluded to before, we’re watching CNN and what are they doing and you know, we don’t want to stray too far away from what they’re doing and quite often I’d be like, why are we doing the same thing as them? Like we should be counter-programming them. Uh, and this argument was generally rejected for various reasons. I think I sort of outlined some of why that would be.

Adam: Why do you think that is? I’m curious.

Touré: Well, as I said before you, you-

Adam: Because I, I think that’s interesting.

Touré: You’re at risk of losing your job, right? I mean, you-

Adam: But like why do you think that they were, they were very concerned about seeing what CNN were doing? Were they sort of seen as like the center of gravity of news?

Touré: Um, yeah, more or less. I mean like they are doing better than us in the ratings, right? It’s not some abstract reason why they have that position. They’re doing better than us.

Adam: Oh, okay.

Touré: And if we and we can predict, we’re probably going to lose to CNN most of the time. If you lose to them doing the same story or a similar story, then it’s the audiences fault, you know, if you lose them doing a different story than you made a mistake in what you chose to do. I mean, one of the things we talked about a lot was the ratings for a given show are based on three things, the news flow of the entire day, what the show before you does and then what subjects you choose to pick. But two of those things you have no control over. Right? I mean like, you know, when Michael Cohen gets sentenced, I’m watching MSNBC and CNN all day long. On a quieter day, I’m watching more SportsCenter. Right? Um, so, and that has Katy Tur, Chuck Todd whatever, they have no impact —

(via MSNBC)

Nima: They, but they do have an impact on what guests they bring on. I mean, who’s getting booked, obviously that has to do with who’s available and who the bookers are and how much time they have and who can show up or at least call in, but I mean I don’t think the audience sitting at home is like desperate to hear Barry McCaffrey’s opinion in the abstract. It’s only because he’s on MSNBC all the time that, you know, ‘oh, well that’s a serious voice,’ you know, that comes out of all this military career and now he’s seen as an expert and like you can kind of extrapolate that to all kinds of guests across all of the networks, but those are concerted decisions that don’t necessarily follow the news cycle. It’s like that’s who you’re deciding to put on as your expert. Not even as the anchor who is extensively supposed to just be objective, but when your talking heads don’t even have any sort of scope it’s like you’re just determining your own Overton Window on TV and assuming that that’s what the audience wants and that’s why you’re doing it. It just winds up being like this weird feedback loop because you’re not offering anything different. How do you know if the audience is gonna react differently or not?

Touré: I agree that on all the networks, definitely on CNN, MSNBC, there is a pro-war military bias. They wouldn’t ever have somebody on with McCaffrey or Colonel Jack or whatever and say, ‘I don’t think we should be going to war at all.’ Like that would never happen. And that’s a problem across cable news. It’s a problem across news in general and I completely agree with you there.

Nima: Yes.

Touré: Um, I mean, I think that there’s definitely an effort at MSNBC to get the smartest guests that you can get and people who are knowledgeable about given subjects. I mean, I appreciate immensely that MSNBC generally it will be a group of progressives talking about something as opposed to CNN, which always wants a bar room brawl and they always want some sort of left/right conversation, you know, Marc Lamont Hill argues against police brutality and then there’s a cop, who is like, ‘well, sometimes you got to kill these black people.’ Like what? Like, what are you talking about? And that is, I’m consistently drawn into, ‘Ooh, let me see what this fight is. ‘And then after four minutes I’m like, that’s four minutes, I’ll never get back and on MSNBC there would be a more interesting —

Nima: Right. And why were there twelve squares on my screen all yelling at each other?

Touré: Right. And then MSNBC, there will be more often a building of ideas of ‘yes, I agree with you and, and this and that.’ And so we are building toward something that is an idea that’s interesting and I can more often watch and feel sort of intellectually nourished, watching a good conversation on there. I mean, I think there’s an effort to be as smart as you can with the guests, with the subjects. Um, it’s a tricky thing because there’s a tremendous amount of speed that this whole thing, I mean they call it ‘feeding the beast’ and I mean they have to produce, I don’t even know, I mean it’s over, It’s easily over 100 guests a day, right? I mean from Morning Joe to what is it, The 11th Hour? Right? I mean, it’s, I don’t know-

Nima: Yeah, with Brian Williams because that guy can’t possibly get fired for any reason.

Touré: No comment. Every show has at least six segments and every segment has generally two to three guests. Right? So what is that? 18 times? What? 7:00 am to 11:00 pm —

Nima: Yeah, it’s like 16 hours of programming.

Touré: I mean, you know, if they know that you are a good talker and you’re going to be interesting and we can in a millisecond tell the, ‘oh, why should I be listening to you?’ ‘You worked at Goldman Sachs for 10 years and we’re going to talk about the stock market.’ Great. I, I understand why you’re here. I love the Democratic Strategists which convene, I don’t even know what that means.

Adam: Oh yeah. It probably also means Goldman Sachs.

Touré: Anybody can be a Democratic Strategist to come on and talk about, but I mean like we want to communicate quickly to the viewer why they should listen to this person. Uh, and you know, what, why they’re there. And if we know, hey, you know, this person is a good, I mean The Cycle did a really good job, I think, of trying to find new people who were, because every show wants to put on guests who you haven’t seen before, but you can’t, but the risk is you put on a guest who is a dud, you know, they just don’t, not that they don’t know what they’re talking about, they’re just not interesting to listen to. And then it’s a failed segment.

Adam: Right. It seems like there’s a lot of, I want to be able, I want to delineate here between what we view as being institutional problems with corporate media, specifically corporate cable media and that which is unique to MSNBC. And I think a lot of the stuff you’re talking about is institutional, for better or for worse. And it’s not a particular moral failing on the people at MSNBC. And I think that’s probably true. I think the, where the rubber hits the road and why we focused on them specifically is that they present themselves as being left or progressive as a marketing thing. So you sort of get was good will to win people over who are concerned with issues that we sort of generally associate with the left and so the extent to which, you know, it’s useful to criticize them, I think without being gratuitous or, or being disproportionate or disingenuous, I think is useful. Right? This whole point of media criticism is to keep people honest and you can see why it’s a little grading in the last three to six months. You know, Chris Hayes for example, has been harping on Twitter and every now and then on his show about the sort of devastation of Yemen and that’s really great. Uh, but you know, from August of 2016 to August of 2018, he didn’t mention it once on his show and he does this whole Serpico routine, right? Where he’s changing it from the inside and it gets a little bit obnoxious because if you feel like you’re being constrained or you can’t say some things or there’s something you can’t talk about then like we should talk about that on an institutional level about why that is. Because that’s a problem.

Touré: There’s certainly nobody from on high saying you cannot discuss X.

Adam: Well, I don’t think that’s how that works. I wasn’t suggesting that is how that works. And I think we’ve made it pretty clear in the episode that’s not how it works.

Touré: I am quite certain that if we’re talking about 2014, 2015, there would be more discussion of Yemen, but the national emergency that is Trump sort of crowds out that discussion. I mean, like we never, we never ever did six segments on Obama. Never. I mean like, there just wouldn’t be enough.

Adam: That seems somewhat belied by the fact though, that there were so many segments on war crimes in Syria. I mean, I guess you could make an argument that the reason why they focused on war crimes in Syria was because it made Russia look bad and that tied into Trump, but —

Touré: No, it wouldn’t, it wouldn’t be, it wouldn’t be that. It would be more like we, we as a nation are used to hearing about strife in the Middle East. This is a continuing narrative. Um, so it makes sense. It’s not, I wouldn’t go so far as it makes Russia look bad and thus makes Trump, like that’s a longer leap. Like I don’t think people are —

Adam: Well, I mean I do think there’s definitely like a sort of general, I mean, you, you would agree that institutionally, not just on MSNBC but across American media that war crimes committed by America’s enemies are highlighted more than those committed by the United States. Right? You’d say —

Touré: Absolutely. Absolutely. Absolutely.

Adam: Okay. That’s what I would chalk it up to.

Touré: The notion that America has done wrong, uh, the American military has been sent to do something wrong. You can’t say that. I mean just generally, and nobody’s telling you can’t say that, but you kind of know, like that would be a major thing to say. That would be really, I mean like, you know, just, but I mean that, and you guys touched on that in one of your episodes, just like there’s no, it’s difficult as Americans to separate our respect for the troops themselves in our discussion of, you know, military as doing something that is immoral or inappropriate or unethical or just wrong, right? Like there’s no, you know, I mean similar like Marc Lamont Hill is going through this now, right? There’s, you cannot, you cannot be pro-Palestine without it being anti-Semitic. And how can we not criticize a government like the government of Israel without being anti-Semitic? I mean like these are not making any comment about Jewish people or the right of Israel to exist. You’re making a comment about the, the Israeli government and that should be able to be decoupled from anti-Semitism. But in America it’s not. I mean I remember that at one point we were talking about one of the Israel/Palestine conflicts because they flared up a couple of times really badly while we were doing The Cycle and I felt compelled to point out something that would really be more pro-Palestinian people, like just ‘be careful.’ Like not that somebody from on high is going to be upset, but the audience will be offended.

Nima: Of course, of course. But that’s like the bullying that keeps narratives perpetuated. Right? I mean, I, I totally agree. I mean, we see that all the time. We comment on that a lot. I think no one would, would dispute that. I just think that when we’ve been talking about what the viewership wants, what the corporate sponsors want, how are you going to get backing for this? How are you going to stay on the air? And I think something really interesting has happened recently, which actually speaks to coverage or lack of coverage of Yemen and it’s for years there was nothing and then once there started being a little more pushback, like I think Chris Hayes’ show actually really broke through based on a lot of, uh, I think listener and viewer pushback and stuff that he was seeing on social media. He started covering it more. Chris Murphy started coming on more and we see now literally the day that we are recording this segment right now, the Senate voted to end military aid to Saudi Arabia over Yemen.

Adam: Yeah. It’s important to note. And like this is also largely because MBS fell out of favor with the ruling class consensus therefore it —

Nima: Right, Khashoggi has a lot to do with that.

Adam: Yeah, exactly. Because he was, he was a member of the club. Um, but I, you know, in the lead up to the last vote in March MSNBC didn’t cover it once. Um, and I wrote about it for FAIR because I was like, this is the moment, this is the moment we could have ended it. We could’ve, we could’ve ended this nine months ago and there was no institutional support from any Democratic Party media whatsoever.

Touré: Yeah, yeah. I mean Trump is crowding out that sort of stuff. They would have covered that in 2014 and 2015, but it’s just, it just becomes so crowded with Trump. I think one thing-

Adam: Yeeaaah, but they didn’t cover it when Obama was in office, they didn’t cover it in 2016 either. They covered it once in all of 2016 so that, that doesn’t seem true.

Touré: No but I mean I’m talking about 2014, 2015 when things are quieter. Once you have a horse race going on, everyone goes nuts over that.

Adam: Sure. Okay.

Touré: I mean, one of the things that I personally and I said this on the air and it didn’t really, we got, we got dumped so I didn’t really get to live this out, but I sort of made a pledge to the audience, I’m not going to do theater criticism. I’m not going to do it. I mean, I remember after the first Obama debate with Mitt Romney, right? Remember when Mitt Romney was all caffeinated and Obama was very cool and Mitt Romney lied repeatedly and talked in a fantasy about things that could not be accomplished. And Obama was very calm and said reality based things. And I was the only one in the room when we recapped it as a group who was like, yes, of course Obama won and everybody else said no, of course Romney won. And I’m like, you guys are doing theater criticism. And you know, it was, it was tricky in those days, partly because, you know, if you’re black and you’re supportive of Obama, then you are dismissed as, you’re just, you’re just on the team because you’re both black and like —

Nima: Right. In the tank already. Sure.

Touré on the MSNBC show he co-hosted from 2012–2015, The Cycle. (credit: MSNBC)

Touré: And I remember running into somebody who’s prominent at Fox, a black guy, and he was like, ‘yeah, of course Obama won, but we can’t say that because they won’t listen us because we’re black,’ and like, you know, so you kinda got caught up with that sort of stuff sometimes. But you know, I mean once you get, once you get into a horse race, you know, with 17 Republican candidates, you know, but sometimes, you know, I find a lot of the mistakes that happen sometimes will happen via a lack of thought rather than a, you know, it would be great if there would be a little more media criticism, self media criticism within these institutions. Right? Quite often there’s not. One day, I tell this story a lot when I do colleges and stuff, one day in our first year, I believe, I was given like a little 50 word reader. We were doing like news blips, right? Like, you know, and that’s definitely where we’d be like, ‘fighting continues in Yemen,’ you know, blah blah blah. And it said, I think 20 people were shot in Chicago over the weekend. It was July. No context on shootings go up in the summer. No context on Chicago is not top 20 in terms of homicides per capita, no context on Chicago versus itself because criminologists wants you to compare cities to themselves. There’s too many variables when you compare one city’s homicide and gun statistics to another. Um, so I, so I’m just handed this reader that’s like 20 people shot in Chicago over the weekend. Next! And I’m like, wait a minute, I mean that was a big issue for me. Like “Chicago” is a right-wing meme, you guys are going to do an episode on Chicago —

Adam: Oh, “Chicago”’s a huge dog whistle.

Touré: Eh, you know, and this goes back to the eighties when they started talking about “Chicago, Chicago”, which is a way of demonizing black people and fighting against gun laws and all those sorts of things. And I said, and I knew Chicago is actually an extraordinary success story in the last 20 years. They have cut their, their gun homicide rate in half. Right? That’s extraordinary. And I said, ‘I want to add a line to the end that says, “and yet Chicago continues to be on pace for its lowest gun death rate in 20 years.”’ And they said, ‘okay,’ and then I’m like, ‘ah, this levels the story rather than doing that Chicago wink, wink, you guys know what that means thing.’ We were in a different thing. We were in Baltimore after that uprising, after the Freddie Gray situation and we were looking for folks to interview and this woman who was clearly, to me, nodding out, heroined out, just sort of came up and just threw her arm over my shoulder and was like, oh, you’re cute. And my producer said, “Great, let’s interview her.” And I looked at her in horror, but now it’s, it would be too rude to both of these people for me to say ‘I’m not doing this.’ But I asked her one question and then I wrapped it up and, and I told her, I told my producer, ‘you can’t tell that this person was high?’ Like I’m, I don’t want this, I don’t want to have man on the street and we picked one person who’s actually high at the moment. Like, the streets are filled with people who are not, it’s 11:00. There’s, everybody here is not and we pick the one. And the producers were like, ‘I didn’t notice.’ The producer was not accustomed to seeing people nodding. So that producer did not recognize, ‘oh, that person is clearly on drugs at this second,’ right? So, and you know, if I was not there and forcefully saying ‘burn that tape because I know if you send it back to New York, they’re going to, somehow that’s going to air,’ then it would have, you know, if it wasn’t for and not that I’m so great, but I was just sort of paying attention to like, I care about how these people are portrayed and there’s tons of people who are in, you know, not ridiculous who we could choose. But you know, both of these moments are mistakes of, of, uh, under thought rather than overt —

Nima: Yeah, just kind of convenience, right? Of, there’s so much to produce, there’s so much to get up all the time that that’s why you’re like, ‘I guess we’ll have Josh Barro on again!’ But there’s a —

Touré: Wait a minute, wait a minute, hold on, hold on. That was a terrible example.

Nima: Go on.

Touré: Josh Barro is brilliant. He is brilliant. And he is, he is —

Nima: (Laughing.) He’s on every show.

Touré: He’s brilliant. And he is, he is —

Adam: Let’s not, let’s not, let’s not get out of hand here.

Touré: No, no, no, no, no. I worked with Steve Kornacki. Josh Barro is brilliant. There is no, there is no millimeter lost between those two in terms of, he is brilliant. And he is objective in terms of he’s not biased left or right. I am. I am on the team. I had been a Democrat my entire life.

Adam: Come on. But that’s not really true. Josh Barro has certain ideological blinders. I mean he, he’s obviously very capitalist, he has a very hardened ideology for what he views as being kind of center, center-right politics. I mean he’s biased like anyone else. I mean everyone’s biased, right?

Touré: I mean, I, I mean sure. I mean, I mean at the rate of everyone’s biased then where are we? I’m saying we did a show where —

Adam: I mean, the question is are his politics good?

Touré: Well we did. I mean, when you talk about capitalism, absolutely nobody in the entire equation is saying, what about communism? What about socialism? That actually, there is a good argument to be made for that, even though it failed in Russia. Like, nobody’s, nope, that person will be laughed out of the room, but I mean, like, I mean —

Adam: I mean, doesn’t that sort of prove our entire thesis?

Touré: The show that we did, we were very clearly two-to-two and a half Lefties and two Righties, or at least it was supposed to be the one Righty, sort of, and-

Ari Melber, Abbby Huntsman, Krystal Ball and Touré (credit: msnbc.com)

Nima: Just as a refresher, who was on The Cycle?

Touré: Well, there were six of us over time. It started with me and Krystal Ball and uh, Steve Kornacki and S.E. Cupp and then overtime it became, Krystal remained throughout the whole run, but Steve left to do his own show and was replaced by Ari Melber and S.E. left and was replaced by Abby Huntsman. Um, so that was our group.

Adam: Now, a lot of what you say tracks with what our guest said, um, uh, which is —

Touré: Well, he never mentioned CNN. And you cannot discuss MSNBC without talking about CNN because we are completely and not that they’re not reacting to us, but they are definitely listening to CNN and paying close attention to what they’re doing.

Adam: Right. Um, so there has been times where MSNBC has had higher ratings than CNN, is that correct? Or is that never been the case?

Touré: I mean as it like for like, there’ll be —

Adam: Because I know, I know, I thought that in recent years they kind of caught up to them because of a lot of the anti-Trump stuff has been good for ratings and obviously people are tuned into Maddow.

Touré: I mean, I’m no longer privy to the ratings on a day to day basis. I mean I could go on TV by Numbers and sort of figure it out, but I mean, you know, sometimes we would beat CNN, but usually not. But I mean, you know, maybe a quarter? I mean the first year we beat them a bunch of times, but you know, generally they’re, they have an institutional advantage in terms of their history, in terms of, you know, they’re in all the airports. They’re the wallpaper of America and they’re seen as non problematic. I mean, when I’m out in the world, right, people can just throw on CNN and it’s like comfortable, like putting out like cheese, like nobody dislikes cheese, like nobody’s saying, you know, but if know you put out wine and some people are like, well ‘I don’t drink wine.’ ‘I like beer’ or ‘I’m an alcoholic’ like ‘I don’t want to see it’ or ‘I don’t drink because I’m an athlete’ or whatever. So MSNBC is more challenging to certain people and you know, it’s hard to compete when you’re in all the airports all over the world.

Nima: Maybe just to, just to close on so one of the things you’ve mentioned to us earlier is you did happen to find our episode on Jake Tapper compelling. How do you feel like that is different? Certain critiques we were making of him and that idea, that standard, that, that model of newsperson and how do you think that that differs? Like why was that compelling? And then the MSNBC critique not so much?

Touré: Well, you know, honestly I want to avoid that question because I, I mean I, I’m not friends with Jake but I know Jake and I don’t want to be talking about specific individuals who I know.

Nima: Sure.

Touré: Um, because I think that would, you know, that would come across strange. I mean just, just something that just occurred to me —

Nima: Take…Japper.

Touré: (Chuckles.) Something that just occurred to me to go back to a point you were making before, when I was doing music criticism at Rolling Stone, I would never talk about, ‘well they gotta have a pop filler song for radio because they got to try to sell platinum.’ Like I don’t think about that. I’d be like this pop radio song is, is bullshit and it goes against, you know, what we really want for this genre. We want serious lyrics and hip hop or serious guitar playing in rock and roll and none of like we don’t want the pop song with Demi Lovato. Like what did, I would totally do that. And, and somebody inside the label would be like, ‘dude, we’re trying to sell records here.’ So I mean like you as the critic are doing what you should be doing. MSNBC could be better and I’m trying to explain from inside like, well, but if you don’t, if you don’t include the economic, I mean I remember early on right around when Michael Jackson died, I was really ascendant at the network and I remember hearing about a meeting where somebody said like triumphantly, like a high up meeting where somebody said like ‘we’re not covering Michael Jackson.’ And they were very proud of themselves and you know, because there was like, that’s like, you know, we’re looking down on Michael that’s like —

Adam: And that person was gone two days later.

Touré: That, that was an entertainment story and then somebody higher up was like, ‘what are you talking about? You should not be proud of yourself that you’re not covering the story that the audience is clamoring for.’ Like what are you talking about? So I mean like those business economic concerns are very important. A lot of people, Chris Hayes, definitely, you know, others definitely, you know, we tried to do it on The Cycle, will try to break out of that. Will try different things. Lots of shows will try different things. Let’s see if they’ll watch a segment on this or that and you know, maybe it works. Maybe it doesn’t. And you have to deal with that. But you know, life is trickier in the Trump era because just the amount of time you have is just squashed. We would not be able to do The Cycle as we did it in the Trump era, you know, I mean they used to do segments on books. They used to have segments on the Oscars. They used to have fun and in the F block and the, and the E block like no more, like you have to cover Trump for 60 minutes. And quite often I could see it in their eyes, they have ripped up, they wrote a schedule at 9:00 or 10:00 am or they wrote a rundown, that’s what they call it, a rundown, at 9:00 and 10:00 am. And at 2:00 pm they had to rip it up because like Trump.

Nima: Oh right, because comes out and makes like fart noises with his hands in the Rose Garden and now that has to be the fucking A and B blocs.

Touré: Yes. Or somebody else flipped or —

Adam: But I guess here’s my question and then I’ll, and then we’ll leave it here, which is that if I was to bring on Sean Hannity and he said the exact same thing about why Fox News does what they do, that people want to see it, that Republicans want to see it, that, you know, stories about the knockout game or whatever sort of fatuous or racist programming. Like doesn’t this sort of rejoinder-?

Touré: It’s an interesting comparison. Fox News should never be in the same sentence as MSNBC unless you’re saying, well, you know, the LA Lakers and the —

Adam: Hold on, hold on, hold on. I’m simply saying the same logic applies. I’m not comparing them. I’m not saying that the same. I’m saying, well, what’s to stop them from using the exact same, the exact same, uh, I don’t want to say excuse but-

Touré: Surely they would, but you, I sense that you know, that it’s sort of a bad faith comparison because they are performing in bad faith, right? And the, and I use the verb performing —

Adam: Well, but I’m, but I’m saying is that we acknowledge that there is —

Touré: There is an attempt at MSNBC, a sincere attempt, to say what is the important news that the people need to know and how can we cover that objectively? And quite often as, this is not a specific criticism of MSNBC but of journalists in general who are on the left, who would, most of us that veer toward quote unquote “objectivity,” which as you guys have talked about on this show leads us leaning rightward when we should just, you know, it took us forever to start saying Trump was a liar. You know, I mean, people in news are not clear enough that the Republican Party has gone completely off the deep end ideologically, rhetorically the way they perform. The Democratic Party is not doing that. Right? You know, when people say both sides, I pull my hair out and —

Adam: I want to be really clear here. I want to be clear. I’m not at all saying they’re the same, nor am I saying they’re even comparable. I’m saying that we acknowledge that there is an ideological component to Fox and to some extent even CNN when it comes to their pro-military centrism. I’m confused why MSNBC would be different with an understanding that a large majority of MSNBC’s ideology is not bad, that it’s actually good or neutral, that things like, you know, opposing racism or opposing Trump, these are good things, right? I’m not saying the ideology is per se bad, but I’m saying we acknowledge there is ideological content for other corporate media, but somehow MSNBC is just driven by the sort of libertarian ratings regime from which they can’t escape regardless of the best intentions.

Touré: I mean, if it was, if it was just purely ratings than we could, we could do what Fox does, right? There is a sincere attempt by each show to say what is the important news that the people need to know about and how can we, how can we present that in a compelling way? Right? Fox is doing something entirely differently and they may justify it on, we want ratings and we’re getting ratings, but they are producing quite often, bizarrely racist programming. I mean their entire, their entire prime time lineup is consistently racist, consistently presenting a worldview that is fantasy, that has nothing to do with reality. They are the globetrotters, they are not playing by-

Nima: Well, because they’re operating on the, on the level of world-building and to have no counter to that and MSNBC almost sets itself up as counter to that and I think part of our frustration with that is that there’s no attempt, at least on MSNBC’s side, to do world-building of their own look. We’re not expecting them to become like super socialist, super like, that’s not the issue. It’s not like we’re shocked that the Backstreet Boys doesn’t sound like fucking Tom Waits. Like we’re not shocked at that. It’s the fact that there seems to be no attempt to drive a culture even to the moderate liberal left that MSNBC sometimes does. It, it, it just seems to be, you know, as you keep saying like, ‘Oh, well see what CNN’s doing and then we’ll kind of do that.’

Touré: Well, no, that’s not, that is not what I said and that is, that is, that is not what I said at all. We’re paying attention to CNN, but we’re not just mapping CNN, but that goes back to something that you guys did talk about accurately in your MSNBC episode in terms of the history of the place. Is Fox began as an ideological gesture to capture a certain audience. MSNBC did not begin that way. MSNBC the first many, many years was a colorful CNN and then the success of Keith Olbermann led to a Rachel and Lawrence and this explosion of progressives. So they sort of found their voice years into their life and was like, ‘Oh, people are going to watch that. So give them more. Give them more anti-Bush, give them more anti-Bush.’ Um, so it emerged because the audience was wanting it, not because there’s some Ailes or Zucker type figure sitting in the corner going, ‘Okay, now we’re going to do this. Now we’re going to do this. Now we’re going to do this.’ So you can’t have world building without some of that. Nobody, there’s no central figure telling all the shows, this is the perspective we’re taking. Um, which is similar to the Democratic Party versus the Republican Party, I mean quite often on Twitter and I watch TV and I’m like, all the Republicans are saying the same thing. I mean like the moment that Trump, the moment that the story changed and they were all like, it’s just an FEC violation. And they kept saying over and over and they will, they have this message discipline that Democrats don’t, we don’t behave like that. That just never happens. And that is reflected in MSNBC that there’s not a cohesive message, but that’s not the way the Democratic Party operates at all. Right? That’s not the way Democratic people operate at all. I mean, there is a hierarchical nature to the thought that quite often exists in conservative structures. Um, I’ll just not even just in Fox outside of Fox. So being it sort of maps onto the way that these, these ideological groups tend to function in American society. You’re right, there are certain, there’s clearly certain things that are beyond the pale in terms of critique of military.

Adam: Yeah. I think, I think the analogy we used with our guest was that it’s not, it’s not as if someone comes from on high and says, ‘don’t do this,’ but you’re like a rat in a cage and you touch a certain wall and you get electrocuted and you learn quickly what not to talk about.

Touré: Um, I’ve been. Wow. Wow. Wow. I did not. I never felt like a rat in a cage. I felt tremendous freedom and I felt-

Adam: Sorry, a rat in a maze was the term we used. But yes.

Touré: Well I didn’t feel like that. I felt tremendous responsibility, right? To get the story right, to inform the audience properly, to make sure that they understood what’s really going on. Um, that was my way. Now obviously you guys as super lefty critics are right to point out like, ‘well, you’re not doing this and this and this,’ and they’re not. Would you really think that you would consistently cover something that the audience is saying, we’re not interested in that?

Adam: I would say that there are ways of making things like war crimes interesting as proven by the fact that they’ve covered them in the past, but we’re going to give you the last word before you go. I do want to know if you want to talk about your podcast and where people can check that out?

Touré: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you so much. I mean, I’m doing, it’s called Touré Show and you can catch it, you know, anywhere that you find podcasts are streamed and you know, I do hour long one on ones with successful, interesting, fascinating people. Most of the time it’s black people. I mean, I’m really trying to center blackness in this show. So occasionally we’ll have on white people, but if they’re talking about black people, right? So we’ve had two people who worked closely with Prince talking about him. We had the filmmakers who did a film about Sandra Bland talking about her and her case. We have actors, writers, you know, athletes, musicians. We’re going to have Malcolm Gladwell and Sonia Sanchez and Rosie Perez and Lil Yachty on in January. You know. Um, so I mean it’s just a broad array of people and you know, I’m trying to get at what made you successful and what can the audience take from your journey that might make them successful? We talk to people a lot about like their self-talk, you know, we had Tiffany Haddish on and she talked about, she gets up in the morning and she looks at herself in the mirror, like dead in her eyes and she’s like, you know, ‘you’re doing a good job’ and ‘you’re good enough’ and ‘you’re strong enough’ and ‘you can make it.’ And those sorts of messages really power her throughout the day. And I just want to talk to people about like, what are you doing right and communicate to the audience some things that they can possibly take on for themselves.

Nima: Fantastic. Well, Touré thank you so much for joining us. Writer, journalist, critic, TV and podcast host. Everyone should check out Touré Show and uh, thank you so much for coming on to Citations Needed and talking to us about the work that you do and the work that we try to do.

Touré: Thank you.


Nima: So that was great. That was our Citations Needed rebuttal episode, the Citations Rejoinder.

Adam: It’s not easy to sort of come on and have to be the, you know, the heel.

Nima: So we appreciate that and I appreciate Adam, your wrestling reference there. So thank you for that. It’s a good way to start 2019.

Adam: It’s your fault. I didn’t actually know what a heel was until I started doing this show with you. I still hate wrestling.

Nima: (Laughs.) I’m going to change that in 2019.

Adam: My least edgy take, pretty, pretty banal take. But I’m happy with that. I think, incidentally, Touré reaching out to us, we had for a long time wanted to do a kind of, it’s all about the clicks, it’s all about the ratings episode because I get that we get this a lot in media criticism and I think we did a good job sort of addressing that or what the kind of limits of that are and whether or not people think we did is I guess up to them

Nima: They could let us know and then they’ll insist on coming on the show.

Adam: Well it’s the sort of perennial media criticism question. Right? Which is our editorial choices, products of some free market or the editorial choices informed by maybe more sinister factors or more sort of, uh, you know, and I think that it’s, um, I think it’s always interesting to debate that. I don’t want to editorialize too much because I really want people to form their own opinions based on our back and forth. Obviously we have home court advantage. We’re cheating here, but I, I think, uh, I think it’s a fascinating topic and anyone who has any thoughts on that by all means, you know, tweet at us and stuff we’re always curious to hear what you guys think.

Nima: So yet again, thank you Touré for coming on. Thank you all of our listeners for listening to this episode, for joining us now in this new year. You can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed. Certainly we encourage you and thank you so much if you do, to become a supporter of our show, we are completely listener funded. There are no ads, there are no billionaire backers and we’d like to keep it that way. So please do help us out if you can, and if you are interested in that, you can do so through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson and an extra special shout out goes to our Critic-level supporters through Patreon. Thank you again for tuning in everyone. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson and I guess we kind of have to upload to Spotify now don’t we?

Nima: Yeah, that’s a good point. (Laughs.) Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Our production consultant is Josh Kross. Associate producer is Sophia Steinert-Evoy. Our production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thank you everyone for joining us. Happy New Year again. We’ll catch you next time.


This episode of Citations Needed was released on Wednesday, January 9, 2019.

Transcription by Morgan McAslan. Post by Sophia Steinert-Evoy.