Why MSNBC Sat on the Sidelines in the ‘Summer of Trump’

By Mark Joyella 

Long before Stars and Stripes published the story that would lead to the removal of Brian Williams from his perch as anchor of NBC Nightly News and ultimately to his new role as breaking news anchor at MSNBC, and months before Andy Lack would begin deconstructing the network’s dayside program lineup, the struggling cable network suffered perhaps its biggest setback of the year.

On Jan. 16, the Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus, at a meeting in San Diego, announced nine sanctioned Republican primary debates. Fox News got the first, which would make cable news ratings history, CNN got the second (which would set a network record for viewership) and MSNBC was shut out entirely.

At the time, there was little hint cable news was headed toward the Summer of Trump, with saturation coverage, spiking ratings and for the networks lucky enough to carry the debates, cold hard cash, in the form of ad revenue.

The RNC’s decision to leave MSNBC out was credited to the party’s desire, as RealClearPolitics reported, to have “more conservative media outlets to help shape the televised debates after many party members complained that during the 2011-12 debates, some networks’ moderators were too aggressive or hostile toward candidates.”

That’s why CNN’s debate at the Reagan Library included a partnership with Salem Communications, and its conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt. Priebus had previously explained his thinking regarding MSNBC in a 2013 interview on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, where he told Mika Brzezinski he would not support her moderating a Republican debate:

“Because you’re not actually interested in the future of the Republican Party and our nominees. That’s not a slam on you, Mika, but I have to choose moderators that are actually interested in the Republican Party and our nominees.”

NBC News and Telemundo are set to host a Republican debate in February, but the Summer of Trump—that was extended into the fall—is widely expected to be over by then. MSNBC’s reintroduction of straight news under Lack may put the network back into the RNC’s mix for 2020, but the phenomenon Trump unleashed—bringing 24 million viewers to watch a political debate in the dead of viewer-dry summer—is unlikely to repeat itself, especially as an incumbent president will likely dampen the intensity compared to 2016’s wide-open White House.