MSNBC enduring Maddow absences, Psaki ethics drama as it seeks identity in Biden era

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MSNBC’s biggest star announced this month she will be only doing her show one day a week. What some hope will be the liberal network’s next standout is still officially representing the president of the United States.

It’s a strange time at MSNBC, which is undergoing something of an identity crisis in the Biden era.

Rachel Maddow, by far MSNBC’s highest-rated host and a mainstay of its primetime lineup for over a decade, will only appear on Mondays beginning this month, while Jen Psaki, reportedly set to join the streaming platform Peacock as a host and also appear across MSNBC programs as a commentator, still remains President Biden’s White House press secretary and occasionally spars with future colleagues.

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Maddow made the announcement in April after returning from a hiatus dating back to January, only months after reportedly re-upping with the network for an eye-popping $30 million per year.  

MSNBC enduring Maddow absences, Psaki ethics drama as it seeks identity in Biden era

In her absence, MSNBC still billed it the “The Rachel Maddow Show” but with fill-in hosts, such as Ali Velshi and Ayman Mohyeldin.

Maddow’s decision to cut her show appearances to one day a week comes after her lowest-rated month in the demo since November 2015. From April 4 to 8, she had her worst-rated week since 2016, averaging about 1.3 million viewers. “The Rachel Maddow Show” averaged 2.7 million viewers during the same dates in 2021 when she hosted each night, and she averaged 2 million nightly viewers during January 2022 before she stepped aside. 

“You see the existential importance of a single person on all of prime time when she’s not there,” an MSNBC insider told Fox News Digital.

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Another MSNBC insider said Maddow essentially calling the shots “shows what kind of a powerful voice she is.”

“She’s incredibly captivating as a broadcaster,” they said. “She’s Michael Jordan. I think she’s the best in the the business right now.”

Imagine the Chicago Bulls paying Jordan to sit out four out of every five games, though.

“Rachel Maddow hosting one day a week … is almost like her not hosting at all – no matter what MSNBC tries to spin, her show is gone for good,” Fourth Watch media newsletter editor Steve Krakauer told Fox News Digital. “Cable news is all about consistency, and habits – MSNBC will now have to rely on a new host to form a relationship with viewers at 9 p.m.”

Who that will be is a 30-million-dollar question for MSNBC; fans have frequently floated rabidly anti-GOP host Nicolle Wallace – a reliable Democratic booster and a big Jen Psaki fan – as a possibility for the time slot. She, along with Maddow and far-left host Joy Reid anchor MSNBC’s special political news coverage, and Maddow will continue to appear for such broadcasts along with her Monday nights in primetime. 

CNN media reporter Oliver Darcy said the effort to use fill-in hosts to hold Maddow’s ratings had not proven successful.

MSNBC enduring Maddow absences, Psaki ethics drama as it seeks identity in Biden era

Rachel Maddow’s decision to cut her show appearances to one day a week comes after her lowest-rated month in the demo since November 2015. From April 4 to 8, she had her worst-rated week since 2016, averaging about 1.3 million viewers. 
(Getty Images)

“It really hasn’t worked out well for MSNBC,” Darcy said of Maddow’s absences last month on CNN+. “It’s going to take a while for a new host to also build a relationship … This is a big problem for them.”

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NBCUniversal News Group chairman Cesar Conde, who started the gig in May 2020, is the high-powered executive who paid Maddow and oversees NBC News, MSNBC and CNBC. A former high-level employee of NBC News who is familiar with the company’s inner workings told Fox News Digital last month when Maddow announced her reduced workload that he should be held responsible.  

“Cesar Conde should be fired for the embarrassing Maddow deal alone where she’s paid eight figures to barely work while MSNBC ratings crater,” the former NBC News staffer said.  

Psaki’s plans to join the liberal network have excited its base of viewers; the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee even sent a fundraising email off the news. Meanwhile, Psaki’s continued interactions with NBC News reporters when she’s set to be one of their de facto co-workers has raised eyebrows among some media watchdogs.

Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism professor of professional practice Bill Grueskin believes Psaki should have been more transparent weeks ago. 

“Psaki should have either delayed negotiating with networks until her resignation was in place, or she should have been upfront about the negotiations once they started,” Grueskin told Fox News Digital. “Now, of course, we know that she’s bound for MSNBC, and viewers can take that into account when they see her these days in the White House press room or later in front of a studio camera.”

During April 1’s press briefing, NBC News chief White House correspondent Kristen Welker, a future colleague of Psaki’s, pressed her, “Given the reports … how can you continue to be an effective briefer if you do in fact have plans to join a media outlet?”

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“Well, I have nothing, again, to announce about any conversations or any future plans,” Psaki reiterated before vowing that whenever she leaves the White House she will first be spending time with her family. 

Welker continued grilling her, asking “how is it ethical to have these conversations with media outlets while you continue to have a job standing behind that podium?” Psaki pointed to the “stringent ethical and legal requirements” she insisted she has abided by regarding her future plans.

MSNBC enduring Maddow absences, Psaki ethics drama as it seeks identity in Biden era

Press secretary Jen Psaki speaks with reporters during the White House briefing Feb. 2, 2022.
(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

On April 20, during a panel moderated by NBC’s Kelly O’Donnell on “The Modern Presidency,” O’Donnell addressed the elephant in the room and asked Psaki if she could share anything about her future plans, citing reports she was set to join MSNBC.

“I have no personal knowledge about any of that,” O’Donnell told the audience. “Is there anything you can tell us about your future?”

“Not yet,” Psaki said. “Nothing at this point to announce, but at some point, there will be another person in this job.”

“Well I want to push you to make news, but I don’t want to push you out the door,” O’Donnell said.

But while CNN reported that NBC News staffers are annoyed that Conde would bring Psaki into the fold when she’s still working as Biden’s mouthpiece, the former high-level staffer called the whole ordeal “silly.” 

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“Whoever is leaking that just wants to let people know NBC News is supposedly independent,” the ex-employee said. 

Another MSNBC insider told Fox News Digital, however, that there have been tensions between NBC’s White House unit and MSNBC in the past over the latter’s progressive content, putting the former in an “uncomfortable” position. They said that’s cooled of late as MSNBC’s dayside programming as become more news-heavy, as opposed to its staunchly liberal content that begins at 4 p.m. each day with Nicolle Wallace’s “Deadline: White House.”

Psaki’s dalliance with MSNBC and its reputation for defending the Biden administration was fodder for comic Trevor Noah at last weekend’s White House Correspondents Dinner.

Addressing Psaki, he said, “Right now your job is to make the Biden administration look good at all costs. Now that you’re at MSNBC … hmm, actually, you’ll be fine.”

MSNBC enduring Maddow absences, Psaki ethics drama as it seeks identity in Biden era

MSNBC continues to take heat after Rachel Maddow announced she would cut 80% of her on-air schedule to focus on other projects.
(Virginia Sherwood/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images)

Watchdogs aren’t impressed with how Psaki is handling the situation, however.

“It’s absurd that she’s essentially holding two jobs at once – working for the White House while she’s an MSNBC-host-in-waiting. She needs to leave the White House immediately and stop the charade,” Krakauer said.

University of North Carolina journalism professor Lois Boynton, a fellow at the Parr Center for Ethics, is aware that jumping from the press secretary gig to a news role isn’t anything new, but Psaki’s situation differs from her predecessors because she’s still fielding questions in the James S. Brady Briefing Room on a regular basis and will soon be offering her opinion for the partisan network. 

“While most political-to-news transitions are to analyst roles, it appears Psaki will be a host for what NBC News president Noah Oppenheim referred to as MSNBC’s ‘perspective programming side;’ that is, opinion programs,” Boynton told Fox News Digital. 

Boynton noted that ethics codes for the Public Relations Society of America and Radio Television Digital News Association both address concerns about real, potential and perceived conflicts of interest.

“Bottom line: avoid these conflicts and dis any that materialize,” Boynton said. “The perceptions that can emerge are valid. Will her current employer fear she might favor reporters with scoops in what is presumed to be her next job destination? Will MSNBC reporters ask softball questions since she’s possibly a peer-to-be? And, ultimately, how will public trust in the news be affected?”

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Boynton feels it’s “evident that some NBC News journalists fear this conflict will rub off” on them as a sister network of MSNBC, which they believe may “further harm their own reputation and trustworthiness.” 

“There could be further guilt by association if the public presumes this to be another piece of evidence that media generally can’t be trusted,” Boynton said. “A shift from press secretary to an MSNBC role, in and of itself, isn’t inherently unethical. It’s knowing Psaki is expected to shift into a role with MSNBC before she has left her present position that results in a conflict of interest. As they say, timing is everything.” 

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