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May 30, 2013 5:02 PM Are Liberals Souring on Politics?

By Ed Kilgore

There’s a pretty big and alarming fear bouncing around progressive opinion circles that has been forced into the open by reports of a really bad ratings month for MSNBC: maybe liberals are (relatively speaking) souring on politics! Before anyone says it, no, this apparent progressive media slough of depression cannot be attributed to some Dickmorrisian sudden magical trend to the Right in public opinion: there’s no evidence of it whatsoever in any public opinion research. It’s hard to attribute it to any decline in the quality or content of progressive political content, either. In the case of MSNBC, the only thing that changed before May was the replacement of Ed Schultz by Chris Hayes, and it’s hard to imagine that displeased large numbers of viewers.

Salon’s Alex Pareene looked at the MSNBC phenomenon the other day, and offered these observations, after noting that the show taking the real pounding in ratings has been Morning Joe, hardly a liberal-magnet:

It’s simplistic to say that viewers aren’t watching because the president’s having a bad news cycle. Bad news is often good for ratings. Liberals like to watch Republicans portrayed as big scary meanies when they’re not watching them be presented as inept nutso clowns. There was no such thing as liberal cable news during the Clinton impeachment, but if there had been I guarantee it would’ve been a hit. Maybe — maybe! — some viewers are tuning out because they’re not hearing enough of an unqualified defense of the president and his administration from some of MSNBC’s more left-leaning voices. But I’d guess that’s still not enough people to make a huge ratings difference.
Perhaps there just isn’t a huge, permanent, year-round liberal audience for political news and discussion. Which is effectively all MSNBC does, because political discussion is cheap as hell, and gets good ratings when certain periods and certain personalities align. Young liberals tune in during election years. The rest of the time they keep up with the news online (or on “The Daily Show”) and spend their evenings watching actual TV. Like, “Game of Thrones” and stuff.

Expanding beyond television to the lag in web traffic (which can no longer be attributed to mere post-election fatigue) all of us progressive bloggers have noticed, Digby adds some thoughts:

I’m with [P]areene that if the Republicans really get crazy, the audience will come back. Short of that (or something else catastrophic) my impression is that liberals are either bored or disillusioned right now for any number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that a liberal majority has been effectively obstructed and the president seems to be ineffectual. (I realize that political scientists tell us that the presidency isn’t very powerful, but most people don’t believe that since we’ve extolled the office as the most powerful on earth for decades.)
We’ve been through a number of elections, crises, other ups and downs over the past decade but I’ve not seen anything like the drop in interest over the past few months. If it was just me I’d attribute it to my little project having run its course but it’s happening across the liberal media spectrum. I don’t now what the answer is, but it isn’t that there isn’t a permanent audience. There was until very recently. It’s that the liberal audience is tuning out and one can only assume it’s because they don’t like what they see in our politics.

I’m sure there are other semi-plausible theories, mostly involving a ritual incantation of the words “social media” followed by the unsupported suggestion that cable shows and blogs are so 2008. But since the same phenomenon doesn’t appear to be occurring on the Right despite the debacle of 2012, it remains a bit of a mystery, and if it doesn’t last, maybe one that can occupy journalism students down the road.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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