Lawrence O’Donnell has won distinction during his time at MSNBC for the verbal flourishes and deft monologues he brings to the segments of his 10 p.m. program. On Wednesday night, he had to use his powers of speech to ward off some of the scrutiny he has drawn.
The former “West Wing” writer and Congressional aide put MSNBC and its corporate sibling, NBC News, in a tight spot by tantalizing viewers with a tidbit on Tuesday night’s program that he suggested showed corruption at the highest levels of the U.S. government. On Tuesday, before taking to the desk on his “Last Word” program on MSNBC, O’Donnell posted on Twitter that “a source close to Deutsche Bank” told him “Trump’s tax returns show he pays very little income tax and, more importantly, that his loans have Russian co-signers. If true, that explains every kind word Trump has ever said about Russia and Putin.” The bank revealed Tuesday that it possessed tax documents that were of interest in an ongoing inquiry by Congress into President Trump’s’ finances. O’Donnell discussed the information with viewers on his show last night.
By Wednesday, however, the anchor found himself in the sticky position of telling viewers he should never have broached the topic. “Tonight, we are retracting the story,” he said in the opening minutes of Wednesday night’s broadcast. “I should not have said it on air or posted it on Twitter. I was wrong to do so,” he said, adding: “We don’t know whether the information is inaccurate, but the fact is we do know it wasn’t ready for broadcast, and for that I apologize.” He noted that NBC News had not verified the information from his unnamed source before he made it public.
A spokeswoman for MSNBC declined to specify what action, if any, might be taken by the network or NBC News as a result of O’Donnell’s gaffe.
O’Donnell’s quick pivot spotlights the tricky footwork all of the cable-news networks are doing in an era when merely reporting the news is no longer enough to satisfy viewers. MSNBC and its rival, Fox News Channel, regularly feature opinion hosts in their primetime hours who are more free to expand upon the day’s headlines and offer analysis and gut reaction. Even CNN, which has for decades kept to a middle-of-the-road positioning, has amped up its primetime discourse in recent years, installing two anchors in the time slot – Chris Cuomo and Don Lemon – who tend to be more aggressive questioners of the day’s headlines. “This is CNN Tonight, I’m Don Lemon. The president of the United States is racist,” Lemon said while opening his 10 p.m. hour on CNN in January of last year. “A lot of us already knew that.”
There’s reason why the news outlets have grown warm to hot takes. They bring in bigger ratings, and with them, copious amounts of revenue from advertisers and cable and satellite distributors. Fox News’ primetime lineup – Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham – combined to deliver an average of 8.99 million viewers for the month of August, according to Nielsen. NBCUniversal saw advertising commitments for MSNBC swell 30% in 2018 and 6% in this year’s recent “upfront” market – much of it driven by primetime audiences. Since joining CNN’s primetime lineup in mid-2018, Chris Cuomo’s “Cuomo Prime Time” has become the AT&T-owned network’s most-watched program.
But with those sizable audiences, the anchors also draw more intense study. Nearly every word that comes from the Fox News hosts’ lips is parsed and analyzed by Media Matters, an advocacy organization that has often called for advertisers to abandon the network. Hannity sparked controversy in 2017 by promoting a debunked theory surrounding the death of Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich, then told his viewers he would “cease” to discuss the conspiracy theory out of respect for the man’s family. Cuomo found himself in an embarrassing altercation earlier this month when a conservative provocateur drew him out while he was on vacation by taunting him with the word “Fredo,” a name from a character in the 1972 film “The Godfather” that Cuomo took as a cultural slur.
Some of O’Donnell’s actions were likely driven by a letter sent to NBC News and its parent company, NBCUniversal, by Charles Harder, an attorney for President Trump earlier Wednesday. The missive demanded that the company “immediately and prominently retract, correct and apologize for the aforementioned false and defamatory statements.” O’Donnell on Wednesday night’s broadcast acknowledged the missive on air and said the network was in fact pulling back its support of his information about Deutsche Bank.
In a different era, the cable-news primetime landscape was calmer, stocked with celebrity interviews conducted by Larry King; a spirited back-and-forth between Hannity and liberal foil Alan Colmes; or “The News,” a Brian Williams-hosted primetime news wrap for viewers who missed the traditional evening-news broadcast.
Those concepts now seem quaint. Modern cable-news viewers grew accustomed – perhaps inured? – to sharp monologues from Keith Olbermann and Bill O’Reilly, or the steely takedown of a politician by Megyn Kelly. On some nights, the cable-news hosts target each other. Olbermann and O’Reilly did it famously in 2009. On Wednesday, O’Donnell’s imbroglio spurred Fox News’ Hannity to question not only MSNBC and NBC News, but CNN as well.
And yet, all the primetime hosts are tethered to traditional news organizations that try to maintain newsgathering standards and practices. Doing so has become significantly more difficult at a time when headlines sprout on social media and via email alerts before a single word of text can be written about the latest development in politics or business.
As O’Donnell illustrated Wednesday night, there’s still a good reason to stay close to the rules – no matter how much money and attention might be gained from bending them.