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3 Reasons MSNBC (Surprisingly!) Has Less Liberal Audience Than Some

MSNBC’s audience is less liberal than that of the New York Times, Politico, NPR or Washington Post. Hate-watching can’t explain it all. What’s the reason?


The Pew Research Journalism Project is looking at political polarization. In a new report, they determined the ideological composition of audiences for the media outlets they studied. Here’s a graphic showing where those audiences lie on the political spectrum:

Would you check that out? The MSNBC audience is somehow more ideologically moderate than the audiences of BuzzFeed, PBS, BBC, Huffington Post, Washington Post, The Economist, Politico, Daily Show, The Guardian, Al Jazeera America, NPR, Colbert Report, New York Times, New Yorker and Slate?

This might be confusing since MSNBC is the butt of many jokes, what with programs featuring Ronan Farrow and a small viewing audience. MSNBC is known for employing shrill partisans, complete idiots, and sometimes both in the same package. But here are three reasons why MSNBC’s audience might be more ideologically balanced than that of the New York Times:

1) Conservatives love hate-watching it.

Maybe the MSNBC audience pings a bit less liberal than you’d assume because it has so many conservatives watching it. You have to admit that watching MSNBC can be hilarious. As proof, I offer the following video presented by the Washington Free Beacon:

And that one isn’t even half as funny as this one, also featuring Al Sharpton:

But even as small as MSNBC’s audience is, all the staff of the Free Beacon combined probably don’t register much of a blip. Let’s try another theory.

2) Moderates aren’t high-information viewers

“[M]oderates possess lower levels of political information and are less likely to be politically engaged than those who are closer to one of the ideological poles,” wrote Christopher Hare and Keith T. Poole earlier this year in The Washington Post. Let’s say you’re a liberal-leaning moderate who isn’t interested in politics or informed about politics. Are you going to read The Economist? Or are you going to flip on MSNBC and listen to Ed Schultz? Wait, neither? OK, maybe this theory doesn’t explain so much.

3) These other outlets are actually more liberal than MSNBC.

Maybe we’ve been too hard on MSNBC. No, really. Although I’d first like to tell a joke someone told me about whether I should appear on Al Jazeera. He said, “If you wanted to appear on a radical-left America-hating tool of international elites, why not MSNBC?” But it appears that Al Jazeera really does appeal to a more liberal audience than MSNBC.

But everyone’s audience is more liberal than MSNBC’s! Slate is so left it’s at the extreme, along with The New Yorker. (Yes, the magazine featuring the comedic stylings of Andy Borowitz.) Congratulations, guys: Al Jazeera is more moderate than you are.

Now I know everyone says that The Economist is the magazine you pay $110 a year for and only pretend to read, but what does it say that liberals are the ones most inclined to do just that? And as for The Daily Show, saying you watch Jon Stewart is sort of a way of outing yourself as likely more liberal than an MSNBC viewer. Which is why it’s so fascinating to see journalists rush to praise that show.

In any case, if we’re fond of saying that FOX News is conservative and MSNBC is liberal, what word should we use to describe the many media outlets — including PBS, Washington Post, Politico, NPR, and New York Times — that are to the left of MSNBC in terms of audience ideology?

I mean, if MSNBC is liberal — and it obviously is — what does that make the Washington Post? What does that make Politico? Why are their audiences so far to the left of MSNBC’s? Don’t expect any soul-searching from (liberal) media types. Here’s a liberal asserting that the echo chamber on the left is totally no problem. And here’s another liberal writer saying the same.

Erik Wemple, the media critic at the Washington Post (which serves an audience way more liberal than even MSNBC!), simply used this study as a way to put the phrase “conservatives are crazy” in a headline. His analysis apart from that was along the lines of what other liberal media outlets offered. He later imagined that the huge non-conservative audience of FOX News (55%!) must be watching for “opposition research.”

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Interesting. In any case, I’m sure the struggle to gain conservative readers and listeners at The New York Times, The Washington Post and NPR and Politico has nothing whatsoever to do with the quality of the media product itself. Can’t be that.