Why Are the Times, the Post, and MSNBC on a Conservative Hiring Spree?

Five theories.

Bret Stephens, George Will.

Bret Stephens and George Will.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo via Wikimedia Commons, Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images.

MSNBC announced Monday that it has hired George F. Will as a contributor, adding yet another conservative talker to its rapidly expanding roster of them. Two weeks ago, the cable news network gave former George W. Bush adviser Nicolle Wallace a 4 p.m. show. Former Fox News star Greta Van Susteren took over its 6 p.m. slot in January. And it has reportedly offered talk radio host Hugh Hewitt a show, as well. MSNBC is giving out shows to conservative pundits like Oprah giving out G6s.

Remember when the network embraced its liberal reputation with the tagline “Lean Forward”? These days it’s running ads suggesting that people might accuse it of conservative bias—and it’s only half-joking.

MSNBC isn’t the only major media organization that’s tacking rightward lately. The New York Times’ opinion section infuriated its liberal loyalists last month by giving the former Wall Street Journal never-Trumper Bret Stephens an op-ed column, which he promptly used to question climate science and criticize clean-energy policies. In a sign that demand for prominent conservative pundits has surpassed supply, the same Hewitt that MSBNC is pursuing also landed a major op-ed column two months ago, signing on with the Washington Post.

The realignment would make perfect sense if media outlets whose audiences skewed liberal were struggling in the Trump era. But it’s just the opposite. MSNBC just posted its highest-ever quarterly ratings, beating centrist CNN in prime time. The Times reported record-breaking subscriber growth. The Post is aggressively expanding amid record online traffic and ad revenue. The last two have been running PR campaigns aiming to capitalize on discontent with Trump’s election. And they’re all getting pushback from the left on each conservative hire, with some even publicly canceling their Times subscriptions to protest Stephens.

So what’s behind the conservative-commentator craze? Let’s consider the possibilities.

1. News organizations are making a play for conservative audiences.

Hard as it is to imagine conservatives suddenly flocking to MSNBC or the NYT op-ed page, some ad copywriters at MSNBC at least seem to have managed to imagine just that. It also seems to be the default explanation among industry observers. Quartz suggested that MSNBC is “courting conservatives” in a bid to capitalize on the upheaval at Fox News, whose sexual harassment scandals have led to a personnel overhaul and may have dented its brand.

The success of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, hosted by former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough, lends at least some plausibility to the idea that conservatives are open to flipping away from Fox News under the right circumstances. (Trump does.) And while MSNBC fans were hardly clamoring for Greta Van Susteren, she posted decent enough ratings in her first quarter there.

“People might start accusing us of leaning too far to the right” is probably not a line we’ll hear from the Times, although with Stephens joining David Brooks and Ross Douthat on the op-ed roster, it is starting to look a bit like the Never-Trump All-Stars. The Post, meanwhile, has long boasted a bipartisan op-ed page, lending its platform to neocons Michael Gerson, Jennifer Rubin, and don’t-call-him-a-neocon Charles Krauthammer, along with Kathleen Parker and, yes, George Will. This hasn’t exactly made it a darling of the modern conservative movement, but perhaps it’s at least enough to keep the capital’s Republican old guard filling out their renewal cards each year.

The problem with this explanation is that these outlets’ liberal reputations were cemented long ago, at least in the eyes of the right. They might lure a few center-right channel-surfers and die-hard anti-Trumpers. But from a pure business perspective, it’s hard to imagine those gains outweighing the damage these hires are doing to their liberal bona fides, especially when their own PR campaigns seem to be targeting the progressive resistance. MSNBC’s ratings so far seem to bear this out: Its progressive voices are far outperforming the conservative and centrist ones.

2. They’re trying to puncture their audiences’ filter bubbles.

What if these moves aren’t really about attracting new audiences but better serving the ones they already have? In this rather charitable interpretation, which the Times has repeatedly advanced on its own behalf, left-appealing outlets understand that ideological echo chambers can lead to polarization, lazy thinking, and partisan self-congratulation (or, in liberals’ case recently, self-flagellation). Progressives may find Stephens’ views on, say, climate change or campus rape to be obnoxious. Or they may find Will’s views on, um, climate change or campus rape to be, well, obnoxious. But, under this theory, it’s important to be exposed to such views regardless, lest liberals somehow forget that the country is still run primarily by middle-aged white men who pride themselves on defending the status quo.

Yet if this were really about ideological breadth, there are plenty of fresher voices that these outlets could be elevating over the likes of Stephens and Will. We’ve been hearing from their Republican-establishment ilk for decades, and they’re just as out-of-step with the Trump movement as their Democratic counterparts. Why not hire a populist, or a socialist, or a poor person from the South? The uniformity of these conservative additions belies the notion that this is really about representing a diversity of perspectives.

3. This is really all a big PR scam.

OK, time to get cynical. Nothing about these hires is going to change the fact that MSNBC and the Times mostly embody liberal values and appeal to liberal audiences, any more than Fox News hiring a liberal or two would change its position in the marketplace. These hires are really about perceptions, reputations, and plausible deniability.

It’s one thing to lean left as a journalistic organization in the United States and quite another to admit that you lean left. The former is common and does not disqualify you from mainstream media status, even if it does win you a spot on Trump’s “fake news” list. The latter—that is, copping to your true values—is antithetical to the hoary journalistic principle of objectivity. It’s an ideal that almost no self-reflective member of the media really believes in yet that almost everyone is obliged to pay lip service to, because it’s the premise on which news organizations have sold themselves to the public over the past 150 years. You can see this in the famous Fox News slogan “Fair and Balanced,” which is a punchline to those in the know but which many of its viewers actually believe. “All the news that’s fit to print” is also disingenuous, at least to anyone familiar with the story-selection process at a national newspaper, yet it remains on the Times’ front page to this day for similar reasons.

MSNBC and the Times, in this view, aren’t really courting conservative audiences, nor are they trying to challenge liberal ones. Rather, they’re courting nervous advertisers who crave at least a veneer of nonpartisanship so as to avoid alienating half the country. Perhaps more than that, they’re gathering ammunition with which to fight back against charges of liberal bias. The likes of Stephens, Van Susteren, Hewitt, and Will may not change many minds or attract many new ones. But they make for handy shields that their employers can hold up whenever they’re accused of becoming too insular: If we’re so liberal, why do we have so many prominent conservatives on staff?

If that’s the strategy, the backlash from the left starts to look less like a downside and more like an essential part of the plan. The furor over Stephens’ column, for instance, sets the paper in very public opposition to its lefty readers. Don’t be surprised to hear Times higher-ups remind us of it the next time they’re accused of liberal pandering.

4. We’re looking at this all wrong.

What if the reason this question is so hard to answer is that it rests on a backward premise?  Perhaps MSNBC, the Times, and the Post aren’t really beating down the doors of conservative pundits at all—it’s the conservative pundits who are beating down theirs.

Over the course of the Republican primary campaign, most conservative commentators abandoned their previous principles and hopped on the Trump train, some more convincingly than others. Those who didn’t have largely been cast out of the fold. Stephens and Will, in particular, have stuck emphatically to their anti-Trump stances, while Hewitt’s election-eve conversion wasn’t enough to make people forget his earlier calls for Trump to withdraw. Wallace, for her part, broke with the party’s Sarah Palin wing after the 2008 election, while Van Susteren fled Fox News along with several other of its top female journalists in the waning days of Roger Ailes’ evidently abusive tenure. In a Trump-led Republican party, all five of these conservatives find themselves on the outside looking in. This can’t fully explain why mainstream media organizations were so eager to snap them up, of course. But it may at least illuminate the trend’s origins.

5. They’re just picking the best opinion journalists for the job, regardless of ideology.

Ha! Just kidding, that’s not really a possible explanation. I mean, have you read a George Will column lately?