The Biggest Scandals To Hit MSNBC

On December 14, 1995, Microsoft Corporation and the National Broadcasting Company announced a merger and plans to create a 24-hour cable news channel with an accompanying online news service. As reported by The Baltimore Sun, the channel was expected to be in direct competition with the already successful CNN. At the onset, the merger was met with skepticism, as there were concerns that Microsoft would have the opportunity and ability to influence the news covered by MSNBC. However, then-NBC President Bob Wright insisted Microsoft would “have no role in the editorial, the new-gathering.” The Atlantic reports the partnership between Microsoft and NBC lasted until July 2012, when it was announced the companies were severing ties. Although Microsoft was no longer part of MSNBC, the channel retained its name and revamped its website.

Like most media organizations, MSNBC has had its share of controversies. As early as 2007, the channel has been accused of having a bias toward left-leaning and progressive issues and political candidates. As reported by  The Washington Post, in 2008, John McCain’s campaign senior strategist said the channel was “a partisan advocacy organization that exists for the purpose of attacking John McCain.” That same year, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman said MSNBC displayed an obvious bias against Clinton and had essentially become “the Obama campaign chair.”

In addition to accusations of left-leaning and other political bias, MSNBC has faced numerous scandals involving its hosts, which have ranged from accusations of sexual impropriety to blatant racism.

Michael Savage made anti-gay remarks about a caller on the air

Michael Savage’s radio career began in 1994 on San Francisco’s KGO, where he initially filled in for another host, People Pill reports. Over the next decade, his talk radio show, “The Savage Nation,” became nationally syndicated and attracted millions of listeners. Throughout his radio career, Savage criticized MSNBC on numerous occasions. However, he accepted a deal with the network to turn his radio show into a one-hour talk show. Although the network’s decision was met with some criticism, People Pill reports MSNBC president Erik Sorenson said Savage was “brash, passionate and smart,” and would provide viewers with a “compelling opinion and analysis with an edge.”

During a July 2003 show, Savage received a call from someone he perceived to be a prank caller. As reported by Entertainment Weekly, he called the man a “sodomite” and said he should “get AIDS and die.” He then went on to call him a “piece of garbage” and told him to “go eat a sausage and choke on it.” Savage ultimately apologized and claimed he thought he was off the air when he received the call. Nevertheless, Savage was fired and MSNBC immediately canceled the show; he had only been working for the network for four months at the time of his dismissal. 

The controversial cancellation of Donahue

In February 2003, MSNBC canceled Phil Donahue’s talk show after just seven months. Although the channel cited low ratings, the cancellation of the show remains controversial, as some sources suggest Donahue was targeted for the content of his program.

As reported by CBS News, 2002 “sweeps” month viewership for the Phil Donahue show averaged 446,000 viewers. In contrast, Connie Chung’s show, which debuted around the same time as “Donahue,” had an average of 985,000 viewers. MSNBC expected the liberal-leaning “Donahue” to offer viewers an alternative to Fox’s “The O’Reilly Factor,” which appealed to a more conservative audience. However, O’Reilly’s viewership surpassed 2.5 million viewers, while Donahue struggled to reach 450,000. In an interview with CBS News, MSNBC president Erik Sorenson said, “We’re disappointed that the show was not able to attract the viewership we had hoped for and expected.”

Although MSNBC insists its decision was based solely on viewership numbers, other sources suggest otherwise. As reported by All Your TV, MSNBC commissioned a study to determine ways to improve the channel’s programming. The final report, which was shared with All Your TV by “an NBC News insider,” reportedly stated that Donahue was “a tired, left-wing liberal out of touch with the current marketplace.” The report also suggested Donahue “seems to delight in presenting guests who are anti-war, anti-Bush and skeptical of the administration’s motives.” Donahue’s show was reportedly canceled within weeks of MSNBC receiving the report. 

Don Imus used racial slurs when referring to a women's basketball team

MSNBC was forced to cancel its televised simulcast of the “Imus in the Morning” radio show after Don Imus referred to a women’s basketball team using a racial slur. As reported by Reuters, Imus and his colleagues were discussing the NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship — specifically the Rutgers University Women’s basketball team — during the show broadcast on April 4, 2007. Amid their discussion, Imus referred to women on the Rutgers team as “nappy-headed hos.” The host apologized to the Rutgers women’s basketball team and the public for his comments, but MSNBC refused to reverse its decision.

As reported by Today, NBC News President Steve Capus made the decision to cancel the televised simulcast after receiving “thousands of emails” about the incident and discussing the impact of Imus’ comment with his colleagues and the general public. When explaining his decision to cancel the televised show, Capus said it was “not a particularly happy moment, but it needed to happen.”

In addition to the public outcry, MSNBC received notices from a number of its top advertisers, including American Express, GlaxoSmithKline, GM, and Sprint, which all threatened to suspend advertising if the show was not canceled. Capus denied reports that his decision to cancel the show had anything to do with advertising revenue. But as reported by Reuters, GM alone spent $692,000 on advertisements during MSNBC’s simulcast of “Imus in the Morning.”

MSNBC anchor celebrated Cinco de Mayo on air with a sombrero, maracas, and a bottle of tequila

On May 5, 2014, Thomas Roberts, who hosted MSNBC’s “Way Too Early” show, celebrated Cinco de Mayo by wearing a sombrero, shaking maracas, and seemingly drinking a bottle of tequila. Although similar props are used in Cinco de Mayo celebrations throughout the United States, they are considered to be stereotypical, insensitive, and inappropriate for cultural commemoration.

In a written statement provided by CNN, Hugo Balta, president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, said Thomas Roberts’ use of the props and his behavior was ” the worst example [he had] seen of a discriminatory stereotypical portrayal of any community by any media.” Balta emphasized the fact that it “was a planned segment where many decision-makers at MSNBC’s ‘Way Too Early’ program agreed on the content and execution which concluded on what was seen nationwide.”

As reported by CNN, Roberts apologized for his behavior in the segment via Twitter. In addition to stating that his behavior was not meant to be “disrespectful,” he explained that he was simply making “sarcastic references to the way some Americans celebrate the holiday.” Roberts also issued an on-air apology to his viewers. Although he wasn’t fired, ProjectQ reports Roberts ultimately left MSNBC in 2018 to become an anchor in his hometown of Atlanta, Georgia.

Chris Matthews resigned amid accusations of 'inappropriate flirting'

In March 2020, Chris Matthews announced his immediate retirement from MSNBC amid allegations that he made inappropriate comments to and about several women. As reported by USA Today, the allegations that prompted Matthews’ resignation were made by journalist Laura Bassett, who was a guest on his political talk show “Hardball.”

According to Bassett, Chris Matthews approached her while she was getting her makeup done for her appearance on the show. Bassett said Matthews asked her, “Why haven’t I fallen in love with you yet?” He then told the makeup artist, “Keep putting makeup on her, I’ll fall in love with her.” Bassett noted that she was particularly taken aback because she was scheduled to appear on “Hardball” to discuss sexual assault allegations against then-president Donald Trump. USA Today reports Matthews approached the makeup artist again and said, “Make sure you wipe this off her face after the show. We don’t make her up so some guy at a bar can look at her like this.”

As reported by GQ, Matthews has a reputation for making inappropriate comments to and about women. Throughout his career, he was accused of repeatedly commenting on women’s appearances and clothing, rating his female guests based on their appearance, and announcing his choice for the “hottest of the week.” Following his retirement, Matthews confessed some of his comments were “inappropriate in the workplace.” As reported by USA Today, he also admitted the allegations were “highly justified.”

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