MSNBC’s New 3 PM Show, “The Cycle,” Demonstrates Its Overreliance on Pundits

The program to replace Dylan Ratigan’s show has four hosts, only one of whom has any political background.

By: Garrett M. Graff

The word out from MSNBC last night that it has replaced Dylan Ratigan’s canceled 3 PM show with a new concept called The Cycle, which will begin airing on Monday, shows how fully cable news has abdicated expert authority to professional pundits.

The show’s four hosts are all existing MSNBC contributors: Two women (conservative author S.E. Cupp and Krystal Ball, a onetime congressional correspondent) and two men (music and culture journalist Touré and Salon writer Steve Kornacki).

There’s been much speculation about what would fill the underperforming afternoon slot. The Times’s Mark Leibovich joked on Twitter that “far more words [have been] spilled on ‘Who will take the MSNBC 3 p.m. slot?; question than actual viewers of MSNBC 3 p.m. slot.”

And yet the final answer to the question actually turns out to be interesting: It’s a striking lineup of hosts, specifically for its window into how political talk shows have evolved nearly a decade after Jon Stewart confronted the hosts of CNN’s political debate Crossfire for how they were “hurting America.”

Whereas Crossfire mostly featured people who had worked in politics and campaigns—its rotating set of hosts included accomplished political minds such as Robert Novak, James Carville, Geraldine Ferraro, and John Sununu—the decade since has seen the arrival of the professional pundit, famous only for giving controversial opinions.

In announcing the show, the four parried the standard political talk show talking points about wanting to reject the standard political talk show talking points.

“Hopefully we can prevent it from turning into ‘This is a Team Blue talking point’ or ‘This is a Team Red talking point,’” Kornacki told Huffington Post.

And yet that’s almost exactly what MSNBC has offered viewers.

Effectively, only one of the four new MSNBC hosts has any actual political background—Kornacki covered politics for Roll Call and the New York Observer. The other three hosts are only famous for being pundits. None has ever held elected office or worked in government. Only Ball has actually worked in politics (if you count the single losing congressional race that made her famous).

Touré’s Wikipedia bio lists him as “an American novelist, essayist, music journalist, [and] cultural critic.” Cupp is a former Glenn Beck radio host and lists herself as a “political columnist and culture critic” on her website.

Most notably, the announcement of the show’s makeup caps a stunning rise from obscurity by Ball, who just two years was completely unknown.

Last fall, the Washington Post’s Ben Pershing profiled Ball, tracing how she’s been remade into an MSNBC “Democratic strategist” despite a near-total absence of political qualifications.

As Pershing wrote, just two years ago, “Ball was a 28-year-old political novice who was running an educational software company with her husband and launching an uphill campaign against Rep. Rob Wittman (R) in Virginia’s GOP-leaning 1st District, which stretches from Fredericksburg to Newport News.”

Thanks to her odd name and some racy photos (not entirely safe for work, FYI) her campaign gained national attention, even though she was never truly competitive politically—she lost by 29 points.

The race, though, transformed her career and brought her into the bizarre circus that is daytime cable news talk shows and she became an MSNBC regular. Pershing’s piece showed how Ball was playing along, gamely researching news topics just in time to commentate on them: “Her recent booking was about the latest jobs numbers, but Ball also has to be comfortable talking about anything from Libya to labor policy. On Friday, she got the day’s topics roughly two hours before the show, giving her time to scroll through a few articles on her pink-cased iPhone.”

Now she’ll be in the mix every day—at least for those precious few watching MSNBC at 3 PM.