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On the Legacy of Ed Schultz and What His Move to the Weekend Means

Ed Schultz and Michigan Congressman John Conyers, Jr.

I started following Ed Schultz, the beefy, loud mouthed, pro-labor MSNBC anchor on Twitter a year ago last spring when Pennsylvania education cuts were starting to reverberate across the state.  This forced thousands of K-12 schools to cut art, band, music, drama, and science programs. Right around this time, the Pittsburgh Opera decided to give Governor Tom Corbett a lifetime achievement award for his contributions to the arts and Pittsburghers staged a raucous rally to protest Corbett’s award and to bring attention to the cuts. Schultz caught wind of the statewide crisis and helped to focus attention on it by giving it ample coverage on his show.

Schultz, occupying the coveted 8:00 PM slot for two years, from 2011 to 2013, was the only MSNBC host who seemed to be following the school cuts as closely as I was. Watching Schultz I had the feeling—one I rarely get from the mainstream media—that he was speaking for me and the thousands of other “little people” across the country who were losing their jobs, their homes, their schools, their unions, their healthcare and their dignity in the wake of the great financial collapse of 2008.

During his education coverage last spring, I watched The Ed Show almost every night, but over the course of Schultz’s tenure at MSNBC I didn’t watch as often as I should have and now I feel bad. In March of this year, Schultz announced he was moving to 5:00 PM on Saturdays and Sundays later in the spring. He claims that he “raised his hand” for the assignment but it’s hard to believe that he would voluntarily give up a prime time weekday slot for a weekend gig.

Schultz, admittedly, doesn’t look or sound like a lot of the other hosts on MSNBC. He’s 59, barrel chested, and a former football player. He was an All-American quarterback at Minnesota State University in the 1970s, played as a free agent for the Oakland Raiders, and had a short stint with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in Canada. In 1982, Schultz became a sportscaster for KTHI-TV in Fargo, North Dakota, and started calling the radio play-by-play for North Dakota State University football games. He didn’t broadcast his political opinions until the 1990s when he started adding political commentary to his sportscasts. Then, he started broadcasting “on location” in economically depressed American towns. Oddly, Schultz stayed No. 1 in his market for 10 years, “despite the fact that [his] political views changed radically—from conservative to progressive—during that time.”

As Schultz tells it, his second wife, a nurse named Wendy, was the one who brought him out of what he describes as his “right-wing darkness.” She introduced him to homeless people and veterans where she worked and encouraged him to meet with struggling Dakota plains farmers face to face. By 2009, Schultz had a successful radio show, The Ed Schultz Show, on the Jones network.  MSNBC first tapped him to host a 6:00 pm show, then a 10:00 pm show, and then moved him to the coveted 8:00 pm slot when Keith Olbermann left in a blaze of rage and bluster.

During his time at MSNBC, Schultz put his foot in his mouth at least once. In 2011, he called Laura Ingrahm a “right wing slut.” He quickly made an on-air apology and took a week off the air, without pay, as penance. But, most of the time, Schultz has been a rare champion of the working class, taking his anchor desk to Wisconsin, Ohio, and Michigan as these rust belt states have fought off attacks from Scott Walker, the Koch Brothers and the Ohio supporters of SB 5, a severely anti-union bill that was signed into law and then reversed by Ohio voters with the help Schultz’s powerful 8:00 pm newscasts. As Schultz explained in an interview with the AFT, “we’re . . . staying focused on the plight of the workers, on outsourcing, privatization, the loss of collective bargaining rights, cuts to wages, on the attacks on workers, and working on solutions that will help the working class in this country.”

Was Ed Schultz sidelined or did he go willingly? There are conflicting accounts. This blogger speculates that Schultz was pushed out because he could not make a dent in an audience attracted to the Bill O’Reilly Show, Fox’s 8:00 PM behemoth. According to The Daily Beast, though, it was Schultz’s idea to move to the weekend. He still does his radio show every day and he told his boss at MSNBC, Phil Griffin, that he wanted to spend more time with his wife who recently underwent treatment for ovarian cancer.

Ed Schultz’s replacement -- the eggheady, Nation-affiliated Chris Hayes -- is no slouch.  He created a loyal following for his weekend show, Up with Chris Hayes, over the last two years. The charm of Up was that Hayes interviewed small groups of super smart people about things they had written books about and then wowed his audience with his ability to understand everything that his guests were saying; to weave it together into a narrative and, sometimes, cut people off and referee.

Hayes is also not completely alienated from the working class. He explained to Politico that he “grew up in the Bronx,” the son of a teacher (his mother) and a community organizer (his father). In 2012, his brother worked as a paid organizer for the Obama campaign. “I come from a working-class background,” explained Hayes. “My first job was as a labor reporter for a socialist newspaper in the Midwest, called In These Times.” Hayes insists that he has a “genuine awe and admiration” for Schultz’s focus on working-class and labor issues and he says wants to continue the conversation that Schultz started.

But, Hayes has more of a challenge ahead than just paying homage to the working class. Hayes’ Up formula of intelligent conversation with learned professors, sitting Congressional representatives you’ve never heard of, and double-to-triple the number of women of color and/or gay and lesbian guests than we see on the other networks, might not play well in prime time. Hayes simply will not have as much time to talk, or to listen, as he did before. As Inside Cable News argued, the secret formula that made Up so great “is nontransferable.” Will Chris Hayes find a new way to be the bleeding-heart brainiac—in 47 minutes—that made Up so watchable?

Part of the problem here may be one of demographics. Did Ed Schultz attract an older, bluer-collar, and less affluent audience than Chris Hayes did? Does Hayes, with his fashionable specs, wry humor, and baby face (he’s only 34), represent the kind of affluent, college-educated viewer that MSNBC wants to attract? Is the working class in the US in decline—so much so that they are not even sought after as an audience for the only liberal cable news outlet on the dial?

Regardless, the MSNBC staff is probably scrambling over at Hayes’s new show, All In, because its ratings have not been great—worse than what Schultz used to pull in. As political blogger Jason Easley has argued, however, MSNBC has “time on its side.” While FOX might continue to dominate with older, more conservative viewers, cable news viewers are getting younger and more progressive with every passing year.

In the meantime, if you miss your daily dose of the pro-labor grizzly bear, Ed Schultz, check out The Ed Show online or at 5:00 PM on Saturday and Sunday. Schultz claims he will use the freedom of his new schedule to spend more time on the road talking to the working-class people he continues to see as his special cause. And he still starts every show with his signature tag line, “Let’s Get to Work.”

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