Dan Abrams is the founder of Mediaite, hosts a daily radio show on the SiriusXM POTUS channel, and hosts a new 8 pm primetime show on NewsNation.
We sat down to chat about his new show, the racialization of the Gabby Petito case, the big three cable news networks, Rachel Maddow’s future, and his plans for Mediaite.
Bobby Burack: NewsNation first branded itself as straight news, with no strong opinions. That’s not something many viewers want, according to focus group findings. You’ve also said before that you don’t think straight news shows can find an audience. So how did your new show at NewsNation come about?
Dan Abrams: Thanks for having me, Bobby. So the first conversation was actually about something not related to me being on the air with them. It was a business conversation about one of my other businesses and a possible partnership, etc. And one of the things that was part of the conversation was talking about news and what NewsNation was doing. And my position was that if you’re going to do a 24/7 news network, which they eventually are starting in 2023, then you’re going to have to have a primetime lineup that’s more than just the newscasts that we have seen again and again.
Newscasts don’t work on cable, as you know, Bobby. The best example is Shepard Smith on CNBC. Shepard does a solid newscast, one that’s really well produced. But no one’s watching. When I say no one’s watching, I mean by CNBC standards, even no one’s watching. So it hasn’t worked. They’ve never worked on cable, really.
So I don’t think that that’s the way you’re going to get viewers. Why? Because people can get that information from the internet. So you have to do analysis and opinions. And NewsNation has some of that with Leland Vittert, who came from Fox News. He’s doing opinion analysis. Ashleigh Banfield is doing opinion analysis now. Of course, that’s certainly what I’m doing. You have to have that to make it work on cable news.
Burack: One of the selling points of your new show is that you bring on both liberals and conservatives. Most cable news shows don’t do that anymore. I assume the data doesn’t support them going back.
While a show that features both sides sounds intriguing, is that what cable news viewers actually want? I don’t know the answer.
Abrams: That’s right. The key for me is to not sit in the middle of a debate on my own show. I don’t want to bring on a conservative and a liberal and let them debate. That’s a super lazy way to do a cable news show. Anyone can host that show, right? Does it mean that you don’t really have to do the work? The harder stuff is — and by the way, there are cables, hosts that are doing some of this — bringing on people to challenge yourself on both sides.
For example, the other night, I did a story on the Kyle Rittenhouse trial, which is upcoming. It’s the guy in Kenosha, who shot three people during one of the 2020 riots. And my position was a big ruling about a judge saying that the prosecutors can’t refer to the three people as victims because the claim is self-defense. We don’t know if they were victims yet. I felt that that made sense. That ruling was sensible. And I brought on someone from a very left-leaning publication to debate me on it. The person felt that that was an outrage that the judge was trying to rig it so that Rittenhouse gets off. I thought it was really interesting. We didn’t yell at each other, but we disagreed. I think it makes for an interesting conversation.
The problem that these cable news hosts have, a lot of them, is that they pretend to be objective journalists. “Oh, I’m just correct,” they think. Like, stop. You’re not objective. Stop pretending and you won’t get yourself into trouble. Just admit it. And that’s what I do. I call my show to say, “Look, here’s where I’m coming down on this topic.” I’m not pretending, I’m not faking that.
So what I’m hoping is I get enough of an audience of people who say, “I don’t always agree with Abrams, but I respect the fact that he’s generally somewhere in the middle.” I want to be up front, so the viewers don’t feel like I have any hidden biases.
I want to be a place for people who think that Fox has become way too radical to the right, or the ones who think MSNBC and CNN have gone too far to the left. And I’m hoping that people want analysis.
Burack: CNN mostly bashes only Fox News. Meanwhile, conservative outlets focus almost entirely on the biases of CNN. I find that odd. MSNBC is wackier than both Fox and CNN — there’s almost no doubt at this point.
MSNBC ranks third in the 25-54 demo and could lose Rachel Maddow from its daily line in the spring. Therefore, MSNBC faces the most question marks of the three cable news networks. So why does MSNBC receive less media coverage than CNN and Fox News when, in reality, MSNBC faces the most uncertainty?
Abrams: Well, as you know, I own a website called Mediaite. On my website, you will see MSNBC wackiness that is covered on the site. It’s interesting because I don’t deal with the day-to-day stuff that goes on at Mediaite. I don’t know what they’re publishing, etc. But I am involved in the big picture: hires, the balance of the site, and how we do what we do. So I am always hyper-focused on trying to ensure we have conservatives who are watching MSNBC and liberals who are watching Fox. That’s because they’re the ones who are going to be watching and saying, “Oh my God, did you see that?”
I totally agree with you that I think that MSNBC has more “gotcha” sort of crazy moments than CNN, particularly on the weekend. That’s where Joy Reid came from. I think she’s certainly amongst the MSNBC hosts that are most controversial, in terms of what she says and how far she goes. So, there is definitely room for criticism and highlighting of MSNBC.
Here’s my theory: Fox News focuses more on CNN because CNN claims to be objective. I don’t even think MSNBC is claiming it. Well, I don’t know. Maybe they do. I don’t know if you were to ask Chris Hayes or Lawrence O’Donnell or Joy Reid if they are objective journalists, they’d say yes. But I guess it’s possible.
Burack: How can MSNBC survive without Rachel Maddow daily, should she exercise her option in 2022?
Right now, Maddow draws a million more viewers than Chris Hayes, who airs before her, and Lawrence O’Donnell, who follows her. Thus, she’s more valuable to her network than anyone else is to theirs.
Abrams: Look, I find it hard to believe that Rachel Maddow is actually going to a weekly show. Maybe I’m wrong. That’s been my thought since the minute I heard she signed that. They are allowing her to go to a weekly show for, whatever, $30 million a year? It just doesn’t make any sense for exactly the reasons you’re laying out. MSNBC just can’t afford to lose her. They don’t have the marquee voice without Rachel Maddow, who raises all ships there, right before and after.
So my bet is that Rachel Maddow will not be going to a weekly show. What do you say?
Burack: If I were wagering, I bet she stays past 2022 as well.
Dan, I found it predictable and lazy that the media claimed that the Gabby Petito saga received coverage only because she was white. I wrote a column challenging that. The novel-like feel of the story generated far more interest than Petito’s skin color.
You also covered that story closely. Were you bothered or surprised by the media’s claims?
Abrams: Well, there’s also the piece that social media sleuths around the country helped solve it with tips from people, right? That, to me, is one of the great elements of this story: how involved ordinary folks were in helping crack the case.
I will tell you that I am the person, whether it was on NBC or ABC, was the guy who — in the mornings on the Today Show and then on Good Morning America — when there was one of these kinds of tabloid-ish trials or cases or investigations, they called. It used to be true that there was a bias towards missing white women. It was, like, every week there was someone else missing. I don’t think that that’s been the case anymore. And I can tell you that because I haven’t been doing Good Morning America on missing white women for years now. I’ve been doing a whole variety of other kinds of stories. The Today Show has been following that as well. They just haven’t been doing that for the last 10 years.
The Petito case broke out for a lot of reasons, many of which you lay out. So I agree with you and I take offense to the people who say you’re only covering this because she’s a white woman. I’m covering it because this is a great story.
The one bias that I think still exists in the media is whether the people are attractive. That probably makes a difference, which is I’m not defending in any way. I’m just saying that there is still a bias. There’s a bias towards attractive news people, there’s a bias in Hollywood. So I think that that may be a little bit of an issue. But I said this before: if you had the exact same fact pattern, with the exact same video leading up to it, with a very attractive woman of color, who is putting up videos of herself with her partner before she goes missing, I think there would still have been a national fascination with this story.
Burack: Brian Laundrie’s villainous role was a key factor in the interest. Every story needs a bad guy. I’m not sure the media would’ve comfortably bashed him early in the process had he not been white a guy, had he been a man of color. Networks feel safer attacking a white guy or a white family — that’s obvious.
That’s where race comes into play in missing white female cases — the perpetrator is often a white man. Have you found that’s the case?
Abrams: I don’t know about that. No, I don’t buy that.
The story had all of the elements for all of the reasons you laid out: a couple goes on a trip, the guy comes back, he then goes missing, there’s the parents, the social media sleuths. There are several reasons a news story pops. They must have multiple layers.
Think about OJ Simpson, the perfect example of something that had everything. It wasn’t just that OJ Simpson happened to be one of the most famous people in America. At the time of his trial, the OJ case had the race element, it had domestic violence, it had a history of police issues. It was all the sort of things that had been percolating in society all coming into one case, which turned it from just the celebrity trial into a worldwide mega event.
Burack: There’s an appetite to acquire media sites right now. Barstool, The Ringer, OutKick have all sold in the past year and a half. Have you looked to sell your companies, namely Mediaite?
Abrams: So for some of my properties, I’m happy to sell. I sold out a sports site called SportsGrid, which is now a fantasy sports site and network. I had a site called GossipCop, which corrected false reporting and gossip, which I sold. And yes, there are other sites that I have that I would certainly be interested in selling. However, Mediaite is fun. I enjoy owning it. I’m not looking to sell it. I enjoy being a part of it.
So it’s funny because I’ve been approached about either selling or partnering on Mediaite. And my response when it comes to Mediaite is always: “The numbers that you would have to give me to want to sell Mediaite are gonna be way out of the ballpark.” That’s because I like it, right?
I also like Law & Crime, which is a fantastic network I built. But that’s a business with investors. So that’s a full cable network and OTT network with a massive website and production arm. So with something like that, I really have to be more focused on it. With Mediaite, I don’t have any investors. I can do whatever I want with it. So it depends on the property. But right now, I’m always interested in looking to potentially sell or build out, but not necessarily for everything I own.