'The Beat' goes on for MSNBC's legal savant Ari Melber amid Trump indictments

A man holds a lighter to the camera.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

As the legal heat turns up under former President Trump, MSNBC’s Ari Melber is having a moment.

The parade of legal experts who appear daily on "The Beat With Ari Melber" includes the 2024 Republican presidential candidate's attorneys, who get ample time to make their case.

That has produced memorable encounters, such as a recent appearance by Joe Tacopina, who represented Trump in the Manhattan district attorney's investigation into hush-money payments to adult film star Stormy Daniels.

During the feisty 21-minute March exchange, Melber held up a page of a 2018 transcript, in which Trump told reporters he had no knowledge of the $130,000 paid to Daniels to cover up an alleged affair. A flustered Tacopina reached across the glass table, trying to snatch the paper away.

Despite the tense skirmish, spiced up by Melber's touch of courtroom theatrics, Tacopina told the host he was "fair" — not often the kicker for a Trump-related segment on cable news.

The unprecedented story of a former president indicted twice and the subject of two other criminal investigations has kept Melber, a lawyer who joined MSNBC as an analyst in 2013, in demand and lifted the daily program's ratings.

He is also the only news anchor who will drop a few lines from "Slippin'" by the late rapper DMX to describe the early stumbles of Gov. Ron DeSantis' presidential campaign.

MSNBC has capitalized on the discord at CNN, which has sent viewers its way by trying to accommodate more Republican voices. In May, MSNBC had a 77% advantage over CNN in average total viewers, the largest gap in the NBCUniversal-owned network's 27-year history, according to Nielsen data. MSNBC has also overtaken CNN in the 25-to-54 age group coveted by advertisers.

Melber has been a major beneficiary. His program's total audience is up 29% compared to May 2022, with a 47% increase in the 25-to-54 demographic. Melber's program drew an average of 1.4 million viewers, ranking behind Fox News but far ahead of CNN.

When news broke Thursday that Trump was indicted by a federal grand jury on charges related to his handling of classified documents, Melber appeared across MSNBC's prime-time lineup and all day Friday, breaking down the case in the conversational style he employs on his own program.

"O.J. had the book 'If I Did It.' Trump's book would be 'I Did It,'" Melber said during one broadcast. "He starts out in a hole that's worse than most defendants."

Melber’s reach goes well beyond the dwindling number of people who watch cable television. His program has accumulated more than 1.27 billion total views on YouTube since it launched in 2017, more than any other personality's at the network.

Read more: Jen Psaki will now ask the questions on MSNBC

Attracting viewers on digital platforms is an ongoing challenge for the traditional TV news business.

But Melber has embraced it, connecting with "MSNBC moms" — a term describing the network's rabid core fans — around the world. He recently attended a Spanish guitarist's performance at a club on Manhattan's Lower East Side. After the performance, the artist approached him.

"I'm thinking, 'Maybe he's into the news,'" said Melber, 43, in a recent interview at his Rockefeller Plaza office. "He goes, 'My mom in Spain watches you every day. Every morning I wake up and there's a new YouTube video of you from her."'

Before joining MSNBC, Melber practiced law as a protégé of legendary 1st Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams. While Melber spent some time before his legal career working in Democratic politics, he is no longer a registered member of a political party.

He is an opinionated, but not partisan, advocate ("Follow the facts" is his mantra), which keeps "The Beat" in a neutral zone between never-Trumper Nicole Wallace's program, "Deadline: White House," and the lineup of liberal commentators that follow him in prime time.

“The way Ari engages in conversations is refreshing," said Michael Steele, the former Republican National Committee chairman who has been an MSNBC regular since 2011. "Before you get to the more partisan discussions on the evening shows, he gives you some grounding that you can refer back to and rely on."

Read more: MSNBC's 'Morning Joe' tries to keep cable news smart while expanding to four hours

Melber books entertainers and artists as guests for the back end of his program, including longer conversations on an occasional segment called "Mavericks." Some of them have become pals, such as "Curb Your Enthusiasm" regular Richard Lewis, who coined the name "Beatniks" for the show's followers.

"He's fearless when he interviews people who give him problems," Lewis said by phone. "He stares them down like a prizefighter in the ring."

Lewis says Melber shifts from heavy news topics to pop culture chatter with the ease of a late-night talk show host.

"He can take a joke, and he can give a joke," Lewis said. "Although I sometimes tease him about his one-liners — ‘That joke, it would have been good, but you’re not in front of the Supreme Court.’”

Melber grew up in Seattle, where he went to Garfield High School, which also turned out musical icons Jimi Hendrix and Quincy Jones. Melber’s father emigrated from Israel, and his grandparents fled Nazi Germany. His father and mother, a sociologist, raised him and his older brother to have a curiosity about the world.

"At the dinner table, we discussed everything under the sun," Melber said. "When we went to other places and there was a kids table, I didn't understand. I was like, 'I don't want to be demoted.'"

Melber's home was filled with books and vinyl records, which gave him a passion for music. As a teen in the 1990s, he became a rabid hip-hop fan during the genre's golden age. An advertising poster for St. Ides Special Brew featuring Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur, which Melber wrangled out of a Seattle bodega decades ago, is displayed in his Brooklyn apartment.

The beat of that era has stayed with Melber, as longtime viewers know. He regularly drops rap lyrics to get across points in his reports on law and politics.

"My view is the music can help connect us, bridge divides and explain things, whether that's Bob Dylan or Billie Holiday or a lot of hip-hop artists," Melber said.

Melber looks for lyrics that offer insights into social justice issues, citing poet and musician Gil Scott-Heron's "No Knock" in a segment about the death of Breonna Taylor, the Black medical worker from Louisville shot by police during a botched raid on her apartment.

"When you learn that Gil Scott-Heron had a song 51 years ago protesting the use of that police tactic only in predominantly Black and brown neighborhoods, I do think it brings something to it," Melber said. "It's a history lesson."

Last year, Melber devoted 11 minutes on his program to breaking down Jay-Z’s portion of the Grammy-nominated DJ Khaled track “God Did” as a way to examine the social consequences of the country’s long-running drug war.

Melber decoded every reference and included a clip of the famous “60 Minutes” interview Mike Wallace conducted with Louis Farrakhan that Jay-Z quotes in the lyrics. Jay-Z released audio of the Melber segment on his YouTube channel and other platforms, which left Melber "honored and blown away."

Melber has been gently mocked for his hip-hop obsession. Comedian John Oliver on his HBO show, "Last Week Tonight," has aired montages of Melber quoting lyrics to guests ("Wasn't it Drake who said, 'The game is sold separately'?"), who look back at him somewhat bewildered. Melber is savvy enough to laugh along, replaying Oliver's "Ari Melber, Rap Genius" bits on "The Beat."

Some in the hip-hop community have embraced Melber, who gets invites to concerts and even landed a seat at the pre-Grammys brunch held by Jay-Z's management firm, Roc Nation. New York's hip-hop radio station Hot 97 sponsored the fifth-anniversary party of "The Beat," held last year in the Chelsea neighborhood gallery space where late artist Jean-Michel Basquiat's exhibition opened.

Artists have appeared on the program to introduce new songs and offer perspectives that don't always get heard on mainstream news outlets. Veteran rapper Fat Joe — a Melber viewer before he started showing up as a guest — has occasionally been paired up on "The Beat" with conservative commentator Bill Kristol, creating an odd couple that have bonded over their disdain for Trump.

"I was hoping they would give us a show," Fat Joe said in an interview.

Melber’s hip-hop references may be lost on some of the cable news audience — half of MSNBC’s viewers on its linear channel are over the age of 70. But Fat Joe, a self-proclaimed "news freak," can attest that the fans he's played to for decades are tuning in.

“Hip-hop fans are now CEOs of companies and billionaires,” Fat Joe said. “The kids that grew up with Public Enemy and LL Cool J, they’re 50 years old now. They want to know what’s going on, and they look at Ari and go, 'This guy understands us.’"

Fat Joe added that Melber is prone to flexing whenever "The Beat" reaches another ratings milestone.

“Ari always reminds me every time he’s No. 1,” Fat Joe said. “He sends me a little text.”

Sign up for our Wide Shot newsletter to get the latest entertainment business news, analysis and insights.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.