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For MSNBC, Time to Get Political
November's Shouting Over, A Network Finds Its Voice

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 20, 2006

MSNBC has seen the future, and it is politics.

Delivered with plenty of opinion.

Preferably with lots of cameo appearances by big-name news stars from the mothership.

The perennial third-place cable news channel enjoyed a nice bump in the ratings during the midterm campaign, in part because the likes of Brian Williams, Tim Russert, David Gregory and Campbell Brown broke away from their NBC duties to help out.

"We've found a voice as of late, and a large part of that voice is politics," says MSNBC General Manager Dan Abrams. And although he doesn't plan to put on "all politics all the time until 2008," Abrams says he wants to continue "branding" MSNBC as a haven for political junkies.

Of course, MSNBC has done well in other campaigns, only to have the gains vanish after Election Day. All of cable news tends to get big spikes during major stories -- war, scandal, missing white women -- that fade when the news cycle moves on.

"The chronic problem -- and it will likely happen again in the days ahead -- is a big drop-off back to unpleasant, distant-third reality," says Erik Sorenson, a former MSNBC president.

There's no plan to transform the channel into an extended version of Chris Matthews's "Hardball," but MSNBC covered the House leadership shootout between Jack Murtha and Steny Hoyer with presidential-campaign intensity.

During the midterm campaign's stretch run, Abrams devoted two full days to politics and persuaded some of NBC's heavyweights to anchor hour-long programs. In October, MSNBC's ratings were up 14 percent over a year earlier, while Fox News was down 17 percent and CNN was down 8 percent. Of course, the NBC channel started from a much lower base. Fox averaged 792,000 viewers for the month, CNN 491,000 and MSNBC 287,000. (CNN scored a rare ratings win between 7 p.m. and 2 a.m. on election night, drawing 2.54 million viewers to Fox's 2.39 million and MSNBC's 1.58 million.)

NBC hotshots once looked down their noses at their cable sibling. But Andrea Mitchell, the network's chief foreign affairs correspondent, who made frequent MSNBC appearances during the campaign, is now anchoring an hour most mornings at 11. Although the cable audience is far smaller, "you would not believe the kind of reaction I've had from people I really respect," Mitchell says. As for potential guests, "many people want to do live interviews as opposed to edited interviews where they'll be a 15-second sound bite."

Mitchell also sees a certain synergy, such as when she was interviewing an Iraq expert last week on MSNBC and gleaned information for a piece she was preparing on the subject for NBC's "Today" show.

The network feasted on last week's Democratic infighting, from Matthews's midday appearances to a steady stream of analysts, including Newsweek's Jonathan Alter and Howard Fineman and The Washington Post's Dana Milbank. (The two Post-owned publications share a news alliance with MSNBC.) By contrast with its rivals, MSNBC essentially ignored the controversy over O.J. Simpson's maybe-I-did-it television special and the search for a missing 2-year-old in Florida, and provided modest coverage of a deadly tornado in North Carolina.

The effort by Abrams, the former legal-affairs commentator who took over in June, to tap more NBC talent will be getting an unexpected boost from a painful round of budget cuts at the network. Over the next year, MSNBC will abandon its Secaucus, N.J., campus and move in with its corporate parent at Manhattan's 30 Rock. A number of producers, bookers and others will be let go as job functions are combined. Abrams insists that the impact will be modest because his network is already thinly staffed.

Some of the election coverage was anchored by Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman, and Keith Olbermann, whose show "Countdown" has become a nightly feast of Bush-bashing.

"His program could become a model for the newscast of the future," Abrams says. "It's a mix of straight news reporting with lighter fare and occasionally with some opinion."

Some opinion? Not only does Olbermann steer clear of conservative guests, he has added an occasional "special comment" segment in which he recently urged President Bush to apologize to American troops for starting and mishandling the war, going on to suggest that "you are not honest" and "you are far more stupid than the worst of your critics has suggested."

Olbermann said last spring that he is not ideological but that his growing conviction about the administration's failings puts him "in the same part of the ballpark as a lot of liberals."

Scarborough, for his part, says: "I see my job now as someone who holds both parties accountable, and I think I've proven that over the last year. Probably I've held my own party to a higher standard than Democrats. The burden is on me to prove I'm fair and down the middle." Both Olbermann and Scarborough did put aside their views while anchoring campaign news shows.

Abrams, who was no shrinking violet back when he hosted his own show, says CBS is edging in a similar direction in trying to make Katie Couric "accessible and personable. . . . In cable news, the most honest thing we can provide for our viewers is the sense that you know where the host is coming from."

Holding Back

For 10 weeks, Denver television reporter Paula Woodward tried to break the story about the Rev. Ted Haggard carrying on a gay relationship. She had the firsthand account of a male prostitute, Mike Jones, and copies of voice mails that Haggard, the head of the National Association of Evangelicals, had left for Jones. But Woodward was so cautious that she lost the scoop when Jones, frustrated by the delays, made his allegations -- under a pseudonym -- on a local radio show.

"We're very comfortable with the way we handled it," Woodward, a KUSA reporter, says. "We knew that the story, if true, would have a very dramatic impact on his life, his family's life and the church."

The station contacted voice experts, who said they could not verify the phone messages without a "first generation" recording of Haggard's voice. So, as Columbia Journalism Review reported, Woodward and her news director decided to use hidden cameras to tape Haggard entering and leaving Jones's apartment. That plan failed because Haggard, who always initiated the visits, stopped contacting Jones.

After Jones went on the radio show this month, KUSA got an interview with Haggard -- who denied any misconduct -- and was able to use that tape to confirm the authenticity of the voice-mail messages. When the station reported that information the following day, Haggard resigned from the evangelical group and later admitted to sexual "immorality."

Woodward and her news director, Patti Dennis, insist they're not disappointed. "In my mind, we broke the story," Dennis says.

Parting Words

It was a routine memo from USA Today's management, telling the staff that reporter Elliot Blair Smith would be leaving the paper for Bloomberg News and thanking him "for his excellent work."

But accidentally attached to the mass e-mail last week was a note from Smith, griping about how his last story was being handled. Smith, whose last day will be Friday, called the piece "the most powerful, the most explosive report on the most important financial story of the year. It required intense dedication. . . . It would take one hour of everybody's time to sit down and iron out any wrinkles that remain. One hour, I have that, don't you?" Smith said they should "close out the relationship with really substantial and meaningful actions, instead of these nice words below."

Well, at least everybody got both sides.

Howard Kurtz hosts CNN's weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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