MSNBC, Leaning Left And Getting Flak From Both Sides

The political coverage of MSNBC anchors Chris Matthews, left, and Keith Olbermann has been criticized for being blatantly left-leaning and pro-Barack Obama.
The political coverage of MSNBC anchors Chris Matthews, left, and Keith Olbermann has been criticized for being blatantly left-leaning and pro-Barack Obama. (By Virginia Sherwood -- Nbc News)

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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 28, 2008

MSNBC, which bills itself as "the place for politics," is being pummeled by political practitioners.

"It's an organ of the Democratic National Committee," says Steve Schmidt, a senior strategist for John McCain's campaign. "It's a partisan advocacy organization that exists for the purpose of attacking John McCain."

Ed Gillespie, President Bush's counselor, says there is an "increasing blurring" of the line between NBC News and MSNBC's "blatantly partisan talk show hosts like Christopher Matthews and Keith Olbermann."

Terry McAuliffe, chairman of Hillary Clinton's campaign, says Matthews has been "in the tank" for Barack Obama "from Day One" and is practically "the Obama campaign chair."

Why are operatives from across the political spectrum suddenly beating up on the third-place cable channel? Phil Griffin, the NBC senior vice president who runs MSNBC, dismisses the criticism, calling Schmidt's broadsides "pretty outrageous accusations."

"To call us an arm of the DNC is a joke," he says. "We have people with multiple points of view. Everyone is getting a little thin-skinned. We argue and debate every topic."

The focus of the attacks is MSNBC's evening lineup, where the channel has clearly gravitated to the left in recent years and often seems to regard itself as the antithesis of Fox News. Schmidt, for instance, says he regards MSNBC's daytime reporting as fair, but that it would be "delusional" to view its nighttime operation as anything other than a "partisan entity."

NBC and its cable outlet have become more integrated since MSNBC moved to the 30 Rockefeller Plaza headquarters in New York last fall, a trend accelerated by the sharing of journalistic talent during the campaign. Some top NBC journalists say privately they are troubled by the overlapping identities.

Matthews, the voluble "Hardball" host, appears frequently on NBC's "Today," and Tim Russert, NBC's Washington bureau chief and "Meet the Press" moderator, is an increasingly visible presence on MSNBC. Andrea Mitchell and David Gregory, both well-regarded NBC correspondents, now anchor hour-long programs on the cable outlet. Gregory replaced Tucker Carlson, leaving former GOP congressman Joe Scarborough as the channel's only conservative host.

NBC News President Steve Capus says the distinctions between reporting and opinion are clear. "We happen to have programs that at times are driven by opinion on MSNBC, and we have a worldwide news organization driven by NBC News," he says. "The only people trying to lump it all together are people who tend to view these things through a political filter or are our competitors."

But news and opinion often seem to merge on primary nights. MSNBC's coverage is anchored by Matthews, a onetime Democratic operative, and Olbermann, the "Countdown" host who recently finished one anti-Bush commentary by instructing the president to "shut the hell up."

On election nights, Griffin says, Matthews and Olbermann "put on different hats. I think the audience gets it. . . . I see zero problem." MSNBC, he adds, offers "a little irreverence, entertainment, and sometimes it's even borderline dangerous."


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