At MSNBC, A Liberal Supply Of Sharp Elbows

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 1, 2008

MINNEAPOLIS, Aug. 31 -- Anyone who thought the Democratic convention would be a dull and choreographed affair clearly didn't count on the bitter, ego-fueled clashes that marked the week.

And that was just at MSNBC.

The confrontations that played out in public suggest that conservative commentators are not especially welcome at a network whose unquestioned star is full-throated liberal Keith Olbermann. Tucker Carlson, the Weekly Standard alumnus whose show was canceled in March, went to Denver expecting to be on "Hardball" every night. But only the morning show hosted by former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough would use him.

Mike Murphy, the GOP operative turned NBC analyst, was twice bumped from prime time. When he did appear -- and got into an argument with host Chris Matthews -- Olbermann could be overheard saying, "Let's wrap him up, all right?" Another time, while Scarborough was arguing that John McCain was becoming more competitive against Barack Obama, Olbermann, sitting in the anchor chair, muttered, "Get a shovel."

"I mean, 'Get a shovel'? Keith, my God," Scarborough protested.

Unvarnished opinion sells on prime-time cable news, as Fox News has proved for years with Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity. Olbermann and MSNBC's newest evening host, Air America's Rachel Maddow, have a passionate following on the left. But a number of NBC correspondents are upset over the recent antics at their sister channel, prompting longtime anchor Tom Brokaw to say last week that Olbermann and Matthews have at times "gone too far."

Olbermann dismisses the "overblown stories" as "nonsense," telling The Washington Post that Pat Buchanan appears regularly on MSNBC and that Scarborough "has never been censored, reined in, called on any carpet for his views, just as I haven't." Just because he disagrees with Murphy or Buchanan, Olbermann says, "doesn't mean the network is inhospitable to their points of view."

Scarborough got into a separate argument last week over the Iraq war with MSNBC correspondent David Shuster, who said that he belonged to no party while Scarborough was a Republican. Scarborough accused him of a "cheap shot," adding sarcastically: "I bet everybody at MSNBC has independent on their voting cards -- 'Oh, we're down the middle now.' "

Scarborough says in an interview that he "overreacted" while operating on two hours' sleep and quickly apologized. But he says everyone who works at MSNBC should admit that they "went to the same Ivy League schools. Our kids go to the same kindergartens. We eat at the same restaurants. We have the same worldview, but we're working hard to remain objective."

These and other incidents have rivals, and some insiders, wondering whether MSNBC has become a dysfunctional family.

One network staffer, who declined to be named describing private conversations, says MSNBC President Phil Griffin told him that "our audience hates Bush" and that squeezing conservative shows into a liberal lineup would just drive them away.

CNN President Jon Klein, who declined to hire Maddow because he found her "predictable," says MSNBC is "definitely moving left" by putting "Chris, Keith and Maddow back to back." While Lou Dobbs serves up incendiary opinions at CNN, none of its prime-time hosts -- Campbell Brown, Larry King and Anderson Cooper -- is known for ideological views.

Klein says CNN stresses "reliable reporting" and diverse pundits from Bill Bennett to Donna Brazile. "Networks that push a certain agenda are extremists, when in fact the country is a country of moderates," he says.

Marty Ryan, Fox's executive producer, says it is obvious that MSNBC has "been in the tank for Obama the entire campaign" and that "deeming third place a success must be a new standard for General Electric," the network's parent. But he insists it's a "bum rap" to describe Fox as being on the right, saying that O'Reilly goes after both parties, Hannity's co-host is liberal Alan Colmes, and Greta Van Susteren is not ideological.

Ryan cites a Pew Research Center study showing that 39 percent of Fox's audience are Republicans and 31 percent Democrats, compared with MSNBC (45 percent Democrats, 18 percent GOP) and CNN (51 percent Democrats, 18 percent GOP).

Griffin has tried to smooth things over. He apologized to analyst Mike Murphy after the Olbermann incident, and Brokaw made a point of appearing with Murphy on Scarborough's show the next morning. "Regardless of any recent drama, I've been treated well," Murphy says. "I'm going to focus my energies on the NBC side of the world."

Griffin did not respond to requests for comment last week, but in a May interview he said: "We have people with multiple points of view . . . We argue and debate every topic."

Raw opinion is what separates cable news from the tradition-bound broadcast networks and, of course, talk is cheaper than reporting. But with such NBC stalwarts as Brokaw, Brian Williams, Andrea Mitchell and David Gregory increasingly appearing on the company's cable outlet, the distinction is getting blurred.

On his "Countdown" program, which almost never includes conservative guests, Olbermann has told President Bush to "shut the hell up," urged McCain to "grow up," and mocked the Arizona senator with such headlines as "McSame" and "Double Talk Express." That's all fair game on an opinion show.

But Olbermann and Matthews, a former Democratic strategist, are also co-anchoring MSNBC's coverage of the conventions, which Griffin defends by saying they are assuming a more neutral role. After Hillary Clinton spoke, Olbermann said: "Grand slam, out of the ballpark, across the street." And after Obama's acceptance speech, Olbermann said: "Not a sour note and spellbinding throughout."

"I've been criticized for saying he inspires me, and the hell with my critics," Matthews added.

Other commentators can blur the lines as well. Karl Rove, the White House aide turned Fox analyst, says he is not advising the McCain campaign. But Politico reported last week that he had called Sen. Joe Lieberman and asked the former Democrat to bow out as a possible McCain running mate. Rove disputed the account but would not deny making the call.

MSNBC and Fox programs often seem to be mirror opposites. After McCain named Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate Friday, Olbermann called it a "desperate" move to tap a "rabid conservative" who is "fanatically antiabortion and pro-gun." Hannity said McCain had made a "great choice" of a "pro-life" governor and "I don't think he could have picked anybody better."

These trends matter because as the broadcast networks keep trimming their political coverage, cable has become the go-to place for news. During the 10 p.m. hour at the Democratic convention Thursday -- the evening of Obama's acceptance speech -- CNN drew 8 million viewers, beating not just Fox (4.2 million) and MSNBC (4.1 million) but also NBC, ABC and CBS. Nor is that a first: Fox outdrew the broadcast networks at the 2004 Republican convention.

MSNBC finished last for the week, but it is attracting more viewers than in the past, along with some unwanted attention.

"Until recently, MSNBC didn't count," Olbermann says. "We didn't move the needle. We do now, and then some. And this scares people, especially people who work for Rupert Murdoch."

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