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MSNBC's Family Feud

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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 1, 2008; 9:30 AM

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.


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© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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