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MSNBC's Family Feud

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.

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."

Moving right along: Yes, Gus has washed out at least the first part of the GOP convention here. I've got the lowdown on how the networks are dealing with what's become a split-screen world. And why not everyone thinks this is terrible news for McCain.

On the stupidity watch, the Chicago Tribune reports:

"It seems Michael Moore, the radical filmmaker, isn't the only one who sees God's hand in Gustav.

"Don Fowler, a former Democratic National Committee chairman, suggested that the hurricane's predicted landfall on the day the Republican National Convention opens 'just demonstrates that God is on our side.'

"But unlike Moore, who said in an MSNBC interview that Gustav proves 'there is a God,' Fowler has apologized."

There's still a huge buzz about Sarah Palin, and whether she's an underqualified, ice-fishing, mooseburger-eating mom or simply the victim of sexist and biased coverage. Why wouldn't the former mayor of Vasilla, pop. 6,700, be prepared for National Security Council meetings?

McCain's line: "John McCain claimed that his running mate -- Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin -= is more qualified to be president than Barack Obama," the New York Post reported.

" 'As governor, she has enormous responsibilities, none of which Senator Obama had. When she was in government, he was a community organizer,' McCain said on 'Fox News Sunday.' "

At Politico, Jim VandHei and John Harris say McCain is "desperate":

"Let's stop pretending this race is as close as national polling suggests . . . Voters seem very inclined to elect Democrats in general this election -- and very sick of the Bush years. McCain could easily lose in an electoral landslide. That is the private view of Democrats and Republicans alike.

"McCain's pick shows he is not pretending. Politicians, even 'mavericks' like McCain, play it safe when they think they are winning -- or see an easy path to winning. They roll the dice only when they know that the risks of conventionality are greater than the risks of boldness."

This Slate piece by John Dickerson is headined, "Huh?"

"Palin may turn out to be a smart choice--buzz-generating and bolstering McCain's claim to change--but the first hurdle is getting over the fact that she's not very well-known. This opens up the possibility for distracting and potentially damning mischief as her biography is filled out. The one thing people do know about her is her gender. On my early-morning flight from Denver to Minneapolis, as the news appeared on BlackBerrys before takeoff, passengers shared the news this way: 'McCain picked a woman."'. . .

"By McCain's own standard, she flunks the experience test. It's not that she doesn't have interesting experiences--she's a bio writer's dream. She was a sportscaster and a fisherwoman, doesn't mind smelling like salmon occasionally, was once runner-up in the Miss Alaska competition, and her husband is a champion snowmobiler. For all I know, she may also throw knives.

"But Palin is 44 and has been governor for less than two years. She has no foreign-policy experience. For a candidate who turns 72 today, the heartbeat-away question carries weight. It also seems to undercut a key line of attack against Obama. If Sara Palin is ready to be commander in chief, then so is Barack Obama."

Michelle Cottle sends a New Republic message to Biden--be careful:

"Let's traffic in some gender/political stereotypes for a moment: Obviously, Palin is a risky pick for McCain because she is approximately as qualified to serve as commander-in-chief as my Great Aunt Ruby (who has, full disclosure, been dead for several years now.) Indeed, I just finished listening to Linda Wertheimer on NPR grouchily voicing complete befuddlement over how McCain could pick someone so clearly unprepared in light of the senator's advanced age and questionable health.

"The contrast with Joe Biden is particularly stark. In a debate with Biden over--well, just about anything that doesn't directly involve the state of Alaska--Palin is almost certain to get her clock cleaned.

"But! Biden nonetheless needs to tread carefully and show more self-control and finesse than he is normally known for. Palin may be a varmint-hunting, moose-stew-guzzling NRA lifer, but she is still a woman--and an exceedingly delicate, feminine looking one at that. (A former Miss Wasilla no less!) And as irrational as they may be, the laws of politics forbid any man from behaving in a condescending, bullying, dismissive, mocking, or otherwise disrespectful fashion toward candidates of the fairer sex. Just ask poor Rick Lazio."

Some conservatives are saying Palin is a big risk, but many others are dutifully praising her. Can you imagine what the right-wing crowd would be saying about this woman and her 20-month stint as governor of the igloo state if the tables were turned and Obama had picked her? The chortles? The level of mockery?

Bill Kristol is one pro-Palin pundit:

"A spectre is haunting the liberal elites of New York and Washington--the spectre of a young, attractive, unapologetic conservatism, rising out of the American countryside, free of the taint (fair or unfair) of the Bush administration and the recent Republican Congress, able to invigorate a McCain administration and to govern beyond it.

"That spectre has a name--Sarah Palin, the 44-year-old governor of Alaska chosen by John McCain on Friday to be his running mate. There she is: a working woman who's a proud wife and mother; a traditionalist in important matters who's broken through all kinds of barriers; a reformer who's a Republican; a challenger of a corrupt good-old-boy establishment who's a conservative; a successful woman whose life is unapologetically grounded in religious belief; a lady who's a leader.

"So what we will see in the next days and weeks--what we have already seen in the hours after her nomination--is an effort by all the powers of the old liberalism, both in the Democratic party and the mainstream media, to exorcise this spectre. They will ridicule her and patronize her. They will distort her words and caricature her biography."

He does allow that she will face some "rocky moments." Here's betting her first interview is on Fox.

National Review is notably restrained:

"By picking Alaska governor Sarah Palin as his running mate, John McCain has wowed the public and enthused the Right. He has reinforced some of his winning themes -- that he has the mindset of an outsider and a fighter against corruption. He has also reinforced his appeal as the candidate more in touch with traditional values on moral issues.

"None of McCain's possible choices was perfect, and attention is being paid to the way that Palin undercuts other McCain themes, such as the importance of experience in foreign policy. Palin will have to reassure voters of her steadiness when she speaks at the Republican convention and when she debates Joe Biden. McCain, meanwhile, will have to carry most of the foreign-policy load himself and showcase his good health."

But Hot Air's Ed Morrissey isn't fazed:

"Why would he put a small-town mayor a heartbeat away from the presidency?

"This is a real laugher. By the same logic, why would the Democrats make a state legislator the actual president? The answer is that Obama is a US Senator of three years experience, and Palin is a governor of 20 months' experience. Only Barack Obama has spent two of those three years not in the Senate doing his job but running for President. Before starting his bid, he had a grand total of less than 150 days in session in the Senate. Palin, on the other hand, has run her state for more than triple that time."

A state that, by the way, has less than half the population of Phoenix.

McCain says Palin has "fought oil companies," but the Washington Times finds:

"Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, whose independence was touted when she was named Sen. John McCain´s vice-presidential pick Friday, collected at least $24,000 from registered state lobbyists in her gubernatorial campaign, records show.

"The lobbyists who donated to her campaign represent a range of industries, including oil and gas, tobacco, education and the Native Alaskan community."

The following is not exactly a ringing endorsement from her mother-in-law:

"I'm not sure what she brings to the ticket other than she's a woman and a conservative. Well, she's a better speaker than McCain."

Woop-de-do.

And here's Cindy McCain on Palin's foreign policy experience:

"You know, the experience that she comes from is, what she has done in government -- and remember that Alaska is the closest part of our continent to Russia."

Is that the best talking point they can give her? That Palin is Putin's neighbor?

John Dickerson twitters: "It's not true that McCain first found out about Palin through "People you may know" feature on Facebook." But I wonder if he scoped out this old footage of her as a sports anchor. Check out the '80s do!

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