By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 8, 2008
MSNBC is removing Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews as the anchors of live political events, bowing to growing criticism that they are too opinionated to be seen as neutral in the heat of the presidential campaign.
David Gregory, the NBC newsman and White House correspondent who also hosts a program on MSNBC, will take over during such events as this fall's presidential and vice presidential debates and election night.
The move, confirmed by spokesmen for both networks, follows increasingly loud complaints about Olbermann's anchor role at the Democratic and Republican conventions. Olbermann, who regularly assails President Bush and GOP nominee John McCain on his "Countdown" program, was effusive in praising the acceptance speech of Democratic nominee Barack Obama. He drew flak Thursday when the Republicans played a video that included a tribute to the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks, saying that if the networks had done that, "we would be rightly eviscerated at all quarters, perhaps by the Republican Party itself, for exploiting the memories of the dead, and perhaps even for trying to evoke that pain again. If you reacted to that videotape the way I did, I apologize."
Matthews, who has criticized politicians in both parties, drew less criticism for his convention role but became a divisive figure during the primaries when he described how he was inspired by Obama's speeches and made disparaging remarks about Hillary Clinton, for which he later apologized.
In May, MSNBC President Phil Griffin said in an interview that during live events Olbermann and Matthews "put on different hats. I think the audience gets it. . . . I see zero problem."
But NBC News journalists, who often appear on the cable channel, did see a problem, arguing behind the scenes that MSNBC's move to the left -- which includes a new show, debuting tonight, for Air America radio host Rachel Maddow -- was tarnishing their reputation for fairness. Tom Brokaw, the interim host of "Meet the Press," said that at times Olbermann and Matthews went too far.
Olbermann and Matthews will remain as analysts during major political events, and officials at both networks, who declined to be identified discussing personnel moves, said Olbermann had initiated the discussions to clarify his role. They said Olbermann's influence at MSNBC would in no way be diminished and that the shift would enable him and Matthews to offer more candid analysis during live coverage. Olbermann confirmed yesterday he had initiated the discussions.
"Phil and I have debated this set-up since late winter/early spring (with me saying, 'Are you sure this flies?' and him saying, 'Yes, but let's judge it event by event') and I think we both reached the same point during the RNC," Olbermann said by e-mail.
Olbermann was involved in several on-air incidents during the conventions that drew unwanted attention. He told morning host Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman, to "get a shovel" as Scarborough was defending the McCain campaign. And when GOP strategist Mike Murphy was debating Matthews, Olbermann could be heard saying, "Let's wrap him up."
These and other clashes fueled a sense that conservative voices are less than welcome at MSNBC as it has tried to position itself as a left-wing alternative to Fox News Channel. Olbermann disputes this view, calling the incidents "overblown." Still, the network canceled Tucker Carlson's show in March and has diminished his role. And Dan Abrams, the veteran NBC legal analyst and former MSNBC general manager, had his program dropped last month to make room for Maddow, an Olbermann protege.
MSNBC's more liberal outlook has boosted its ratings, though it remains the third-place cable news channel. But both parties began castigating its coverage last spring. Steve Schmidt, McCain's top strategist, called the network "an organ of the Democratic National Committee," and Clinton campaign chairman Terry McAuliffe said Matthews was "in the tank" for Obama.