Liberal Blogs Assail Anchor Changes

Chris Matthews, left, and Keith Olbermann will remain as political analysts.
Chris Matthews, left, and Keith Olbermann will remain as political analysts. (By Virginia Sherwood -- Nbc News)
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The decision by MSNBC to yank Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews from anchor duty during live political events did not exactly send a thrill up the leg of liberal bloggers.

A number of them denounced the cable channel yesterday for making a change that had long been sought by NBC News veterans, saying MSNBC was caving into pressure from John McCain's campaign and the right wing.

MSNBC President Phil Griffin denied that complaints from either Republicans or NBC journalists were a factor. He said he reached the decision after "talking to my guys, mainly Olbermann," following the Republican convention. Olbermann and Matthews will remain as analysts during such major political events as the presidential debates.

"We came to the conclusion it was better not to restrain them" by making them wear "two hats," Griffin said. "It's not like we haven't talked about this all along. What Keith can say on 'Countdown' and what Chris can say on 'Hardball' is a little different" than what they could tell viewers in the role of news anchors.

In the liberal blogosphere, Olbermann -- an occasional contributor to the Daily Kos site -- is viewed as a heroic truth-teller who has now been undermined by network suits whose company is owned by General Electric. Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo called the move "pathetic," writing: "It seems pretty obvious that the network got cowed by complaints from the McCain campaign."

Salon's Glenn Greenwald called it "extraordinary for a media company to publicly embarrass, diminish and tarnish its own principal asset. It is plainly doing so for ideological, not ratings-based, reasons: namely, it fears doing anything to anger the White House, the McCain campaign and the right in this country."

Not all liberal bloggers agreed. Jeralyn Merritt of Talk Left attributed the shift to "pressure from journalists, other media professionals and quite possibly advertisers who convinced MSNBC that the partisan coverage of live news events was tarnishing not just MSNBC's, but also NBC's reputation as a credible news organization."

NBC staffers say the network's old guard, led by veteran anchor Tom Brokaw, has been complaining since February about the way Olbermann and Matthews appear to favor Barack Obama. Tensions boiled over during the conventions, they say, when NBC reporters grabbed newsmakers on the floor but were often ignored as the anchor duo kept talking.

The complaints grew louder when Olbermann praised the Democratic speeches by Obama and Hillary Clinton but likened GOP vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin to the obnoxious Reese Witherspoon character in the movie "Election." Things reached the point where HBO's liberal comic Bill Maher, riffing on MSNBC's coverage of Obama, cracked, "I mean, these guys were ready to have sex with him."

Griffin said he is handing the anchor role to NBC correspondent David Gregory because he is "as good a newsman as there is in television news," and also "a part of MSNBC" as host of its 6 p.m. show. Gregory, a contender to take over "Meet the Press" next year, declined to comment.

Media critics have questioned for months how Olbermann (who told McCain to "grow up" in an on-air editorial) and Matthews (who said an Obama speech sent "a thrill going up my leg") could, for instance, anchor coverage of the political conventions.

"Not only was the opinion too overt, but the rancor was getting to be a bit much, and I must say a bit amateurish," said Terence Smith, a former correspondent for the New York Times, CBS and PBS. He said network officials "failed to take the defensive step they could have taken, which is to label them commentators. . . . It just got hopelessly muddled. I'm not surprised it reached a point where they found it embarrassing."

Larry Grossman, a former president of NBC News, said MSNBC has "been doing very well as the liberal antithesis to Fox, everyone knows that. But at some point standards and journalistic integrity have to take over."

Grossman questioned whether Gregory's new assignment is a good fit: "If he's presiding over what is an avowedly liberal network, will it in effect tarnish his reputation for being a perfectly straight shooter?"

Olbermann's show is the most popular on MSNBC. In a strikingly friendly interview with Obama that aired last night, Olbermann asked the Democratic nominee whether he should use "more exclamation points," adding: "Have you thought of getting angrier?"

Republicans have been assailing the cable channel for months. Steve Schmidt, McCain's top strategist, has called MSNBC "a partisan advocacy organization that exists for the purpose of attacking John McCain," and White House counselor Ed Gillespie has complained about an "increasing blurring" of the line between NBC News and MSNBC's "blatantly partisan talk show hosts" such as Matthews and Olbermann.

Griffin rejected the liberal label increasingly applied to his network, saying that Olbermann and Matthews, for example, are "entirely different."

"We are blending a traditional news network that has been around a long time with a new cable news network that has some point-of-view shows in prime time. . . . For NBC News to continue to grow, it needs MSNBC to be successful, and vice versa."

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