MSNBC Bombs in Blogosphere

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 9, 2008 10:17 AM

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," after 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 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 after her speech 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, said: "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 that 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 that MSNBC has "been doing very well as the liberal antithesis to Fox, everyone knows that," he said. "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" like 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."

Here's more on what lefty bloggers are saying.

Taylor Marsh:

"It began when Keith Olbermann began to personally target Hillary Clinton during the primaries.

"As I said not long ago, it's a shame that Olbermann was so over the top with his commentary, because Democrats had never had anyone so openly in our corner. So, just when Democrats and Obama need it, Olbermann's commentary is being questioned in every way. It was bound to happen, due to the outrageous coverage that Keith often offered, targeting Clinton personally and viscerally for months."

The aforementioned Glenn Greenwald:

"Nothing changes the behavior of our media corporations more easily than vocal demands and complaints from the right, which petrify media executives and cause them to snap into line . . .

"Perhaps nothing demonstrates this absurd dynamic more than the painfully inane perception that Chris Matthews -- for years a prime target of liberal media critics -- is some sort of 'liberal.' That's the same 'liberal' Chris Matthews who, over the years, has said things like this:

" I like [George Bush]. Everybody sort of likes the president, except for the real whack-jobs, maybe on the left . . . We're proud of our president. Americans love having a guy as president, a guy who has a little swagger, who's physical, who's not a complicated guy like Clinton or even like Dukakis or Mondale, all those guys, McGovern. They want a guy who's president. Women like a guy who's president. Check it out. The women like this war. I think we like having a hero as our president."

Talk Left's Jeralyn Merritt:

"If MSNBC's decision was a repudiation of Olbermann or Matthews, it would have relieved them of all hosting duties, including at their own shows. They didn't."

The conservative blogosphere, meanwhile, is saying good riddance. National Review's Stephen Spuiell:

"Liberal bloggers are attributing the network's decision to the fact that 'the right complained enough,' and while I'd love to take some credit here, I think it had a lot more to do with Keith Olbermann's outrageous behavior toward his colleagues during the week of the Democratic convention. What is most objectionable about Olbermann is not his politics but his attitude. He has to be a jerk about everything. By all accounts, his rising popularity went to his head and he started pulling the same stunts he is notorious for pulling at every other place he has worked: treating everyone around him like dirt and pushing the envelope further and further on the air."

Lorie Byrd at Wizbang:

"Gee, what a shock. How could they ever have guessed that a tinfoil hat wearing Kos conspiracy diarist would have trouble anchoring a political event in an unbiased way? Or even a semi-unbiased way? Matthews could pretend to be a journalist if he could put a delay switch on his mouth. Instead his mouth frequently starts before his brain engages."

Commentary's Jennifer Rubin:

"It is one thing to pursue a niche audience, to engage ideologically extreme and obnoxious commentators and to unabashedly declare your top-rated shows to be 'balance-free.' But placing obvious, avowed partisans in the role of 'anchors' with the patina of objectivity and sobriety was a stain on the reputation of NBC. And let's be frank -- the NBC and MSNBC brands are intertwined.

"Moreover, it was dumb in the long run for a news organization seeking to compete with less ideologically-tainted outlets. Really, what access and what cooperation do you think the McCain camp has been affording them?

"The Left has compared MSNBC to Fox, but the analogy has always fallen on exactly this point: Fox separated talk-show partisans (e.g. Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly) from news anchors and reporters ( e.g. Brit Hume, Chris Wallace) while MSNBC did not. This move is a small but essential corrective step."

True, but O'Reilly, Hannity and Colmes were on every night of the conventions -- with their usual shows, not as anchors.

Remember when the geniuses of the press described Palin as a desperation pick? Listen to the new conventional wisdom:

"John McCain's unexpected selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate has confronted Barack Obama's campaign with a difficult challenge, as the Democrat seeks to undercut a new sense of excitement surrounding McCain without personally attacking a charismatic figure who is energizing a range of voters," says the Chicago Tribune.

"If Senator John McCain threw a political Hail Mary pass by picking Sarah Palin as his running mate, this much is clear: She caught it and ran," says the Boston Globe.

"Ten days after McCain upended the presidential race by tapping the little-known governor of Alaska, the buzz generated by the GOP ticket shows no sign of abating, even as Palin has yet to answer questions from the press or the public."

So much for the pundits.

This NYT piece on McCain giving Palin "businesslike" hugs lays down a historical marker:

"It has been nearly a quarter century since Walter F. Mondale almost never touched Geraldine A. Ferraro in public when they shared the Democratic presidential ticket in 1984, and it is safe to say that times have changed."

Actually, it's been a quarter-century since Maureen Dowd wrote about the Mondale-Ferraro interaction, which is the real inspiration for Elisabeth Bumiller's update.

As you know, Charlie Gibson is trekking to Alaska for the big Sarah Palin interview. I would think we'd reserve criticism until he actually does the interview, but Josh Marshall is already disappointed:

"It's pretty clear this farce is going to be close to unwatchable. Set aside that this comes just on the heels of McCain campaign manager Rick Davis saying Palin would not sit for any interviews 'until the point in time when she'll be treated with respect and deference.' The tell comes high up in the AP story by David Bauder. The second graf reads . . .

" Palin will sit down for multiple interviews with Gibson in Alaska over two days, most likely Thursday and Friday, said McCain adviser Mark Salter.

"Political interviews are never done like this. Because it makes the questioning entirely at the discretion of the person being interviewed and their handlers. The interviewer has to be on their best behavior, at least until the last of the 'multiple interviews' because otherwise the subsequent sittings just won't happen. For a political journalist to agree to such terms amounts to a form of self-gelding. The only interviews that are done this way are lifestyle and celebrity interviews. And it's pretty clear that that is what this will be."

First, if I'm a TV guy heading north for the big Palin sit-down, I want as much time as possible. The more time, the more questions. You think Gibson is going to worry about being on his "best behavior"?

Second, while his interview with McCain last week included a number of easy questions, there was also this:

"Can you look the country straight in the eye and say Sarah Palin has the qualities and has enough experience to be commander in chief?"

And this: "I'm quoting you, 'Senator Obama does not have the national security experience and background to be president.' Sarah Palin does?"

Lost in the Sarah hoopla is the original question of McCain's judgment, which Andrew Sullivan returns to:

"What we have learned about John McCain from his selection of Sarah Palin is that he is as impulsive and reckless a decision-maker as George W. Bush. We know this not because of what we have learned about this Pentecostalist populist since she exploded on the scene last Friday morning (and God knows we have learned more than we ever wanted). We know it because of how McCain made the decision . . .

"McCain picked someone he had only met once before. I repeat: he picked someone he had only met once before. His vetting chief sat Palin down for a face-to-face interview the Wednesday before last. It's very hard to overstate how nutty and irresponsible this is. Would any corporate chieftain pick a number two on those grounds and not be dismissed by his board for recklessness? . . .

"There is virtually no record anywhere of her views on foreign policy in the public record. There is one documented instance. It came in an interview with the Alaskan Business Monthly in December 2006. She was asked about the central issue of McCain's campaign: the surge in Iraq, which he championed. She said she hadn't focused on the war with Iraq but had heard about the surge 'on the news.' She then said that she hoped there was an 'exit plan.' That was it. So on the central issue of McCain's campaign, Palin took the opposite position to John McCain."

I eagerly await the campaign's explanation, or Charlie Gibson's question.

Finally, the New York Post brings back Reverend Wright:

"He almost wrecked Barack Obama's presidential dreams, and now firebrand pastor Jeremiah Wright has helped destroy a Dallas church worker's marriage -- and her job, The Post has learned.

"Elizabeth Payne, 37, said she had a steamy sexual affair with the controversial, racially divisive man of the cloth while she was an executive assistant at a church headed by a popular Wright protégé."

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