The NYT reports this morning:
MSNBC tried a bold experiment this year by putting two politically incendiary hosts, Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews, in the anchor chair to lead the cable news channel’s coverage of the election.
That experiment appears to be over.
After months of accusations of political bias and simmering animosity between MSNBC and its parent network NBC, the channel decided over the weekend that the NBC News correspondent and MSNBC host David Gregory would anchor news coverage of the coming debates and election night. Mr. Olbermann and Mr. Matthews will remain as analysts during the coverage.
The change — which comes in the home stretch of the long election cycle — is a direct result of tensions associated with the channel’s perceived shift to the political left.
“The most disappointing shift is to see the partisan attitude move from prime time into what’s supposed to be straight news programming” said Davidson Goldin, formerly the editorial director of MSNBC and a co-founder of the reputation management firm DolceGoldin.
Executives at the channel’s parent company, NBC Universal, had high hopes for MSNBC’s coverage of the political conventions. Instead, the coverage frequently descended into on-air squabbles between the anchors, embarrassing some workers at NBC’s news division, and quite possibly alienating viewers. Although MSNBC nearly doubled its total audience compared with the 2004 conventions, its competitive position did not improve, as it remained in last place among the broadcast and cable news networks. In prime time, the channel averaged 2.2 million viewers during the Democratic convention and 1.7 million viewers during the Republican convention.
The success of the Fox News Channel in the past decade along with the growth of political blogs have convinced many media companies that provocative commentary attracts viewers and lures Web browsers more than straight news delivered dispassionately.
“In a rapidly changing media environment, this is the great philosophical debate” Phil Griffin, the president of MSNBC, said in a telephone interview Saturday. Fighting the ratings game, he added, “the bottom line is that we’re experiencing incredible success.”
But as the past two weeks have shown, that success has a downside. When the vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin lamented media bias during her speech, attendees of the Republican convention loudly chanted “NBC.”
In interviews, 10 current and former staff members said that long-simmering tensions between MSNBC and NBC reached a boiling point during the conventions. “MSNBC is behaving like a heroin addict” one senior staff member observed. “They’re living from fix to fix and swearing they’ll go into rehab the next week.”
Howard Kurtz has more:
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.
Jennifer Rubin sums up:
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.
From the outside one can easily ask, “What took so long?” But the temptation to give into bullies and to seek some small ratings/monetary advantage is great. It is no easy thing to say “enough” and somebody â€“or somebodies — at MSNBC/NBC did just that. But whether this is part of a greater course correction, one that will be reflected in more than a shuffling of the anchor chairs on the deck of the MSM Titanic remains to be seen
IMO, it’s not going to get better because – as Rubin notes above – the only thing that has changed is that they have Olbermann and Matthews in different chairs now. They’ll still be around, proving their “analysis” during primetime election coverage, analysis that doesn’t serve to further the debate but instead to inflame it.
Related: Speaking of inflammatory idiots, check out how MTV talked about Gov. Palin and her family last night during the VMAs.Â