On Aug. 21, 2007, Dan Abrams, the general manager of MSNBC and host of Live with Dan Abrams, saw something on CNN that aroused his ire.
Or at least his bloodlust.
CNN was running a three-part documentary by correspondent Christiane Amanpour exploring radical fundamentalism within Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. From the get-go, Mr. Abrams disliked God’s Warriors. He said it was overly defensive of radical Muslim extremists. He said it was opinion sashaying on camera as fact. He read the transcripts.
On Thursday, Aug. 27, Mr. Abrams convened a panel of guests on air and accused CNN’s star correspondent of “the worst type of moral relativism.” He said that she had “avoided getting bogged down in objectivity.” He called the program “shameful advocacy masked as journalism.”
A few days later, Mr. Abrams told The Observer that he really meant it.
“I felt very strongly that in its totality it was unfair,” he said. “It was a very successful, well-done, well-rated documentary for CNN.”
In fact, over 3 nights, God’s Warriors attracted more than six million total viewers, stunningly high for CNN, 407 percent higher the programs on MSNBC in that time period and 358 percent higher in head-to-head competition with Mr. Abrams’ own show.
“I felt that the journalism behind it was shoddy,” Mr. Abrams said. “I think that if you’re going to do advocacy—I do opinion all the time on my show—admit it. Just say, I’m doing an opinion piece. I was calling them out, effectively asking them to ‘fess up.’
“We called CNN before we did the segment … offered them an opportunity to have someone come on,” said Mr. Abrams. “I don’t blame them for declining. … I think you can work at CNN and still agree with everything I said.
A CNN spokesperson declined to comment.
It was not the first time this summer that Mr. Abrams had pummeled CNN on MSNBC.
Since June, when he stepped into the 9 p.m. vacancy left by Joe Scarborough, who had moved to the morning to fill in for Don Imus, Mr. Abrams has been hosting a recurring segment called “Beat the Press.” Mr. Abrams says he is an equal opportunity press critic. “If you look back at my ‘Beat the Press’ segments, a lot of it has been about Fox. Some has been about CNN. I think I’ve spread the love.”
But CNN has been his favorite target. Since June, he has poked fun at Anderson Cooper’s sanctimony, Larry King’s prurience, Paula Zahn’s news judgment. He has mocked CNN for exclusive interviews that weren’t exclusive, called it “the Paris Hilton network,” and needled its political team for a report on a candidate’s dog, a clip Mr. Abrams gleefully juxtaposed with CNN’s tag line, “The Most Trusted Name in News.”
Going into a fall season, ratings between the two channels have gotten closer, although CNN still holds a sizeable lead over MSNBC in total market share, 26 percent to 17 percent.
“The bottom line is that it’s a serious horse race,” said Mr. Abrams. “MSNBC and CNN are going down to the wire.”
As a result, autumn 2007 looks like a mudfight for second place in the cable news sweepstakes, with Mr. Abrams clawing at CNN’s flaws and CNN questioning whether Mr. Abrams’ dual role of general manager and on-air host amounts to calculated business posturing masquerading as press criticism.
No matter what, Mr. Abrams’ days of pulling double duty at MSNBC are numbered. Mr. Abrams says that he can’t continue to supervise news coverage and do a prime time show for much longer. Soon, he will choose. He declined to say in which direction he was leaning.
“I’m having a lot of fun doing nine o’clock,” said Mr. Abrams, who began running MSNBC programming in June 2006 when NBC News president Steve Capus gave him the gig, despite his lack of executive experience.
At the time, Mr. Capus said that Mr. Abrams would help to differentiate MSNBC from Fox News and CNN by trimming down its live talk shows and increasing taped, documentary-style series. Specifically, he suggested that MSNBC would incorporate programming from NBC’s Dateline, which was racking up big numbers with the pedophile-snaring program, “To Catch a Predator.”
This July, MSNBC announced that it was beating CNN in overall viewers during “prime sales” time, from 7 p.m. to 2 a.m.
For most of the summer, CNN staffers remained remarkably disciplined in the face of Mr. Abrams’ continued ridicule. But in early August, CNN unleashed opposition research showing that during July not a single episode of the MSNBC’s prime time talk shows had made it into the channel’s 25 most popular telecasts. Rather, 19 of the 25 most watched shows on MSNBC were NBC’s “To Catch a Predator” episodes. Rounding out the top 25, were true-crime documentaries such as Scenes from a Murder, Lady in the Lake, and Cops Caught on Tape.
CNN spokesperson Christa Robinson shot back. She told Multichannel News, “It’s easy to get ratings if you go down-market and run tabloid docs, ad nauseam, like MSNBC is doing with 40 hours of “To Catch a Predator” over the weekend. That’s not how we program CNN. We run real reporting by CNN journalists.”
Roughly three weeks later, Mr. Abrams slammed God’s Warriors.
“The fact that CNN is now frantically trying to explain why they are getting beaten by MSNBC really tells the whole story,” said Mr. Abrams.
All of which raises the stakes considerably this fall as both channels retool. In mid-October, CNN will fill the 8 p.m. vacancy left by Paula Zahn, with a new show hosted by Campbell Brown. CNN is hoping that Ms. Brown will make up some of the ground on MSNBC’s monumentally successful Countdown with Keith Olbermann.
MSNBC sees an opportunity at 9 p.m., where Larry King beats Live With Dan Abrams by a sizable margin. At the same time, MSNBC must grapple with their morning show, where CNN Headline News’ Robin & Company recently beat MSNBC for the first time in more than two years.
At night, MSNBC plans to air more than two dozen original crime documentaries, including When Forensics Fail, The Mind of Manson and Lock-up: San Quentin-Extended Stay, which the producers describe on their Web site as a “docu-soap.”
Reese Schonfeld, the co-founder of CNN, says he’s impressed with MSNBC’s progress, particularly among young viewers. “They’ve made a lot of gains there,” said Mr. Schonfeld. “I think Abrams can crow and is doing it and why not? When you’re creeping up on the other guy, then you want to let the whole world know about it, particularly advertisers.”
Mr. Schonfeld said MSNBC’s crime docs are alternative programming, “the most important thing you can do in this business. … There’s an awfully large appetite out there for tabloid stuff. I think they’re going to do fine.”
As for Mr. Abrams, he said he had the “same fighting spirit as the general manager as I do hosting the TV program,” said Mr. Abrams.
“I think,” he said, “CNN is going to be in real trouble in the fall.”