Hard Fall: What Happened to NBC?

On Tuesday afternoon, Phil Griffin, the president of cable-news network MSNBC, had had enough of the interviews and was getting angry.

Roughly 48 hours earlier, Mr. Griffin had announced his decision to remove Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews from anchoring big political nights for his network. Henceforth, according to Mr. Griffin’s dictum, NBC News’ chief White House correspondent, David Gregory, would handle the news duties for MSNBC. Mr. Matthews and Mr. Olbermann would shift into purely revved-up pundit mode.

This morning, Mr. Griffin was batting back a report from the New York Post that Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of NBC’s parent company General Electric, had facilitated the change after “a lot, maybe thousands” of shareholders had called up to complain about Mr. Olbermann’s performance in the anchor chair during the Democratic and Republican national conventions.

“This makes me so mad, because it’s so untrue,” Mr. Griffin said. “Somebody is spreading rumors. It’s wrong. It’s getting into the echo chamber.”

On any other day, the dispute could be chalked up to the long-running feud between a newspaper owned by News Corp. and the cable-news network that airs Countdown With Keith Olbermann.

But Mr. Griffin’s decision, coming as it did on the heels of criticism from his sister-brothers over at the main news division of NBC and from the floor of the Republican National Convention, has taken on more importance than some internecine media squabble. MSNBC has become the poster child of the chastened media, now (finally!) ready to treat the McCain campaign fairly, and to pay its obeisances to the “straight” journalists of NBC (Brian Williams, Tom Brokaw), whose bosses themselves won’t sacrifice prime time to put them on the air wall-to-wall during events as uninspiring as the conventions.

So how did it happen, according to Phil Griffin?

The “beauty of my job,” he said, was that nobody from GE had ever big-footed his domain. He said he dealt purely with NBC Universal’s president and CEO, Jeff Zucker, and NBC News’ president, Steve Capus. He had come to this decision, he said, after consulting first with Mr. Olbermann and later with Mr. Matthews.

He said they had been having a philosophical debate on the subject for months. “I think what came to a head this time is that our guys don’t want to be restrained,” said Mr. Griffin. “That was it. … If you move a chair over, you can say what you really think.”

It had indeed been a months-long debate, and a philosophical one. That it never saw any practical results until the convention is probably as much a matter of circumstance as anything else. But the circumstances build a case that has not looked good for Mr. Griffin and his people.

Roughly a month ago, on a hot summer evening in early August, a small crowd of reporters, anchors, and producers from the Washington bureau of NBC News descended on Café Milano, a seen-and-be-seen watering hole in Washington, D.C., for a night of martinis, braised baby octopus, and frank conversations with their bosses—including Mr. Capus, Mr. Zucker, and Mr. Immelt.

Mr. Immelt served as host of the night’s festivities, which was nothing new. Every year, the 52-year-old executive of the massive multinational company, uses the annual dinner to touch base with his news division in the nation’s capital and to gossip about politics, business, and the economy in a relaxed private setting. This year, the get-together had special significance. Less than two months earlier, the news division had lost their beloved bureau chief, Tim Russert, to a sudden heart attack. Mr. Russert had not only been a close friend of nearly every guest in the room but was also the unquestioned leader, guiding the ambitious and high-strung pack of journalists along the tumultuous campaign trail and keeping the collection of big egos working together for the good of the collective team.

As the dinner got under way, Mr. Immelt praised the D.C. staffers for pulling together through the crisis. Later, according to sources at the network, he also praised the work of their colleagues at the sibling network, MSNBC. When the floor eventually opened up for questions, according to sources, Andrea Mitchell, the veteran political correspondent and wife of Alan Greenspan, noted on behalf of her colleagues that there was some ongoing uneasiness about having Keith Olbermann—MSNBC’s liberal pundit and caustic anchor of their hit show Countdown—co-anchoring (along with Hardball’s Chris Matthews) the network’s coverage on big political nights. What happened to the traditional firewall between news and opinion? There were risks involved with blurring the distinction.

Such complaints were not new but had increased significantly over the past year, as more and more seasoned NBC News reporters (following Mr. Russert’s lead) had started playing significant roles on the cable-news channel. “After years of ignoring the place, they came into the tenement and decided that they needed to clean up the building,” said one source familiar with the inner workings of the newsroom.

At Café Milano, the bosses listened. But for the time being, nothing changed—that is, until this past weekend, when Mr. Griffin confirmed news of the switch to reporters at The New York Times and The Washington Post.

Afterward, on Monday morning, the MSNBC offices in New York and Washington were buzzing. There was no widespread, internal e-mail explaining the philosophy behind the change. The decision, everyone seemed to believe, was the inevitable result, after many accumulated grievances, of a situation that had got out of control and needed a correction. Theories about the timing and most salient reason for the change varied.

While questions lingered, MSNBC staffers thought back to the previous Friday, when, in retrospect, it should have clear that some change was afoot. According to one network source, on Friday, Sept. 5, on the heels of Mr. Olbermann’ impromptu criticism of a RNC video about the Sept. 11 attacks, MSNBC managers began spreading the word among staff, producers, reporters, and anchors of a new set of marching orders. For the previous four days, the McCain surrogates had been busy pounding the media for bias against their candidate, and many in TV news were feeling defensive. One week earlier, on Friday, Aug. 29, during a breaking news segment about Sarah Palin’s nomination as Senator McCain’s vice presidential candidate, MSNBC producers had run a graphic at the bottom of the screen asking, “How many houses does Palin add to the Republican ticket?”

Now word was spreading at MSNBC day side: Edge was out, caution was in. “Every day-side anchor, every producer, everybody was told the word on high is that no more edge,” said our source. “Be especially careful not to inject any sort of opinion or ridicule or anything like that. Play it straight down the middle. If you say something is not true, you have to say who’s claiming that it’s not true. The managers were saying, ‘Go for boring. That’s all we care about right now, be boring.’”

Over the past two weeks, during its round-the-clock coverage of the Democratic and Republican national conventions, the cable news network had been anything but boring.

Hard Fall: What Happened to NBC?