Hard Fall: What Happened to NBC?

The drama began on Sunday, Aug. 24, at a panel discussion in Denver among Sunday political talk show hosts. There Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell asserted that throughout the primaries MSNBC had favored Barack Obama over his preferred candidate Senator Hillary Clinton. Afterward, Tom Brokaw defended NBC News reporters but acknowledged feeling that certain anchor-pundits had crossed a line. “I think Keith has gone too far,” said Mr. Brokaw. “I think Chris has gone too far.”

Behind the scenes, Mr. Brokaw had been saying the same thing to NBC bosses for months. He could accept that cable news was all about opinion. But shouldn’t you at least try and balance opinions from both sides of the political aisle? “After Russert died and Brokaw appointed himself the custodian of the Russert legend, he began beating on Steve Capus and Jeff Zucker and Jeff Immelt that MSNBC was an embarrassment,” said the aforementioned source familiar with the inner workings of the newsroom. “It wasn’t a platform that Brokaw found dignified enough for his presence.”

Elsewhere in Denver, Mr. Matthews was also attracting unwanted headlines. On Tuesday morning, Mr. Matthews, who is considering a run for Senate in Pennsylvania next year, attended a morning meeting of the Pennsylvania delegates. There he ran into a reporter for the Philadelphia Gay News, who asked Mr. Matthews for his position on gay marriage. The interview did not exactly go smoothly. “In other words, you won’t answer the question,” said the reporter at one point.

“I can answer it the way I have, which is any fucking way I want,” replied Mr. Matthews. News of Mr. Matthews’ testy response quickly ricocheted around the Internet.

In the meantime, on several occasions, tension between MSNBC anchors had spilled out onto the screen. Clips of the dust-ups—Mr. Olbermann accusing Joe Scarborough of shoveling Republican talking points, Mr. Scarborough losing his temper at David Shuster on Morning Joe, Mr. Olbermann trying to shut down NBC News conservative analyst Mike Murphy, etc.—quickly made their way onto TVNewser, where everyone in the industry eagerly consumed the morsels of friction. In the middle of the week, a source at the network told Politico that the situation at the channel was about to explode. MSNBC president Mr. Griffin downplayed the tension, telling Politico, “Do I want them to have squabbles? No. But I understand they’re human.”

Shortly thereafter, during an interview on The Daily Show, Jon Stewart asked NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams why his squabbling MSNBC colleagues had to act so much like, well, the Lohans.

All of the publicity began taking a toll. “Everyone in TV hates bad publicity,” said one source inside the newsroom. “It’s very much a big deal to take all this crap. They read all the coverage and take it seriously.”

For his part, Mr. Olbermann continued to upset some of his colleagues by seemingly casting aside any notion of political objectivity—and routinely praising Mr. Obama while pillorying Republicans.

By the end of the week, MSNBC and NBC executives looking to restore order were planning a meeting to take place on Tuesday in St. Paul on the second day of the Republican convention, where producers and talent could smooth out their grievances behind closed doors, and hopefully reestablish some team unity. But over the weekend, Hurricane Gustav descended on the Gulf Coast, and the staff scattered between New York, St. Paul, and New Orleans. As a result, the meeting never happened. And according to multiple sources, the internecine bickering between MSNBC continued behind the scenes in St. Paul, primarily over issues of air time.

In the meantime, St. Paul was proving to be a wildly hostile environment for the press—which had essentially taken on the job of vetting Senator McCain’s vice presidential candidate. In reaction, Mr. McCain’s camp launched a counterattack against the press. Onstage, everyone from Rudolph Giuliani to Mike Huckabee took turns bashing the chimerical Liberal Media Elite. Offstage, Mr. McCain’s camp lashed out at various news organizations, most notably CNN. On Wednesday night, with 37.2 million people watching on various networks across the nation, Mrs. Palin once again accused the Washington media of treating her unfairly. Delegates on the floor responded with chants of “NBC! NBC! NBC!”

The barrage of pressure from conservatives continued on all fronts. On Wednesday, Sept. 3, conservative operative Roger Stone announced on his Web site, the Stone Zone, that he was forming a 527 committee called MOUTH—“Movement Opposing Unqualified Talking Heads”—which, according to his site, aims to raise money for TV ads “introducing the real Chris Matthews to Pennsylvania voters.” At the time, Mr. Stone also launched an online petition directed at Mr. Zucker, Mr. Capus, and Mr. Griffin to fire Mr. Matthews.

“NBC officials should fire Matthews given the fact that his partisan personal ambitions will now cloud any political analysis he may put forward,” wrote Mr. Stone. “You can’t be a candidate and an unbiased analyst at the same time.”

Cable-news squabbles make strange bedfellows. In protesting Mr. Matthews’ role at MSNBC, Mr. Stone was more or less echoing the same complaints made earlier this year, again and again, by supporters of his bête noire Hillary Clinton. (It was Mr. Stone, in prankster mode, who during the primaries launched an anti-Hillary 527 Group called Citizens United Not Timid, or C.U.N.T.) A few days later, in the wake of Mr. Matthews and Mr. Olbermann’s demotion, Mr. Stone told NYTV he was pleased with the decision. “Never did I think that partial success could be so immediate,” said Mr. Stone.

In recent days, MSNBC’s president, Mr. Griffin, has told a number of reporters that the change was not made as a result of outside pressure. Still, some TV insiders continue to play the MSNBC parlor game, speculating about how and why the McCain camp appeared to have succeeded in budging MSNBC where Hillary and her democratic supporters had failed.

“It’s because Hillary was losing,” said the aforementioned source familiar with the inner workings of the newsroom. “They were going with the winner. They didn’t care what the loser said. Now they’ve got a situation where a whole convention full of people are shouting at NBC—and a 50-50 prospect of McCain being the next president. That’s enough to scare any head of any network news division.”

Mr. Griffin said he was feeling gung-ho about the network’s performance.

“MSNBC just had its biggest year ever in terms of revenue, and is contributing—I don’t want to tell you the number—but let’s just say, a significant part of the revenue base of NBC News, which helps make this division better able to cover news around the world,” said Mr. Griffin. “It’s all working. I know that a lot of people love to follow whisperers and disgruntled people. The issue is, the others would die to have a cable-news network help with their revenue, give them an opportunity for airtime, which is oxygen, and to help create a better news-gathering operation.”

fgillette@observer.com