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.
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.”