On the afternoon of Thursday, Oct. 23, around 1 p.m., Phil Griffin, the president of MSNBC, reached into his back pocket and pulled out his wallet.
Mr. Griffin was sitting at a table at the Sea Grill restaurant, overlooking the ice rink at Rockefeller Plaza, the nerve center of NBC. From the wallet, he pulled out a tattered CNN work ID from the early ’80s, a memento, he said, from his first job in TV. He always kept the CNN badge on him. “Not sure why,” he said.
He cast a sideways glance at the photo of his 20-something-year-old self, smiling from beneath a mop of brown hair, which has since mostly disappeared with age. At the time, he was a recent college grad who had joined Ted Turner’s journalism experiment in its embryonic stages.
Mr. Griffin said that when CNN aired for the first time, on June 1, 1980, he was in the studio, working behind the camera. Roughly a quarter-century later, he was helping lead his favorite fun-house medium into respectable middle age.
“A lot of people like to make fun of cable,” said Mr. Griffin. “They think it’s something for people who don’t get news. No. It’s for people who really understand news, want depth and want it from people they connect to.”
Mr. Griffin—a guy’s guy with a runner’s physique who starts every day with a jog on the treadmill in front of Morning Joe—ordered the yellow fin tuna over greens and launched into a story.
Recently, someone suggested to him a person—a Very Important Person—who wanted a show on MSNBC. He scoffed.
“It’s not worth taking a risk on someone who might be a big name, but isn’t going to put everything into it,” said Mr. Griffin.
MSNBC had made that particular mistake in the past. Mr. Griffin said he had lived through the grim days when the channel was about “throwing anything against the wall to see if it would stick,” resulting in a series of failed shows by the likes of Michael Savage, Phil Donahue, Jesse Ventura and Alan Keyes.
Earlier this fall, he green-lighted a show starring Rachel Maddow, a relatively unknown liberal pundit with a quick mind and a relentless work ethic. Less than two months in, the show was taking off, holding on to a large chunk of Keith Olbermann’s 8 p.m. audience and regularly beating CNN’s Larry King Live among young viewers.
The previous afternoon, Mr. Griffin had ducked out of his office to watch his 12-year-old daughter, Riley, compete in a volleyball tournament (he also has a son, Jackson, age 11). While there, he got some good news. The previous night, MSNBC had pulled off a big ratings victory, averaging more viewers than CNN and Fox News in the 25-to-54-year-old demographic, for a three-hour stretch of prime time from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m.
When the tournament ended, he congratulated his daughter. “She won her three games,” said Mr. Griffin. “I went to high-five her. And I said, ‘Hey, we beat Fox and CNN.’ She gave me a high five back. My kids are into it. They understand it’s a competition.”
Hypercompetitiveness runs in the family, said Mr. Griffin, who grew up as the youngest of four siblings in a secular family in Chappaqua, N.Y. His dad was a hard-driving business man who worked in retail. His mom was a progressive stay-at-home intellectual, who drove a car with the bumper sticker that read, “Question Authority.”
Mr. Griffin told a story about how some 20 years earlier, at a birthday celebration for his mom in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, he had torn his rotator cuff during a heated push-up contest against his brother John. He rubbed his shoulder. The sucker still hurt.
These days, John is a top executive at the National Geographic Society. Mr. Griffin’s sister, Abby, is a midwife in Pennsylvania. His other brother, Peter, is the number two editor at Esquire. On Thursday night, the brothers Griffin convened for dinner at Porter House in the Time Warner Center. Afterward, they went out for drinks. “We stayed out later than was wise,” John Griffin told The Observer a few days later. “We’re Irishmen. That’s the problem.”
“He had a much more outgoing personality than the rest of us. He always had a lot of friends,” he said.
He added: “But I have a faster marathon time than him. Put that down.”
When Phil Griffin was 11 years old, his family moved to Ohio. For years, the young Mr. Griffin kept a poster of the New York skyline hanging over his bed. He’d be back. (If you check out the footage of the ’86 World Series, you can see him on TV slapping a high five with Gary Carter in the dugout after Game 6.)
In 1979, Mr. Griffin graduated from Vassar College, where he wrote his thesis on Milton’s Paradise Lost. He then headed to New York, hoping to land a job in TV—vaguely inspired by fandom for Phil Donahue. But like many an English major before him, Mr. Griffin struggled to impress potential New York employers with his technical knowledge of such things as foreshadowing and allusion. Eventually, he went to Atlanta for a minimum-wage job helping to get CNN off the ground.
Mr. Griffin stayed at CNN for several years, working primarily as a writer-producer-editor in the sports department. Along the way, he befriended an unconventional sportscaster named Keith Olbermann—the first of many times that their career paths would intersect. In 1983, Mr. Griffin jumped to NBC News, as a sports and news producer for Today, working under the tutelage of legendarily hard-charging executive producer Steve Friedman.
At the time, Today was waging an intense war for ratings supremacy with Good Morning America. Mr. Griffin thrived on the one-upmanship. After the 1986 Super Bowl, Mr. Griffin managed to book Chicago Bears star William “the Refrigerator” Perry for a live interview to take place the following morning. That day, before dawn, Mr. Griffin met the Fridge and strategically took him out for as many a.m. hamburgers as the mammoth lineman could eat. Along the way, Mr. Perry lost track of time and missed his appointment to do a pretape interview with Good Morning America. “Steve Friedman was the happiest guy in the world,” said Mr. Griffin. “It’s that ethic that has landed me here.”
For roughly the next decade, Mr. Griffin bounced around NBC News in a variety of jobs, making key friendships along the way. He did several stints at Today (where he befriended a young producer on the rise named Jeff Zucker, who is now president of NBC Universal and Mr. Griffin’s boss). He traveled the world from Kuwait to Panama as a producer for Nightly News (where he befriended Tom Brokaw, who now serves as the paterfamilias of NBC News). And he spent a year living in the Beverly Wilshire hotel in Los Angeles, coordinating the network’s coverage of the O. J. Simpson trial (where he befriended a young David Gregory, now host of MSNBC’s Race for the White House).
Likewise, he said he always loved working the stories (reporting on warlords in Somalia, covering the run-up to the first Gulf War) but couldn’t always fathom the traditional concerns of network news. “Nightly was a lot stuffier than the Today show,” said Mr. Griffin. “They could discuss ‘a’ and ‘the’ forever. Do you say ‘a’ or ‘the’? I never really fit into that. I didn’t really care.”
In 1996, when NBC News and Microsoft announced that they were teaming up to create a cable news channel, Mr. Griffin eagerly signed on, despite the misgivings of some of his colleagues at NBC News. “People were pretty wary of it at that point,” said Mr. Griffin. “At that point, and now.”
In 1997, he threw a “surprise wedding” for his then girlfriend (and now wife) Kory at Joe’s Fish Shack on the Upper West Side. “Guests described the wedding as everything from ‘extreme’ and ‘insane’ to ‘perfect for the couple,’” read the announcement in The New York Times.
Over the next several years, Mr. Griffin helped produce a number of shows at MSNBC. At one point, he was the executive producer for his longtime pal Keith Olbermann. At another stage, he was EP for Chris Matthews. Eventually, he made the leap into management.
In July of this year, after roughly three years of working as the executive in charge of MSNBC and Today, Mr. Griffin gave up his morning show responsibilities and became president of MSNBC. “Now I have ownership,” said Mr. Griffin. “It’s my baby.”
As such, Mr. Griffin is now charged with managing many of the anchors and reporters whom he became friends with over the years. “It’s complex,” said Mr. Griffin. “There’s good and bad. In the end, I think it’s a positive. I’d much rather deal with someone on a human level than from a distance, barking orders.”
Mr. Matthews described Mr. Griffin’s management style as gung-ho. “He’s cheerleading,” said Mr. Matthews. “He’s on the bench. He’s a hustler. He likes hustle. He likes success.”
“He’s a competitor,” added Mr. Matthews. “It’s not accident that he’s a Mets fan. He doesn’t go with the sure thing. He doesn’t mind being the underdog. I think he’d rather have his heart in the game and win the big upset than with the easy establishment position.”
One of the other tricky management tasks facing Mr. Griffin is the ongoing challenge of merging MSNBC and NBC News. Last year, in the fall of 2007, after years of purgatory in New Jersey, MSNBC finally moved its headquarters from Secaucus into 30 Rockefeller Plaza, alongside the members of NBC News. The move was made both to save money and to foster better synergy between the two news divisions during the presidential election.
The transition has not been without some drama. MSNBC and NBC News each have their own set of stars and distinct journalistic values. At times, over the past year, those values and stars have clashed.
Mr. Griffin said that he has an enormous amount of respect for NBC News. And he expects the same in return.
“I never hid the fact that I loved cable,” said Mr. Griffin. “When I would come back and talk to the network guys, I wore it proudly. To the point where some of the guys called me Cable Guy. Which was annoying.”
But probably worth it, now.