MSNBC’s POV Metamorphosis: Appendix A

(Appendix A of this series chronicles MSNBC President Phil Griffin’s first attempt at extending POV into territory previously reserved for straight news anchors; MSNBC’s 2008 primetime POV election coverage pairing of Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews.)

MSNBC’s journey to successful POV-dom started, of course, with Keith Olbermann’s leftward turn approximately six to seven years ago when Countdown changed from a smart, clever, informative quasi-news show into a pointed, argumentative, left sided opinion show neither interested in hearing the other side nor taking it into account. Countdown found an audience; not a huge audience by O’Reilly standards but an audience nonetheless. For the first time in the network’s history MSNBC achieved some modicum of success in primetime.

The network now had something it never had before; a success story. POV primetime of a liberal nature could work for MSNBC the way POV primetime of a conservative/libertarian nature would work for FNC.

Enter one MSNBC President: Phil Griffin. Griffin is very very good at one thing…spotting a trend and running with it. It was Griffin who saw what Olbermann had done all on his own and decided to extend it by cancelling Dan Abrams’ show “Verdict” and installing Rachel Maddow at 9pm (Abrams was offered a different slot and in addition to a legal role at NBC but opted not to accept it). And it worked. MSNBC’s primetime numbers went up and CNN found itself forced down a path by that network which would eventually take it to 3rd place in prime.

However, there were bumps in Griffin’s POV primetime roadmap to success. In 2008 Griffin wanted to do something no news network had dared attempt before, not even FNC. He paired Olbermann and Chris Matthews, two non-journalists with a reputation and flair for POV, to lead MSNBC’s Campaign 2008 political coverage. Griffin’s reasoning probably was that they were the face of primetime where all the eyeballs are so why not make the most use of them?

This was met with criticism from some quarters. While this wouldn’t be the first dance for Matthews, who had done this with MSNBC in elections past and is known to be a political wonk as much as a POV guy, this was entirely new territory for Olbermann and his newly burnished Progressive POV credentials. So the outcry had more to do with Olbermann and Matthews was merely caught in the crossfire. NBC News President Steve Capus publicly rubbished such criticism during the 2008 Summer TCA according to The Oregonian’s Peter Ames Carlin…

But how can Olbermann pose as an objective anchor on campaign coverage?

Capus: “The audience gets it. that’s the single biggest factor I see. The audience understands the roles that these guys have played, and I think they play it right down the middle on election night. Their job is different that night . . .We’re gonna stick with them, they’ve done best, and the audience understands what they’re doing.”

Internally at NBC News the picture was decidedly different. There was considerable discontent with what MSNBC was doing with Olbermann and Matthews. This culminated in a now infamous “uprising” in the fall of 2008 as chronicled by Felix Gillette in The New York Observer…

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.

According to Gillette, the fallout was not limited to just Olbermann and Matthews

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.’”

The publicly relayed story was that GE played no role in Olbermann and Matthews being taken off. The private unofficial story, that persists to this day and circulates amongst media writers though not one has ever publicly written it, is that GE played a role in Olbermann and Matthews being taken off.

However, this matter of POVs anchoring news events, especially political news events, was not settled once and for all. That should have been made clear by comments made by Griffin to The New York Times’ Brian Stelter when the news broke that Olbermann and Matthews were being taken off and replaced by David Gregory…

“In a rapidly changing media environment, this is the great philosophical debate,” Phil Griffin, the president of MSNBC, said in a telephone interview Saturday.

That debate and the battle over POV and where it should take place on cable news wasn’t over as far as Griffin was concerned. Come the 2009 inauguration, MSNBC’s primetime POV hosts were once again anchoring. Griffin commented on the return of POV anchoring of politics news to Matea Gold of the LA Times…

In an interview today, Griffin said he’s comfortable with the role that Olbermann and Matthews will play at the inauguration because it’s “a whole day of color commentary.”

“This is a day of watching the festivities and the pomp and circumstance,” he said.

Griffin said he has “no problem putting our guys out to host programs on big events,” adding: “I want to highlight them.”

The MSNBC president said he would consider having someone like Gregory step in again as news anchor on a “case-by-case” basis, adding that he thought that would only be needed during political events like elections.

“There was a sense at the time that we wanted Keith and Chris to be able to be themselves and not hold back, and that’s why David was put in,” Griffin said. “And it worked beautifully, and if we’re ever in a situation like that, I would do that again.”

History shows that there hasn’t been a non-POV anchor on any of MSNBC’s primetime special political event coverage since that 2009 inauguration. This would include elections which Griffin had told Gold would be an occasion for when a journalist news anchor like Gregory would be called for. Dayside political event coverage was treated differently with news anchors and sometimes Matthews.

Griffin and MSNBC’s saga of the the POV hosts in the anchor chair for special political coverage was an early example of a pattern that would repeat in a far more encompassing manner across a wider swath of MSNBC; a pattern consisting of making a change that was a controversial break with traditional journalistic ways, suffering a significant setback, regrouping, doubling down, and trying again. See Appendix B for the failed 2009 dayside POV overhaul. See the Main Story for the ongoing since 2011 dayside POV conversion.

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