MSNBC has dumped Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews as anchors of its U.S. election coverage. NBC News Correspondent David Gregory will take over those duties.
Is it ratings? Is it a GOP right-wing conspiracy against the media? Or, is it MSNBC’s attempt to do better journalism? I believe it’s all the above.
MSNBC’s move follows claims that Olbermann and Matthews on-air work reflects a partisan political bias. The criticisms peaked after Olbermann and Matthews coverage of the Democratic and Republican conventions.
Not coincidentally, MSNBC was “stomped” in the ratings by CNN during the DNC and Fox News Channel during the RNC, said the Hollywood Reporter.
Matthews and Olbermann will remain as analysts, but Gregory will anchor the remaining primetime telecasts for the four presidential and vice presidential debates as well as Election Night.
The change is directly attributable to what the New York Times called tensions arising out of a widespread perception that MSNBC has become politically liberal.
MSNBC’s convention coverage was marked during the Democratic convention by squabbling between Olbermann and Matthews as well as “Morning Joe” host Joe Scarborough and anchor David Shuster about the leftward direction of the channel. Olbermann stayed in New York for the Republican National Convention but was criticized for his remarks after a GOP video that prominently showed Sept. 11.
Current and former NBC employees though said long-running friction between NBC and MSNBC reached a breaking point during the conventions. “MSNBC is behaving like a heroin addict,” a senior staff member told the Times. “They’re living from fix to fix and swearing they’ll go into rehab the next week.”
NBC News Special Correspondent Tom Brokaw also criticized Olbermann and Matthews behavior. During a panel discussion during the Democratic National Convention, Brokaw said Olbermann and Matthews had “gone too far” at times and added that they were “not the only voices” on MSNBC.
MSNBC President Phil Griffin the Hollywood Reporter that MSNBC made the decision last Thursday night after re-evaluating the wisdom of having Olbermann and Matthews anchor the coverage while at the same time giving opinions.
Baltimore Sun TV critic David Zurawik wrote: “This Presidential election is a once-in-lifetime political event with audiences measured in the tens of millions, and it looks like MSNBC has blown its chance to be a credible and trusted source of news and information by letting Olbermann rule the roost.”
No doubt, there is media bias, both left and right, to be found in some newspapers, Web sites and television coverage of the presidential campaign this election year. I say some, but not most.
The Fox News Channel, for example, spins decidedly to the right. It works fine for the cable channel’s core audience. Even so, Salon’s Glenn Greenwald raises valid points: “Fox does this despite (more accurately: due to) its employing Brit Hume as its main anchor — someone who is every bit as partisan and ideological as Keith Olbermannn is (at least), who regularly spews the nastiest and most vicious right-wing talking points, yet because he’s not a liberal, is deemed to be a legitimate news anchor.”
As I blogged last week: “On a broader scale, the audience is keeping score too. The audience decides which newspapers they read, which TV stations they watch, and which radio stations they listen to. They decide who to believe and what, if any media shape perceptions, views, votes.”
If Fox News Channel ratings plummet, we’ll see some Fox News program hosts “re-assigned” or sent packing. That hasn’t happened yet.
It has now happened at MSNBC where, ironically, Olbermann is widely credited with helping push ratings higher over the past year. Difficult as this might be at MSNBC, there may be greater concerns at MSNBC’s sibling, NBC News.
Jon Friedman on CBS Marketwatch wrote: “Perhaps Brokaw — with the backup of Brian Williams, his colleague and successor as evening-news anchor — intervened at NBC and suggested (strongly) that MSNBC was becoming a captive of the left and an embarrassment to NBC News’ reputation.”
Salon’s Greenwald suggests something else. He writes: “The irrefutable fact is that nothing attracts ratings for MSNBC — and nothing has attracted ratings in the entire history of that channel — the way that Olbermann does. Yet here is MSNBC removing him from the anchor position, reducing his role in its political coverage, and clearly diminishing his stature (and implicitly criticizing his coverage). That is extraordinary for a media company to publicly embarrass, diminish and tarnish its own principal asset. It is plainly doing so for ideological, not ratings-based, reasons: namely, it fears doing anything to anger the White House, the McCain campaign and the Right in this country.”