Whether it was the constant on-air feuding between the anchors or the Republican Party’s protests that it was getting a raw deal, MSNBC moved closer to the journalistic center over the weekend with news that Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann would no longer be anchoring Election Night programming.
That duty will pass to David Gregory, the chief White House correspondent who is being groomed for a possible MSNBC primetime slot and/or the moderator job on "Meet the Press." 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.
MSNBC president Phil Griffin told The Hollywood Reporter that the channel made the decision Thursday night after re-evaluating the wisdom of having the two of them anchoring the coverage while at the same time giving opinions. He said the network decided it was better not having them feel like they have to restrain themselves.
"If you move two feet over (from the anchor desk), you can say whatever you want virtually at the same time," he said.
It wasn’t a particularly great two weeks of a convention for MSNBC, which was marked during the Democratic convention with 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, who stayed in New York for the RNC, was criticized for his remarks after a GOP video that prominently showed September 11.
MSNBC also was stomped in the ratings by CNN during the Democratic National Convention and by Fox News Channel during the Republican National Convention.
During vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s acceptance speech, the network was the target of the wrath of delegates, who pointed at the network’s skybox and chanted "NBC, NBC."
"That has got to worry them," said one neutral bystander, who witnessed last Wednesday’s display on the floor. "With the shift at MSNBC, they are becoming the target of Republicans, and that can get really nasty."
But Griffin told The Hollywood Reporter that it wasn’t part of their decision. He said that as for the squabbling, "I told them to cool it, and then we moved on."
Executives at other networks said it’s not unusual to annoy one party or another during a political season — think ABC’s controversy over its primary season debate in Philadelphia — but that it’s the danger that MSNBC runs by being perceived as partisan.
ABC News president David Westin has spoken extensively about the blurring of the lines between objective reporting and the cable news channels’ forays into opinion. In an interview Monday, he was reluctant to talk about another network. But he said that ABC has tried to go right down the middle in terms of news coverage. With MSNBC, NBC has tried to juggle both news and opinion.
"I do think they have a challenge right now figuring out what they are," Westin said Monday.
CNN U.S. president Jon Klein said that CNN has avoided that by eschewing partisan politics — exemplified in its past by "Crossfire," for example.
"They just keep trying whatever will stick to the wall. They illustrate our point about the value of a postpartisan approach in the long term," Klein said. Klein later added that his read of the news audience is that they want real news without spin.
"They don’t want their news providers in the pocket of one side or the other," he said.
Susan Tifft, a professor of journalism and public policy at Duke University, said that in part the MSNBC change is a market decision based on more than just any possible increase in viewers.
"They don’t want to lose that other commodity that they value, which is credibility and trust," Tifft said. "NBC is concerned that their brand, if you will, and their credibility and trust could potentially have been tarnished by continuing to have this on-air slugfest."
Griffin said that the current controversy obscures what he said was the huge success story that is MSNBC.
"The ‘Today" show is No. 1, ‘Nightly News’ is No. 1, ‘Meet the Press’ is No. 1, and (NBC) has the fastest-growing news channel," Griffin said. "That’s a great story. I think that some of the squabbling cast a shadow over the great story that should be told."