MSNBC says deal to make Al Sharpton an anchor "not decided yet," Chris Matthews admits voting for Bush
LOS ANGELES -- Months after losing his signature anchor and days after seeing another up-and-coming voice accuse him of bowing to political pressure, MSNBC president Phil Griffin faced reporters here Tuesday looking far more confident than he had a right to be.
Even allegations that another anchor-in-training, activist Al Sharpton, may have found a job at MSNBC because he helped support cable TV giant Comcast's takeover of parent company NBC was little more than a speed bump. "Nobody's ever come to me to put Al Sharpton on," Griffin said after his press conference here at the TV Critics press tour. "It was my call."
Griffin is a master at selling his baby, and these days, what he's selling is an MSNBC that -- even after losing star host Keith Olbermann -- might be ready to try challenging Fox News Channel for the cable news ratings crown.
""The last couple of months, we beat Fox 13 times to be number one," he said, without providing details. "It gives you an indication where we're going...for the first time, to chip away at the Fox Channel."
Despite a New York Times story saying Sharpton's hiring as 6 p.m. anchor was "imminent," Griffin downplayed the notion the controversial activist might join MSNBC's stable anytime soon. He could help MSNBC in a few ways; both by bringing a high profile brand and by diversifying the ranks of cable TV news hosts/anchors, which so far doesn't include any people of color in primetime.
"No decision has been made if we will get more serious," Griffin said, noting that the channel has often taken time to groom new talent for host jobs, including former radio host Rachel Maddow and former TV producer Lawrence O'Donnell. "By the way, (Sharpton's) got other thing he wants to do, too. We like what we see...we're in no hurry."
Griffin also mentioned, almost as an aside, concluding a "multiyear" deal to keep Maddow at MSNBC. Though some press accounts said the agreement would reach beyond the 2012 elections, the MSNBC president declined to specify how long it would last.
News about Sharpton's possible hiring came as Cenk Uygur, a popular host of liberal-oriented YouTube videos, turned down Griffin's proposal to move from 6 p.m. weekdays to a weekend show. Uygur, a Turkish American whose Internet talk show The Young Turks draws millions of hits online, wasn't able to leverage much of that audience to MSNBC and presented a style which may not have fit with the channel's older viewership.
But Uygur has criticized MSNBC for bowing to political pressure in removing him from weekdays, saying he criticized President Obama too much. Griffin also laughed off that assertion, pointing to the many times star hosts such as Maddow and Ed Schultz have criticized the president.
"Honestly, I thought we had a deal," Griffin said of Uygur. "Everyone has editorial freedom as long as they stay within the standards of NBC News. Stylistically, I thought he had to change a bit."
Stylistically, some have criticized MSNBC for considering Sharpton, an activist who earned early fame backing a racially-charged story of rape and assault by a young woman, Tawana Brawley, which turned out to be false. Griffin said he asked Sharpton to guest anchor for Ed Schultz in May, and he performed well enough that the channel decided to use him more often.
These days, Griffin said, Sharpton has since become more of a "statesman," brushing aside questions about a conflict of interest regarding Comcast by noting "I wouldn't put him on air if I wasn't comfortable with him."
Maddow, O'Donnell and Hardball host Chris Matthews joined Griffin onstage before critics, pushing back against the notion that MSNBC's increasingly liberal focus has fed a partisan divide in the country, as they build themselves up at a liberal-oriented opposite to conservative-leaning Fox News.
"No executive is telling us what to think about climate change," Maddow said. "(Fox News), they really are pushing a party line."
Matthews dropped an interesting admission -- the longtime Democratic pundit and former Democratic political staffer noted he voted for George W. Bush in 2000. "I thought he'd have some common sense, instead of being taken over by these bookish right wingers who introduced him to this neocon crap," he said. "I didn't know that was going to happen. I make some mistakes as a citizen."