Why Keith Olbermann, Chris Matthews got bumped
Before he was named to replace them as the anchor of MSNBC's political coverage, NBC White House correspondent David Gregory had a surprising take on whether parking opinionators such as Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews as the lead anchors on MSNBC's coverage of primaries, debates and political conventions was a good idea.
His answer two months ago: “There’s a kind of revolution happening in the news business. We’ve got different voices, unique personalities, unique takes on the news and putting that all under one brand . . . So there’s no kind of internal angst about the things we’re doing . . . There is analysis going on and there is opinion being offered, all under this same umbrella.”
Heading into September on the back end of two controversy-filled political conventions, the worm has turned significantly to Gregory's benefit. He's now anchoring MSNBC's political coverage, following the cable channel's decision to remove Olbermann and Matthews from the anchor chairs.
Critics are portraying this as a victory for balanced reporting, kicking off two guys widely derided for being too complimentary to Democrats, Barack Obama in particular. But rival Fox News has been tilting right for more than 10 years; how did MSNBC wind up getting its hand slapped so quickly?
--- NBC News stars complained. When consummate pro Tom Brokaw started making public noises about Olbermann and Matthews going too far, that likely sent tremors through the company. Brokaw still carries a lot of weight with the news establishment, and losing his approval was a serious PR mistake.
--- Olbermann's worst enemy is his own success. Success can feed Olbermann's worst qualities -- namely, a bruising disregard for the feelings of colleagues and an increasing self-satisfaction with how smart he is. I miss the Olbermann from the early days of Countdown, who called me not long after he started doing his show, worried that Fox News had intimidated me out of writing a story. That mixture of smarts and humility over past mistakes is something he could use in large doses right now. Instead, he's fighting with co-anchors and making NBC News look like a hostage to his punditry.
--- Failing to learn the right lessons from Fox News. No one has ever accused Sean Hannity or Bill O'Reilly of being the most modest guys on the planet. But somehow, they manage to coexist on Fox News, forming the backbone of a formidable prime time lineup. Their strength is in their unity, repeating slogans like "fair and balanced" in a way that reinforces the message for everyone on the channel. The sniping between MSNBC staffers on air just fed the notion of a cable channel careening out of control.
--- MSNBC moved too quickly and too obviously. Key to Fox's success, has been developing an approach that allows them to say they are fair and balanced while being a friendly home to conservative viewers and newsmakers. One clue to the brand is always the punditry: other than weak liberal Alan Colmes, who doesn't even have a show all his own, Fox News offers no left-leaning voices in its high-profile prime time lineup (NPR, by contrast, has no reliably right-leaning talk show hosts). Pushed by Olbermann's brash commentary, MSNBC was too obvious about its leanings, allowing critics easy openings.
--- MSNBC admitted fault. When Fox and Friends presented Photoshopped images of reporters that were degrading and even criticized by some as anti-Semitic, Fox News executive John Moody said "Fox & Friends is an entertainment show that does some news. It's there for a little bit of entertainment." Leaving aside the notion of why anyone would find the images entertaining, the insistence worked and media critics eventually moved on. But by moving Olbermann and Matthews, MSNBC ensured that its decision would be thrown back in their face every time a question of bias arises in NBC News' reporting.
And while MSNBC ties itself in knots, viewers are staring at less than two months' time until a historic election, dealing with an aggressive attempt by some in the GOP to characterize press scrutiny as liberal bias. Shouldn't we all be talking about something else?