Cable network MSNBC touts itself as “The Place for Politics,” but it’s really the place for stumbling.
MSNBC announced earlier this week that it was demoting Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews. Here’s how The New York Times put it:
After months of accusations of political bias and simmering animosity between MSNBC and its parent network NBC, the channel decided over the weekend that the NBC News correspondent and MSNBC host David Gregory would anchor news coverage of the coming debates and election night. Mr. Olbermann and Mr. Matthews will remain as analysts during the coverage.
The change — which comes in the home stretch of the long election cycle — is a direct result of tensions associated with the channel’s perceived shift to the political left.
But did the change come as a direct result of complaints from the McCain campaign? Did NBC cave into pressure? It sure looks like it. Sarah Palin mentioned media bias in her Republican convention speech and the crowd shouted “NBC, NBC!” And the McCain campaign staff, like Hillary Clinton’s campaign staff previously, whined often about biased coverage from MSNBC. This kind of stuff is enough to shake up NBCU CEO Jeff Zucker and NBC News president Steve Capus. They must have realized that the self-absorbed, narcissistic Matthews and, especially, Olbermann had gone too far – way over the top – and that the two of them were threatening NBC News’s reputation for unbiased reporting.
Zucker and Capus should have seen it coming, but the NBC brass had become addicted to the improved ratings the acerbic, caustic, biased ranting of Olbermann and Matthews had delivered. They should have known that the McCain campaign, like the Rove-directed Bush campaign, would run against the “liberal media.” It’s in the Republican playbook and they knew it. They should have realized that if they got ratings with the biased rants, they would get pressure from the conservatives, who don’t complain if no one is watching. But NBC appears to be caving into the pressure by making the change so soon after the Republican beefed.
The FOX cable news network gets away with biased, unbalanced rants because its parent network doesn’t have a news division that pretends to be unbiased. FOX News’s Roger Ailes is biased and proud of it – it’s the FOX News brand image.
If MSNBC had been only a cable news network and not associated with NBC News, had not used NBC News talent such as Tim Russert, Tom Brokaw, Brian Williams, and Andrea Mitchell, and had tilted to the left with Olbermann and Matthews, it would have branded itself as a liberal alternative and possibly prospered. Keith and Chris put on a good show, as Jon Fine in his BusinessWeek Fine On Media blog wrote:
Olbermann-Matthews was a sports talk radio thing dressed in political clothes: two hosts, apparent mutual antipathy, arguments, a jagged edge to the simplest interactions. And, by the way, I’ve got no problem with such a set-up, given that we’re talking about what’s essentially color commentary. Like sports, everyone on live political TV is working off the exact same fact-set, which is revealed to everyone at the same time.
On the other hand, patently liberal-biased media such as Air America Radio have not been economically successful and might be even less successful if Obama wins. Although, it is possible that Olbermann and Matthews could be economically successful if they continued their sports-talk thing. People might have watched to see the sparks fly, but not for politics.
And that’s a problem with the slogan “The Place for Politics,” it indicates that it’s not the place for news when the election is over in two months. If Obama wins, MSNBC with Chris and Keith could become the exciting house organ for the Democrats, as FOX News has been for the Republicans. And if McCain wins, it could be the nasty opposition – something Olbermann is a master at. Then, MSNBC could position itself as “The Fair and Balanced Place for Liberals,” which might work.
But MSNBC wimped out. It looks like it caved into McCain’s complaints, which will anger liberals. It looks like it opted for dullness. David Gregory? FOX news didn’t get to be the number-one cable news network by being dull and balanced, but by being controversial and obnoxious. MSNBC should have learned from FOX if it wants ratings, which it apparently doesn’t – not as long as it thinks it is “The Place for Politics” and not for biased sports-talk-radio type ranting.