In a must-read in the New York Observer, Felix Gillette gets the story behind the story of MSNBC’s decision to take Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews off the political anchor desk for the rest of the campaign.
While MSNBC president Phil Griffin has spent the last 48 hours trying to tamp down rumors, Gillette details the open dissension and behind-the-scene maneuvering that led to the change.
First, the rumors. The New York Post reported that GE Chairman Jeffrey Immelt facilitated the change because “a lot, maybe thousands” of shareholders called to complain. “This makes me so mad, because it’s so untrue,” Griffin tells Gillette. “Somebody is spreading rumors. It’s wrong. It’s getting into the echo chamber.”
As for the internal strife about the Olbermann/Matthews pairing and its reflection on NBC News, Gillette reports on an early August dinner in Washington, hosted by GE chairman Immelt:
…according to sources, Andrea Mitchell, the veteran political correspondent and wife of Alan Greenspan, noted on behalf of her colleagues that there was some ongoing uneasiness about having Keith Olbermann-MSNBC’s liberal pundit and caustic anchor of their hit show Countdown-co-anchoring (along with Hardball’s Chris Matthews) the network’s coverage on big political nights. What happened to the traditional firewall between news and opinion? There were risks involved with blurring the distinction.
A few weeks later, anchor tensions came to a boil on the air, at the DNC. Executives had a plan to make sure it didn’t happen at the RNC. Gillette writes,
MSNBC and NBC executives looking to restore order were planning a meeting to take place on Tuesday in St. Paul on the second day of the Republican convention, where producers and talent could smooth out their grievances behind closed doors, and hopefully reestablish some team unity. But over the weekend, Hurricane Gustav descended on the Gulf Coast, and the staff scattered between New York, St. Paul, and New Orleans. As a result, the meeting never happened.
And, as has been written on this blog, at the end of the day, it comes down to the bottom line. Griffin tells Gillette,
“MSNBC just had its biggest year ever in terms of revenue, and is contributing – I don’t want to tell you the number – but let’s just say, a significant part of the revenue base of NBC News, which helps make this division better able to cover news around the world. It’s all working. I know that a lot of people love to follow whisperers and disgruntled people. The issue is, the others would die to have a cable-news network help with their revenue, give them an opportunity for airtime, which is oxygen, and to help create a better news-gathering operation.