By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 28, 2008; Page C01
MSNBC, which bills itself as “the place for politics,” is being pummeled by political practitioners.
“It’s an organ of the Democratic National Committee,” says Steve Schmidt, a senior strategist for John McCain’s campaign. “It’s a partisan advocacy organization that exists for the purpose of attacking John McCain.”
Ed Gillespie, President Bush’s counselor, says there is an “increasing blurring” of the line between NBC News and MSNBC’s “blatantly partisan talk show hosts like Christopher Matthews and Keith Olbermann.”
Terry McAuliffe, chairman of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, says Matthews has been “in the tank” for Barack Obama “from Day One” and is practically “the Obama campaign chair.”
Why are operatives from across the political spectrum suddenly beating up on the third-place cable channel? Phil Griffin, the NBC senior vice president who runs MSNBC, dismisses the criticism, calling Schmidt’s broadsides “pretty outrageous accusations.”
“To call us an arm of the DNC is a joke,” he says. “We have people with multiple points of view. Everyone is getting a little thin-skinned. We argue and debate every topic.”
The focus of the attacks is MSNBC’s evening lineup, where the channel has clearly gravitated to the left in recent years and often seems to regard itself as the antithesis of Fox News. Schmidt, for instance, says he regards MSNBC’s daytime reporting as fair, but that it would be “delusional” to view its nighttime operation as anything other than a “partisan entity.”
NBC and its cable outlet have become more integrated since MSNBC moved to the 30 Rockefeller Plaza headquarters in New York last fall, a trend accelerated by the sharing of journalistic talent during the campaign. Some top NBC journalists say privately they are troubled by the overlapping identities.
Matthews, the voluble “Hardball” host, appears frequently on NBC’s “Today,” and Tim Russert, NBC’s Washington bureau chief and “Meet the Press” moderator, is an increasingly visible presence on MSNBC. Andrea Mitchell and David Gregory, both well-regarded NBC correspondents, now anchor hour-long programs on the cable outlet. Gregory replaced Tucker Carlson, leaving former GOP congressman Joe Scarborough as the channel’s only conservative host.
NBC News President Steve Capus says the distinctions between reporting and opinion are clear. “We happen to have programs that at times are driven by opinion on MSNBC, and we have a worldwide news organization driven by NBC News,” he says. “The only people trying to lump it all together are people who tend to view these things through a political filter or are our competitors.”
But news and opinion often seem to merge on primary nights. MSNBC’s coverage is anchored by Matthews, a onetime Democratic operative, and Olbermann, the “Countdown” host who recently finished one anti-Bush commentary by instructing the president to “shut the hell up.”
On election nights, Griffin says, Matthews and Olbermann “put on different hats. I think the audience gets it. . . . I see zero problem.” MSNBC, he adds, offers “a little irreverence, entertainment, and sometimes it’s even borderline dangerous.”
Terence Smith, a former correspondent for CBS, PBS and the New York Times, says that “NBC Nightly News,” for example, is far different from cable fare. “I don’t believe Brian Williams’s show reflects the attitudes and positions of Olbermann and Matthews and others on MSNBC,” he says. “But it is potentially a perception problem. The public doesn’t make a lot of distinctions between different arms of an organization.”
As for Matthews and Olbermann, Smith says, “there’s no confusion on ‘Hardball’ or ‘Countdown’ as to where they stand. They are and have been enamored of Obama from the beginning.”
Scarborough, who hosts “Morning Joe,” has been more sympathetic toward Clinton, while often criticizing the Republican Party he once represented in Florida.
The Obama campaign, for its part, has not complained about MSNBC’s coverage. “Has it been too pro-Obama? Absolutely not,” says Obama spokesman Bill Burton. “When the cable news channels had wall-to-wall negative coverage about our campaign for weeks on end, we didn’t think it was particularly fair, but we also didn’t whine about it all the time.”
Gillespie, who raised questions about the overlap between the networks in a letter to Capus, says in an interview: “The president is not covered on MSNBC, he’s talked about on MSNBC,” largely in unflattering terms. “It’s an advocacy network, and they’re free to say what they want.”
Russert drew some flak for declaring on the night of the May 6 primaries in Indiana and North Carolina: “We now know who the Democratic nominee is going to be, and no one’s going to dispute it.” He notes that he made a similar declaration on NBC — that Bill Clinton had the Democratic race wrapped up — in 1992.
As Russert sees it, appearing on the cable channel “enhances” his reputation. “I don’t do anything differently on MSNBC than I do on the network — try to report and analyze as best I can,” he says.
In the bitter battle for the Democratic nomination, MSNBC is widely viewed as being rough on Clinton. Matthews — who said after one Obama speech that he “felt this thrill going up my leg” — apologized in January for saying that Clinton owes her political career to the fact that “her husband messed around.” Correspondent David Shuster, who recently began anchoring the 4 p.m. hour, drew a two-week suspension in February for questioning whether Chelsea Clinton was being “pimped out” by her mother’s campaign.
Griffin maintains that MSNBC has been “very fair” to Clinton, despite what he calls her “baggage.” “Obama had a lot of early success, and that colored people’s thinking,” he says. “That was a newer story, a fresher story, and people locked onto it.”
In a “special comment” Friday — an occasional segment devoted to editorializing — Olbermann denounced Clinton for mentioning the 1968 assassination of Robert Kennedy while talking about how past primary seasons have lasted through June. “This cannot be forgiven,” Olbermann said, adding: “A politician, a person who can let hang in midair the prospect that she might just be sticking around, in part, just in case the other guy gets shot has no business being, and no capacity to be, the president of the United States.”
Olbermann has also unloaded on the presumed Republican nominee, sometimes with the on-screen headline “Double Talk Express.” When McCain missed a vote on legislation to expand educational benefits for veterans, Olbermann accused him of “political opportunism.” When the Arizona senator suggested that as president he would regularly answer questions before Congress, Olbermann said: “John McCain would last 11 minutes doing it before he swore or punched somebody or stormed out or all three.”
MSNBC’s evening guest lineup adds to its left-leaning image. While Griffin proclaims, with some exaggeration, that “Pat Buchanan’s on every show,” that is in part because the former GOP presidential candidate is the channel’s only regular conservative commentator. Such liberals as Air America host Rachel Maddow (an Olbermann substitute), Washington Post columnist Gene Robinson and Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter make frequent appearances. Olbermann generally does not book conservative or Republican guests, saying he doesn’t want to stage “talking point” debates with liberal pundits.
In a further contrast to Fox, where former White House adviser Karl Rove is often the leadoff guest on nighttime shows, Dan Abrams, the host of MSNBC’s “Verdict,” spent half a program last week on a House committee’s subpoena of Rove in a probe of political influence at the Justice Department.
NBC executives say the ratings growth at MSNBC — up 61 percent this month in prime time, compared with a year ago — has made it a target.
“It used to be people didn’t have to worry about MSNBC because it was an also-ran cable channel,” Capus says. “That’s not the case anymore. With that is going to come more scrutiny, and we’re ready for it.”