Less than a week after Sarah Palin’s vice-presidential acceptance speech allusion to the liberal media prompted chants of “NBC, NBC, NBC” from Republican convention goers, MSNBC has dropped Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews as co-anchors of its major political coverage.
The outspoken pair will return to their roles as spirited commentators, the network formally announced Monday - to be replaced for the duration of the campaign by NBC White House correspondent David Gregory.
The move has become a political showcase of its own, however, with some observers blaming the proverbial “right-wing conspiracy” for the decision.
“The right dictates MSNBC’s programming decisions,” said Salon’s Glenn Greenwald on Monday.
He cited complaints to the network for their political coverage of its cable outlet from both Sen. John McCain’s campaign and White House adviser Ed Gillespie, who maintained in a May 20 letter that MSNBC was at times “blatantly partisan” and did not distinguish between news and opinion.
“The available evidence suggests the right complained enough to make the network act,” observed Steve Benen of the Washington Monthly.
Mr. Olbermann and Mr. Matthews have signature, vigorous styles; their argumentative mix did not necessarily play well before a public eager for serious convention news and thoughtful analyses. It also tried news executives called in to referee the two.
Even veteran NBC newsman Tom Brokaw faulted the pair, saying that both had “gone too far,” and that they weren’t “the only voices” at the network.
Robert Lichter, director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University, said the network’s internal clash is more between traditional news and opinion news.
“It’s not so much the influence of the right. This is NBC leaning on MSNBC - establishment old-style journalism versus the newbies who contend that it’s opinion news which brings in better ratings,” said Mr. Lichter.
“The public is very annoyed with the news media. And they get even more annoyed if they perceive that journalists are trying to tell them how to think.”
For whatever reason, the network’s ratings suffered. MSNBC was in last place for its coverage of both conventions, according to Nielsen. At times, the divide was pronounced. During the last night of the Republican gathering, for example, the Fox News Channel pulled in more than 9 million viewers. The MSNBC audience numbered 2.5 million.
“It had to happen. There was a sense of inevitability about MSNBC’s decision to separate Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews from their anchoring duties. Olbermann and Matthews are both highly opinionated hosts and pundits. Nothing wrong with that,” said Rem Reider of the American Journalism Review. “But having them preside over the coverage of major news stories like primary results and political conventions was simply a bad idea.”
During the Democratic convention, the two anchormen sniped at one another on camera and indeed muddled news and opinion. Mr. Olbermann, for example, publicly condemned a Republican National Committee video salute to Sept. 11 victims - noting that MSNBC would have been “eviscerated” for broadcasting the same video footage of the attacks.
To Mr. Olbermann’s credit, he did preface his criticism by saying, “I want to separate myself from this.” Still, he later posted a blog at the liberal Daily Kos, referring to the Republican Party tribute as “propaganda.”