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MSNBC defends anchor flip

The cable channel's chief says critics' bias claims did not prompt his decision to replace Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann.

September 09, 2008|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- MSNBC President Phil Griffin on Monday defended the dual roles played by hosts Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews during this year's presidential campaign, even though they will no longer anchor political news coverage.

David Gregory, NBC's chief White House correspondent and an MSNBC anchor, will replace the voluble hosts, who have come to represent the channel's embrace of opinion-laced coverage, a tactic that has drawn sharp criticism even as it has helped swell the audience.

Griffin maintained that "the audience gets it" when Olbermann and Matthews juggle their commentaries with anchor duties. But after watching the men try to keep their opinions in check during coverage of the political conventions, Griffin said he concluded that "they were being restrained."

Olbermann and Matthews will continue to serve as on-air analysts during coverage of the presidential debates and on election night, the evenings that Gregory will anchor.

The move comes after network executives spent months insisting they had no qualms about the dual roles being played by the hosts, who are known for their unstinting commentaries. Olbermann, in particular, has developed a strong following on the political left for his censures of the Bush administration.

But complaints about MSNBC's approach have been mounting as election day nears, leaving NBC News vulnerable to arguments that the news division has been tainted by the cable network's ideological slant.

Representatives of New York Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and, more recently, Republican presidential nominee John McCain have lodged vehement protests with NBC executives about the cable channel's commentators, alleging that they've exhibited bias.

Tom Brokaw, NBC's emeritus anchor who regularly offers analysis on MSNBC, was forced to defend its coverage at a panel discussion about the media at the Democratic convention. While saying he believed that Olbermann and Matthews had "gone too far" at times, Brokaw noted they were "not the only voices" on the cable channel.

The tension between the news division's traditionally dispassionate role and MSNBC's opinionated tone has taken its toll internally. Many of NBC's reporters appear on MSNBC, and some have chafed at the strong points of views being expressed on the air.

"I think change is complicated, and a lot of whisperers were talking about it and struggling with it," Griffin said. "This is an incredibly different thing we're doing."

During the Democratic convention, the tension spilled out publicly. Host Joe Scarborough mocked the idea that the network was neutral, sarcastically snapping at David Shuster, "Oh, we're down the middle now."

A week later, Republican delegates in St. Paul began a derisive chant of "NBC! NBC!" when Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the vice presidential nominee, decried the media's coverage during her speech.

But Griffin insisted that external pressures did not force the change. Rather, he said, it was a discussion initiated last week by Olbermann, who told him he felt uncomfortably constrained after the Republicans aired a video about the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks during their convention. (The host apologized to viewers if it appeared exploitative but apparently he wanted to go further.)

Olbermann will continue to serve as MSNBC's main anchor during other breaking news stories.

"But just in political events where there's lots of discussion, we're going to let him say what he wants to say and same for Chris," Griffin said. "It's better for Keith and Chris to play roles they're more comfortable with."

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matea.gold@latimes.com

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