The ghosts of Chet Huntley and David Brinkley can rest easy now.
The two NBC news icons who for years consistently topped CBS and Walter Cronkite in the ratings and set a standard for political coverage unmatched since, no doubt would have been flabbergasted at the idea of a former sportscaster and unabashed liberal screamer being taken seriously as the anchor of the network’s political news coverage. That “experiment” is now over as Olbermann, along with his loudmouthed, ignorant sidekick Chris Matthews, have been tossed from anchoring political coverage on MSNBC.
Thankfully, both men died before Keith Olbermann began to run MSNBC. In this New York Times article, a staffer is quoted as saying what anyone could see; that the inmate was running the asylum; “They have banked the entirety of the network on Keith Olbermann,” said the staffer.
Any network news executive who would build political coverage around that shrill, partisan, conspiratorial-minded boob should first, have their head examined to see if there is any gray matter present and then summarily fired.
God knows what the worst imitator of Edward R. Murrow in history would have made of the wry wit and incisive analysis of a David Brinkley or the authoritative voice of knowledge and experience of a Chet Huntley. No doubt he would have given them short shrift since they wouldn’t have been in the tank enough for Barack Obama. And if he shared the stage with either of those two, he would have been exposed as … well, a former sportscaster who doesn’t know anything about politics.
But Olbermann didn’t need Huntley or Brinkley to reveal his ignorance. He does it on a daily basis all by himself, thank you. It still would have been priceless to see Brinkley – who was known to be brutal in correcting errors of correspondents on air during election night telecasts – throw a few wry observations about the role of a news anchor at the clueless Olbermann.
MSNBC was obviously trying to duplicate the success of Fox News and their sometimes biased news coverage that slants toward conservatives and Republicans. But what MSNBC President Phil Griffin just doesn’t get is that Fox News also does a lot of straight news programming as well with respected journalists like Brit Hume and Chris Wallace playing it pretty much down the middle most of the time. Instead, Griffin believes that all news should have an ideological bent: “In a rapidly changing media environment, this is the great philosophical debate,” he says.
This is pure baloney. There is nothing philosophical in trying to save newspapers or garner more rating point and please don’t insult our intelligence by pretending otherwise. This is a debate about the bottom line and whether it is worth the loss of integrity in order to pander to one side or the other. The idea is tempting because it is the way news used to be disseminated. In the days before radio and TV, newspapers and magazines as a matter of tradition were either Democratic or Republican organs. There were a few independent outlets but they were never as popular as the party rags that waged political war on the front pages of their newspapers. The publishers took great pride in their ability to move people through fear and smear tactics to vote for their preferred candidates.
This was in the day when large cities routinely had at least a dozen or more dailies – both morning and evening editions – and papers fought to sensationalize everything. The more partisan the slant, the more readers. And yet, there was also a healthy dose of straight news reporting as well – mostly on local matters. But very little news from Washington or the state capitol was unbiased.
Then around the turn of the 20th century, that began to change as the progressives sought to make journalism if not unbiased then certainly less partisan. The people responded by rewarding those publications that offered a more balanced view of politics with more success and gradually, the rank partisanship of most news outlets became less obvious and was generally confined to the Op-Ed pages.
The new medium of TV had barely any news programming at all and what there was of it consisted of a news reader sitting at a desk, facing the camera and largely reading wire service copy. Edward R. Murrow at CBS changed that, bringing in his “boys” who revolutionized radio journalism in the 1930’s. Murrow was even more liberal than Olbermann and made no bones of it on his show See it Now.
But Murrow had two things going for him that Keith Olbermann could never dream of having; integrity and an overriding sense of fairness. Where Olbermann was overheard during the convention trying to cut off a GOP strategist Mike Murphy with his “Let’s wrap him up” aside that was caught by a live mike, Murrow made it a point of immense pride that he gave equal time to the targets of his show. He saw the enormous potential power of TV news and felt that too much partisanship would destroy the credibility of the new medium.
But MSNBC’s Griffin thinks that this “great philosophical debate” over whether to throw journalistic integrity to the winds in order to improve the bottom line should be foisted on an unsuspecting public:
Mr. Griffin, MSNBC’s president, denies that it has an ideology. “I think ideology means we think one way, and we don’t,” he said. Rather than label MSNBC’s prime time as left-leaning, he says it has passion and point of view.
But MSNBC is the cable arm of NBC News, the dispassionate news division of NBC Universal. MSNBC, “Today” and “NBC Nightly News” share some staff members, workspace and content. And some critics are claiming they also share a political affiliation.
Indeed, Griffin thinks that simply putting Olbermann in the anchor chair defines the ranting nutcase as “unbiased:”
In May, MSNBC President Phil Griffin said in an interview that during live events Olbermann and Matthews “put on different hats. I think the audience gets it. . . . I see zero problem.”
But NBC News journalists, who often appear on the cable channel, did see a problem, arguing behind the scenes that MSNBC’s move to the left—which includes a new show, debuting tonight, for Air America radio host Rachel Maddow—was tarnishing their reputation for fairness. Tom Brokaw, the interim host of “Meet the Press,” said that at times Olbermann and Matthews went too far.
How an adult can look at Olbermann and see a non-biased observer is a mystery. Jennifer Rubin asks the same thing:
The Left has compared MSNBC to Fox, but the analogy has always fallen on exactly this point: Fox separated talk-show partisans (e.g. Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly) from news anchors and reporters ( e.g. Brit Hume, Chris Wallace) while MSNBC did not. This move is a small but essential corrective step.
From the outside one can easily ask, “What took so long?” But the temptation to give into bullies and to seek some small ratings/monetary advantage is great. It is no easy thing to say “enough” and somebody –or somebodies — at MSNBC/NBC did just that. But whether this is part of a greater course correction, one that will be reflected in more than a shuffling of the anchor chairs on the deck of the MSM Titanic remains to be seen.
When even the sane left agrees that Olbermann as anchor was a loony idea, you realize the titanic blunder made by Griffin and other MSNBC execs. Jeralyn Merritt:
Sure, it was his and Matthews’ abysmal coverage of the primaries that ensured millions of viewers wouldn’t be back. But it’s more than that. Who wants to watch an hour of Keith Olbermann’s opinions, backed up by reporters and pundits selected only because they share his view? It’s no different than watching Laura Ingraham or Lou Dobbs.
Good for MSNBC for recognizing, however belatedly, that news coverage of live events like debates and election night, should be anchored by journalists with an assist from pundits on both sides. They shouldn’t be the main event.
Having Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews anchor political coverage was often more interesting than the other networks, but it was, to be mild, journalistically flawed. This especially proved to be a problem as the reputation of MSNBC also affected the reputation of NBC. The New York Times reports that Olbermann and Matthews are to be removed as anchors for the remainder of the coverage of the election.
Matthews, who at times seemed to be trying to match Olbermann’s partisanship, never belonged on an anchor desk either. But at least he knows something about politics. Watching Olbermann’s painfully amateurish and simple minded “analysis” was actually funny at times. He seemed like a little boy who had wandered by accident into the after dinner gathering of adult men who were smoking cigars and drinking Courvoisier while talking talking politics and world affairs. He was wearing short pants in a long pants world.
David Gregory, who will take over the anchor duties for the debates and election night, is an improvement but hardly someone who has demonstrated fairness in his coverage of the campaigns. But he has an excellent grasp of politics and the issues and should at least give the viewer the benefit of some expert analysis.
Meanwhile, one wonders how MSNBC can get its soul back. A good start would be to fire Griffin and bring in a genuine news executive. After all, Griffin is the man who gave Keith Olbermann his head and allowed him to run the NBC News brand into the toilet. Someone should pay for that or the ghosts of Huntley and Brinkley may haunt the network for eternity.