By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

MSNBC’s news-opinion dilemma

It looks like the political cross-dressing act at MSNBC has reached its limit. According to Brian Stelter of the New York Times, talk-show hosts Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews will not anchor the cable network’s coverage of the upcoming debates or on election night, which should tone down the battle between NBC’s journalists and MSNBC’s opinionators.

I have quibbles about this, but overall I think it was the right move. Barack Obama has no bigger advocates in the mainstream media than Olbermann and Matthews, and it has looked strange all year to have serious journalists like Tom Brokaw, Brian Williams, Andrea Mitchell and, before his death, Tim Russert seeming to answer to them. Recently, it all boiled over on the air.

Olbermann and Matthews reportedly will continue to appear as analysts, while David Gregory will serve as the anchor. That’s all fine. My larger concern is that in addition to being moved out of the anchor slots, they will also be expected to tone down their opinions, lest they run afoul of the Republicans’ current war against the media. Olbermann was exactly right in his revulsion at Republican efforts to stamp their brand on the terrorist attacks of 9/11, even if it was unseemly for him to do it from the anchor desk.

The problem, of course, is that there are no such scruples about the dividing line between news and opinion at Fox News. Stelter, for instance, does not question the fiction that Bill O’Reilly is not allowed to anchor Fox’s convention coverage, a piece of information that would be a surprise to anyone tuning in between 8 and 9 p.m. the last two weeks. Fox’s signature news personality, Brit Hume, is a good journalist, but he also leans noticeably to the right.

MSNBC this year is experiencing the first semi-success of its benighted existence by loading up on liberal political talk shows. Today Rachel Maddow debuts at 9 p.m., extending that trend. I don’t know how long it can last, since the network is still firmly ensconced in last place. But as long as network executives can find a way to keep the journalists and the talkers from ripping each other’s throats out, MSNBC has become a refreshing alternative to Fox News.

I just hope it’s Williams and Brokaw who are driving the anchor-desk shift — and not Rick Davis and Steve Schmidt.

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  1. Steve

    The dirty secret of the “liberal media” – no actual liberals allowed!

  2. raccoonradio

    Many on the Right feel Gregory to be in the Left’s camp, which is why some conservatives (at Free Republic) are howling at some blog posts (Dem Underground, etc.) in which libs call him “A Republicanshill”. I guess it all depends where one stands, as far as politicalopinions go. (For that matter, many on the Right feel McCain is a “Republican in Name Only”–while those on the left feel he’s a farRight wacko.)

  3. Sean Roche

    Just out of curiosity, are you aware of any other television news figures that pointed out that the Republicans were the first to use the 9/11 footage for political purposes?If not, shouldn’t the story be that only MSNBC (Olbermann) had the journalistic chops to note an important element of the convention. Isn’t it worse that other outlets missed the point than that Olbermann was a little shrill?

  4. Steve

    Sean – the problem is, even though it’s a fact, it’s a Democratic talking point. Only Republican talking points are allowed on the news. That’s the moral of MSNBC’s decision.

  5. Tunder

    I have a new bumper sticker idea: “No Republican Whining” (circle with slash through it idea…)The party has become the biggest bunch of whiners. Boo-hoo – the liberal media, the liberal media. It’s been their drumbeat for years and unfortunately it has stuck. Meanwhile, I’m sure they all love the cover photo of Sarah Palin on Time (probably on Newsweek as well). If the “liberal media” serves their needs then they are all for it.

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