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.