Inside the Turmoil at MSNBC: The Network Responds

by Eliana Johnson

The spate of impolitic statements from MSNBC’s liberal-minded hosts in recent months have led many to wonder what, exactly, is going on inside the network. Over on the homepage, I write about the dynamics at play at Rockefeller Plaza, where sources say an executive, Rich Stockwell, is now proofreading the scripts of the network’s daytime hosts before they air. They also say MSNBC president Phil Griffin, who is not an ideologue, is letting primetime star and avowed liberal Rachel Maddow exercise a lot of control.  

MSNBC is pushing back against the piece, for which I relied heavily on anonymous sources, in particular on former colleagues of Griffin’s and Maddow’s who have insight into what’s happening at the network today. ​MSNBC has issued statements to TV Newser, to Politico’s Dylan Byers, and to me. Spokeswoman Lauren Skowronski told me the piece is “absurd and full of inaccuracies from beginning to end” and that “we’re disappointed that National Review would run a story with more anonymous, uninformed sources than you’d ever find on the gossip pages.”

MSNBC’s claim that Stockwell’s role reviewing scripts “is neither new or in response to recent controversial comments” (that’s how TV Newser paraphrased it) is, according to my sources, false. Asked about Stockwell’s oversight of scripts — in particular, when and why he was given that responsibility — Skowronski told me merely that “MSNBC does have an editorial review process in place.” When I tried to get her to clarify in a follow-up, I received no response. Sources say that, in fact, he was given the responsibility after Martin Bashir made a boneheaded remark off of his teleprompter about Sarah Palin, slavery, and human waste. I’m also told that the ham-handed segment led by Melissa Harris-Perry, during which her guests used Mitt Romney’s adopted African-American grandson to mock the Republican party’s lack of diversity, has led MSNBC brass to appoint another executive to review weekend scripts. 

Stockwell has been in a “senior executive producer” role since May, working on a number of special projects, and Skowronski insists his “position” is nothing new. That’s true: His title hasn’t changed. But his responsibility to review the daytime show scripts is new, and sources say it was announced in an internal meeting. The alternative is that Stockwell signed off on Bashir’s comment, and I’m told that’s not the case. “MSNBC has had a network and editorial script review process in place since the network began in 1996,” Skowronski writes today. Sure, but the one at work now is different and more substantial. The process set up involving Stockwell and another executive on the weekends is, essentially, a whole new level of oversight for the network’s scripts that hasn’t previously existed.

I also write about why, though MSNBC parted ways with (read: fired) Bashir and Alec Baldwin after they caused offense, Melissa Harris-Perry is unlikely to suffer the same fate. I said she’s part of Maddow’s in-crowd, a Tulane professor and one of the liberal wonks now ascendant at MSNBC. ​Maddow said in a statement to National Review Online, “This is categorically false. I have never had any role in any management decision at MSNBC. Any source who says otherwise is wrong.” That’s word for word what Maddow told Page Six in December when it reported that she was behind Baldwin’s firing, and Keith Olbermann’s before that. MSNBC told me on Monday that “Rachel has absolutely no role in network management decisions. Writing her show every night is more than enough work. She gladly leaves talent management to her bosses.” That’s the same thing the network told Page Six, too. 

Of course Maddow is not issuing pink slips from her office, but, as I note in my piece, Griffin has publicly called Maddow “our quarterback” — the team leader who, as The New Yorker reported in September, “sets the tone for the network.” My sources and Griffin’s own statements bear that out: The network today is very much shaped by her ideological vision, and in television, talent is key to any such effort. I note that Griffin, who is not ideological and rose through the network ranks as a producer, isn’t known for his ability to manage talent. Ed Driscoll at PJ Media points to The New Yorker’s June 2008 profile of Keith Olbermann in which the author, Peter Boyer, describes how Griffin, then a senior vice president in charge at MSNBC, tried to coax Olbermann into toning down monologues. “Phil thinks he’s my boss,” Olbermann told the magazine. At the time, Boyer writes, Griffin considered himself Olbermann’s handler. We saw how that transpired.

I e-mailed both Maddow and Griffin on Saturday evening with requests to speak with them but did not hear back by the time my piece went live early this morning. 

UPDATE: MSNBC’s Lauren Skowronski writes to say that, at MSNBC, “There have been no changes in our editorial process.” I stand by my reporting. 

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