All week, the question lingered on our minds: Can this rift be healed? Can the envious one accept the ascendance of the arrogant one? Can they make it through the convention without tearing each other apart?
The answer, it turns out, is yes they can. Barack Obama’s speech mended divisions at MSNBC and brought Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann back together again after they spent the week mostly at each other’s throat. The network’s coverage of the convention became the butt of jokes. Not a day went by without buffoonishly large egos crashing into each other on live television. But on Thursday night, the two principal antagonists in this melodrama came together in praise of Obama’s wonderfulness.
“For 42 minutes, not a sour note,” Olbermann declared at the conclusion of Obama’s nomination acceptance speech at Denver’s Invesco Field. “And spellbinding in a way usually reserved for works of fiction . . . almost a fully realized, tough, crisp, insistent speech in tone in the sense of cutting through the clutter. I’d love to find something to criticize about it,” he said to his MSNBC co-anchor. “Got anything?”
“No,” Matthews answered. “You know, I’ve been criticized for saying he inspires me. To hell with my critics.” This line drew loud cheers from the crowd that stood gathered around MSNBC’s outdoor set in Denver.
“Let me tell you what was great about [Obama’s speech],” Matthews said. “What he did was, and it’s a military practice, it’s called attacking from a defensive position. . . . You take your opponent’s best shot and you throw it back at him.”
Olbermann eagerly agreed, “He took the last eight years of the Bush administration and shouted at America, ‘Enough!’” He added, “Your observation about this as a historical military struggle in its precision is right on there.”
All that was missing from the reconciliation was the on-air hug and apology. The Matthews-Olbermann love-in came after a week of acrimonious on-air bickering among MSNBC anchors and reporters that left many wondering whether MSNBC president Phil Griffin was running a network or a day care. Among the incidents:
‐“Get a shovel”: On Monday night, as host Joe Scarborough described a surge in the polls that had McCain pulling even with Obama, Olbermann could be heard in the background saying, “Jesus, Joe, why don’t you get a shovel?” Scarborough said, “A shovel?” He then tried to defend his point from Olbermann, who apparently didn’t want to hear any evidence that McCain might be doing well in the polls. After he was finished, Chris Matthews asked, “Are we done?” Scarborough replied, “Well, if you want to be done. Would you like me to get another shovel?”
‐“What’s your party?”: The next morning, Scarborough had MSNBC reporter David Shuster on his show Morning Joe. At one point, Shuster referred to the Republican party as “your party” (Scarborough is a former Republican congressman). This caused Scarborough to flip out. “I will let you know that ‘my party,’ my party, loathes me, much more than your party, the Democratic Party, loathes me.” Shuster objected, but Scarborough continued: “What about your party? What’s your party? David Shuster, David? What’s your party?” Shuster replied that he was “a complete independent.” Scarborough adopted a sarcastic tone: “Oh, I feel so comforted by the fact that you’re an independent. I bet everyone at MSNBC has ‘independent’ on their voting cards.”
‐Wrap-It-Up Box: Later that day, Matthews was droning on and on about Hillary Clinton when he suddenly snapped, to someone off-camera, “I’ll wrap in a second.” Then Olbermann apologized to House majority leader Steny Hoyer for making him wait to be interviewed and made a flapping-gums gesture with his hand. Matthews exploded. “You made that sound, Keith. I can do the same to you. That’s what I thought and I said it.”
‐Wrap-It-Up Box Pt. 2: Earlier this year, MSNBC signed GOP consultant Mike Murphy to a contract that guaranteed he would be on in prime time during the conventions. But he made no prime-time appearances Monday or Tuesday, and according to some reports, Olbermann didn’t want him on the air. On Wednesday night, MSNBC finally had him on. But as Murphy explained why he thought Hillary remained bitter over her loss to Obama, Olbermann could be heard angrily saying, “Let’s wrap him up, alright?”
The explanation for all this is very simple. Due to the success of his show Countdown with Keith Olbermann — the first hit show MSNBC has had, ever — Olbermann wields an increasing amount of clout at MSNBC, and some of his colleagues are insanely jealous. For a long time, Chris Matthews was the face of MSNBC. But Keith Olbermann is indisputably the top dog at the network now.
What’s more, Olbermann’s success proved that the failure of MSNBC’s programming (the network is a perennial third-place finisher in the cable-news ratings race) couldn’t just be blamed on its historic market position. That put Matthews (and, to a lesser degree, Scarborough) in a defensive position.
Sooner or later, these tensions were bound to boil over on the air, but few expected it would happen four times over the course of three days during one of the political season’s most important news events. But no matter how bad things get, Thursday night proved that Matthews and Olbermann can always put their differences aside in the service of a higher cause.
– Stephen Spruiell is an NRO staff reporter.