Politics & Policy

Countdown to Complete Meltdown

Keith, Chris, and a network in turmoil.

In late October of last year, MSNBC moved its offices from Secaucus, N.J., to NBC headquarters at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. “It was cool,” one longtime MSNBC employee says of the move. “All these old offices with so much history . . . you’d be walking around and someone would point out John Belushi’s old office.”

But one MSNBC employee wasn’t happy with his office. According to two sources who worked for the network at the time, Keith Olbermann, host of MSNBC’s Countdown, didn’t like his door. It had a window. He wanted a solid one.

He called the building manager. “They told him, ‘Look, it’s an old building, we’re not changing the doors,’” the longtime employee says. “So Keith calls [MSNBC president] Phil Griffin and says, ‘I want a new door or I’m not going on the air tonight.’ And so Phil went and got him a new door.”

Because whatever Keith wants, Keith gets.

Thus began a cover story I wrote for a recent issue of National Review about the Olberfication of NBC News. The story went to press before the Democratic convention, and little did I know that within two weeks, Olbermann would, to borrow a phrase from someone I talked to who works at the network, “collapse under the weight of his own insanity.”

The Democratic convention was a disaster for MSNBC. With Olbermann and fellow Obama-lover Chris Matthews in the anchor chairs, the network became a glass case exhibiting a zoo of dysfunctional egos within. Olbermann and Matthews bickered all week. At one point, Olbermann made fun of Matthews by making a flapping-gums hand gesture, prompting Matthews to say, “You made that sound, Keith. I can do the same to you.”

Olbermann also sparred with Morning Joe host Joe Scarborough. After Scarborough noted that McCain had gained in the polls, Olbermann muttered, “Jesus Joe, why don’t you get a shovel?” (the implication being that Scarborough was full of something one finds in a barnyard). Scarborough tried to defend his point, until Matthews asked, “Are we done?” Scarborough replied, “Well, if you want to be done. Would you like me to get another shovel?”

The following Monday, MSNBC surprised its viewers by changing its lineup and keeping Olbermann in New York rather than sending him to St. Paul to co-anchor the network’s coverage of the GOP with Matthews. Network brass said this was so Olbermann could cover Hurricane Gustav, which made landfall in Louisiana the first day of the convention. But even after the hurricane passed, Olbermann remained in New York, while Matthews anchored the coverage in St. Paul. The most likely explanation is that Olbermann’s bosses did not want a repeat of what happened the previous week in Denver.

But keeping Olbermann in New York was not enough to keep him out of trouble. After the Republicans played a video at the convention that included some footage of the 9/11 attacks, Olbermann again courted controversy from the anchor chair by accusing the Republican party of “exploiting the memories of the dead, and perhaps even for trying to evoke that pain again.” He then apologized on behalf of the network for airing the video.

In St. Paul, his colleagues were no better. Conservatives, energized by the appearance of Sarah Palin at the convention, got a huge kick out of MSNBC’s reaction to Palin’s speech. I got a large number of e-mails from conservatives after I posted this video of NBC News correspondent Andrea Mitchell angrily asking Rudy Giuliani how dare he attack Obama and glumly declaring that, with the addition of Palin to the Republican ticket, “The war has begun.”

Not only did MSNBC fail to beat CNN or Fox News in the ratings during the conventions, but the behavior of its on-air personalities turned the network into a national laughingstock. Most notably, The Daily Show did a segment on the constant squabbling. When NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams appeared on the show, host Jon Stewart asked him about all the infighting at MSNBC. Williams said that “every family has a dynamic all its own,” to which Stewart replied, “But does MSNBC have to be the Lohans?”

In retrospect, this was probably the beginning of the end of Olbermann’s stint in the anchor chair. When I interviewed him for the cover piece, I asked Center for Media and Public Affairs president Robert Lichter if he thought MSNBC would change its approach in response to conservative criticism. He answered, “Journalists are not going to change their coverage because of what John McCain says. They are going to change their coverage because of what Jon Stewart says.” Now that MSNBC has decided to replace the anchor team of Olbermann and Matthews with NBC News White House correspondent David Gregory, Lichter’s words seem remarkably prescient.

Olbermann will, of course, remain the host of Countdown, and Matthews will still have Hardball. And, with the addition of a new show hosted by Air America’s Rachel Maddow, MSNBC’s prime-time will remain a haven for left-wing bloggers and others who believe George W. Bush should be indicted for war crimes. But for the time being, it appears that the grown-ups at NBC News have reasserted control over what was fast becoming the Olbermann Broadcasting Network.

— Stephen Spruiell is an NRO staff reporter.

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