Throwback Thursday: MSNBC Meltdown Update—The Towering Network Inferno!

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Just yesterday, The Cable Gamer was lamenting her lack of solid inside information about the Towering Network Inferno, aka NBC Headquarters at 30 Rock in NYC. Well, proving, once again, that there is a Gossip God, benevolently dishing out our daily dish, here comes a TCG fave, Felix Gillette of The New York Observer, to deliver the scoop–and maybe the coup de grace– on MSNBC/NBC/GE.

The key news here–more like the smoking gun–is that the decision to move MSNBC way to the Left–and to put a serrated edge on the leftiness, thanks to Keith Olbermann’s sharp tongue–was well known to the top brass at not only MSNBC, but also NBC, but also General Electric. In other words, MSNBC’s decision to climb on board with the Netroots Nation crowd was not some rogue decision from a lower-down, it was well known to the higher ups. It wasn’t just Olbermann plotting and scheming with MSNBC chief Phil Griffin, it was Olbermann & Co. working under the benign gaze of NBC News president Steve Capus, NBC-Universal honcho Jeff Zucker, and most strikingly of all, GE Chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt. As Gillette sets the scene, below, all those corporate worthies flew down to Washington, a month or so ago, to schmooze with their news gang over dinner; but when they got an earful of complaints from Andrea Mitchell, they just listened. Why? Because, obviously, Capus/Zucker/Immelt were happy with the way things were going at MSNBC.

Roughly a month ago, on a hot summer evening in early August, a small crowd of reporters, anchors, and producers from the Washington bureau of NBC News descended on Café Milano, a seen-and-be-seen watering hole in Washington, D.C., for a night of martinis, braised baby octopus, and frank conversations with their bosses—including Mr. Capus, Mr. Zucker, and Mr. Immelt.

Mr. Immelt served as host of the night’s festivities, which was nothing new. Every year, the 52-year-old executive of the massive multinational company, uses the annual dinner to touch base with his news division in the nation’s capital and to gossip about politics, business, and the economy in a relaxed private setting. This year, the get-together had special significance. Less than two months earlier, the news division had lost their beloved bureau chief, Tim Russert, to a sudden heart attack. Mr. Russert had not only been a close friend of nearly every guest in the room but was also the unquestioned leader, guiding the ambitious and high-strung pack of journalists along the tumultuous campaign trail and keeping the collection of big egos working together for the good of the collective team.

As the dinner got under way, Mr. Immelt praised the D.C. staffers for pulling together through the crisis. Later, according to sources at the network, he also praised the work of their colleagues at the sibling network, MSNBC. When the floor eventually opened up for questions, according to sources, Andrea Mitchell, the veteran political correspondent and wife of Alan Greenspan, noted on behalf of her colleagues that there was some ongoing uneasiness about having Keith Olbermann—MSNBC’s liberal pundit and caustic anchor of their hit show Countdown—co-anchoring (along with Hardball’s Chris Matthews) the network’s coverage on big political nights. What happened to the traditional firewall between news and opinion? There were risks involved with blurring the distinction.

Such complaints were not new but had increased significantly over the past year, as more and more seasoned NBC News reporters (following Mr. Russert’s lead) had started playing significant roles on the cable-news channel. “After years of ignoring the place, they came into the tenement and decided that they needed to clean up the building,” said one source familiar with the inner workings of the newsroom.

At Café Milano, the bosses listened. But for the time being, nothing changed—that is, until this past weekend, when Mr. Griffin confirmed news of the switch to reporters at The New York Times and The Washington Post.

Of course, all this corporate blase-ness was before the multiple on-air confrontations at the Republican and Democratic conventions, featuring Olbermann (of course) and also Chris Matthews, David Shuster, and Joe Scarborough. (And who knows what else behind the scenes; if karma bites on screen, no doubt it is biting, too, off screen.)

Now, of course, MSNBC has blown up, and Olbermann, many predict, is on his way out the door.

And in the meantime, Gillette keeps piling on the sauce, detailing Tom Brokaw’s role in the leashing of Olbermann. Once again, note that Capus, Zucker, and Immelt all had plenty of advance warning:

The drama began on Sunday, Aug. 24, at a panel discussion in Denver among Sunday political talk show hosts. There Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell asserted that throughout the primaries MSNBC had favored Barack Obama over his preferred candidate Senator Hillary Clinton. Afterward, Tom Brokaw defended NBC News reporters but acknowledged feeling that certain anchor-pundits had crossed a line. “I think Keith has gone too far,” said Mr. Brokaw. “I think Chris has gone too far.”

Behind the scenes, Mr. Brokaw had been saying the same thing to NBC bosses for months. He could accept that cable news was all about opinion. But shouldn’t you at least try and balance opinions from both sides of the political aisle? “After Russert died and Brokaw appointed himself the custodian of the Russert legend, he began beating on Steve Capus and Jeff Zucker and Jeff Immelt that MSNBC was an embarrassment,” said the aforementioned source familiar with the inner workings of the newsroom. “It wasn’t a platform that Brokaw found dignified enough for his presence.”

For his part, Griffin is unapologetic:

“MSNBC just had its biggest year ever in terms of revenue, and is contributing—I don’t want to tell you the number—but let’s just say, a significant part of the revenue base of NBC News, which helps make this division better able to cover news around the world,” said Mr. Griffin. “It’s all working.”

Well, yes. It’s working to pump up MSNBC a little bit, but it’s also working destroy to the NBC brand, and to pollute the entire company. And mark my words, it’s going to give NBC/GE trouble with regulators, who tend not to like wildly ideological companies (and I am not just referring to John McCain, here–I am also thinking of Hillary Clinton).

And now, thanks to Gillette, we know that this leftward lurching was all done with the full understanding, and blessing, of the top leaders at NBC/GE. We know what veteran journalists such as Andrea Mitchell and Tom Brokaw think of this journalistic degradation, but TCG also wonders what Jack Welch thinks about that. Forget that Welch is a Republican–the real point is that he is a shareholder value guy, and it’s just that, shareholder value, that all this media floundering is costing the company that Welch once loved.

And in the meantime, GE stock continues to decline. It’s long been believed that Immelt is looking for a graceful exit from GE, and that perhaps a President Barack Obama would give him a nice job in the government to “lure” him away from his crumbling company. And that would certainly be a fair payback to Immelt–after all, Obama owes MSNBC bigtime for helping him secure the Democratic nomination. But of course, the way things look now, there might not be an Obama administration, and so Immelt might be out of luck.

In any case, there is much more to come here, probably not long after the November election. The Cable Game continues to predict that the final chapter of this soap opera will be written in Fairfield, not Manhattan. And soon.

Reposted from The Cable Game, 10 September 2008

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