MSNBC said Monday that it will replace the team of Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann as anchors of its live political coverage for the rest of the presidential campaign season.
David Gregory, NBC News’ chief White House correspondent, will be the primary host of coverage of the presidential and vice presidential debates coming up over the next two months, as well as election night, said Phil Griffin, MSNBC’s president.
The decision was first reported in Monday’s editions of The New York Times and The Washington Post.
Matthews, the host of “Hardball,” and Olbermann, the host of “Countdown,” will remain “front and center” during those events, Griffin said. He said reports by other news organizations had mischaracterized the decision as a demotion of the network’s two highest-rated stars.
“ ‘Hardball’ and ‘Countdown’ are at the center of the growth of MSNBC and the success we’re having,” Griffin said, who called the network’s ratings gains over the past year “a great success story.”
Network denies conservative pressure
MSNBC remains the third-rated cable news network, but in the past year, its rating have risen sharply along with Olbermann’s emergence as a critic of the Bush administration and, more recently, the presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
Critics, especially Republicans and conservative media commentators, accused the network itself — including NBC News’ anchors and reporters — of tilting left.
(Msnbc.com, a joint venture of NBC News and Microsoft Corp., is the online outlet for MSNBC programming and provided live streaming video of the network’s convention coverage.)
In a statement, Brent Bozell, president of the Media Resource Center, a conservative media watchdog group that has criticized MSNBC for what it calls the network’s bias against Republicans, said: “Arch-liberal MSNBC has finally pulled the plug on the horrendous anchor tandem of Olbermann and Matthews. It’s a good move, but it’s about time.”
Griffin disputed that Matthews and Olbermann were reassigned in response to pressure from Republican operatives or conservative commentators. “They’re wrong,” he said.
Olbermann ‘very uncomfortable’ during GOP convention
Griffin said Matthews and Olbermann agreed with the decision to change their roles, characterizing it as a shift that had been envisioned from the beginning.
“We agreed months ago to re-evaluate after every major event” of the campaign season, Griffin said.
“They couldn’t speak what I like them to do on their shows. They couldn’t speak openly and authentically,” he said. “For the most part, it worked, but I think ... Keith felt very uncomfortable after the 9/11 tribute.”
During the Republican National Convention last week, Olbermann, in his role as news anchor, criticized the Republican Party for airing a video tribute to the victims of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“We would be rightly eviscerated at all quarters, perhaps by the Republican Party itself, for exploiting the memories of the dead and, perhaps, even for trying to evoke that pain again,” Olbermann said.
Matthews also has come in for criticism for his enthusiasm for McCain’s Democratic opponent, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, and for comments that supporters of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., said were biased against women.
After Obama’s acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention two weeks ago, Matthews, serving as a news anchor, noted that his critics had accused him of openly supporting Obama and said, “To hell with my critics.”
Griffin said that rather than pull his stars back, he wanted to lift the “restraint” imposed by their roles as straight news anchors. “I want them to be totally comfortable,” he said.
Adding Gregory to the mix as “the man in the middle” will allow the network to “take the best of MSNBC and NBC News,” he said. “MSNBC and NBC News have a great success story.”