On-air battles display MSNBC's pivot left

At the Democratic National Convention last month, several on-air spats between MSNBC hosts gained considerable media attention.

Despite historic speeches by top-tier Democratic politicians during the party's national convention in Denver last month, several on-air spats between MSNBC hosts Keith Olbermann, Chris Matthews, Joe Scarborough, and David Shuster gained considerable media attention.

“In an uncomfortable moment Tuesday night, an exhausted-looking Hardball host Chris Matthews shouted at a producer (‘I'll wrap in a second!') before a stilted exchange with Countdown host Keith Olbermann, in which the two argued about who was talking out of turn,” reporter Rebecca Dana wrote in The Wall Street Journal on August 28.

A reason for the on-air tiffs could be that the commentary of Olbermann and Matthews is more liberal than many of the network's other personalities, claims Peter Hart, media analyst at progressive group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR).

“MSNBC seems to be pushing the boundary further to the left than anyone else at the moment,” he adds. “Some things you see from Scarborough and Matthews demonstrate that they are uncomfortable with the political views of some of their colleagues.”

The consensus among media commentators is that MSNBC, which launched in 1996, is still trying to define itself. With examples like Olbermann saying, according to the Huffington Post, “Let's wrap him up!” about Mike Murphy, former GOP operative and strategist for Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), the network seems to be veering considerably to the left.

However, a top MSNBC executive recently told The Politico that there is no such leftward tilt among the network's on-air talent.

“MSNBC does not have an ideology. We hire smart people who are passionate about their love of politics and love of news,” network president Phil Griffin told The Politico. “Do I want them to have squabbles? No. But I understand they're human.”

Jeremy Gaines, VP of communications at MSNBC, said via e-mail that the company will not have any further comment on this situation.

Chris Giglio, COO and head of the crisis practice at Freud Communications, says that an open discussion of different political viewpoints can be healthy for the network and the public during this election season.

“The network should always embrace analysis of this and emphasize that it is political debate, which is a healthy thing,” says Giglio, an NBC News producer for 10 years. “The only danger is that this will become more about individual personalities and not about individual political views. I think the public responds to diverging political views, but I think an episode of Men Behaving Badly is not what they are looking for in a news channel.”

MSNBC is using its prime-time personalities, such as Olbermann and Matthews, to steer marquee programming to the left, says Bill Triplett, Washington reporter for Variety, who has written about on-air tensions at the network.

“There is something to the claim that MSNBC is in transition with its identity, and that identity is going to be defined largely by the prime-time programming,” he says. “No matter what the executives say to the contrary, that's how it's going to be driven. The fact is that prime time is being driven largely by liberal points of view and this seems to be the direction they are going in.”

But the overall impact of these on-air tensions is still up in the air, Triplett says. “In the long run, I think individual things like this are less important than [the question of] what [will] be the ultimate effect on the news gathering and the news reporting, and even the way it is analyzed and discussed,” he says. “Does it go strictly into partisan territory or is there room for a number of different points of view? I don't know. That's a hard one to predict.”

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