September 9, 2008

Accused of Leftist Bias, MSNBC Picks New Election Anchor

By Brian Stelter

MSNBC tried a bold experiment this year by putting two left- leaning hosts in the anchor chair to lead the cable news channel's coverage of the election.

That experiment appears to be over.

After months of accusations of political bias and simmering animosity between MSNBC and its parent network NBC, the channel decided over the weekend that the NBC News correspondent and MSNBC host David Gregory would anchor news coverage of the coming debates and election night. The former hosts, Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews, will remain as analysts during the coverage.

The change - which comes in the home stretch of the long election cycle - is a direct result of tensions associated with the channel's perceived shift to the political left.

"The most disappointing shift is to see the partisan attitude move from prime time into what's supposed to be straight news programming," said Davidson Goldin, formerly the editorial director of MSNBC.

Executives at the channel's parent company, NBC Universal, had high hopes for MSNBC's coverage of the political conventions. Instead, the coverage frequently descended into on-air squabbles between the anchors, embarrassing some workers at NBC's news division, and quite possibly alienating viewers.

Although MSNBC nearly doubled its audience compared with the 2004 conventions, it remained in last place among the broadcast and cable news networks.

There has been a price paid for the increase in audience.

When the vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin lamented media bias during her speech, people at the Republican convention loudly chanted "NBC."

Olbermann, a 49-year-old former sportscaster, has become the face of the more aggressive MSNBC, and the lightning rod for much of the criticism. His program "Countdown," now a liberal institution, was created by Olbermann in 2003 and found its voice in his gnawing dissent regarding the Bush administration, often in the form of "special comment" segments.

In January, Olbermann and Matthews, the host of "Hardball," began co-anchoring primary night coverage.

MSNBC insisted that Olbermann knew the difference between news and commentary. But in the past two weeks, that line has been blurred.

MSNBC is the cable arm of NBC News, the dispassionate news division of NBC Universal. MSNBC, "Today" and "NBC Nightly News" share some staff members, workspace and content. And some critics are claiming they also share a political affiliation.

The McCain campaign has filed letters of complaint to the news division about its coverage and openly tied MSNBC to it. Tension between the network and the campaign hit an apex the day McCain announced Palin as his running mate. MSNBC had reported Friday morning that Palin's plane was en route to the announcement and she was probably the pick. But McCain campaign officials warned the network off, with one official going so far as to say that all of the candidates on the short list were on their way - which MSNBC then reported.

Tom Brokaw and Brian Williams, the past and present anchors of "NBC Nightly News," have told friends and colleagues that they were finding it tougher to defend the cable arm of the news division, even while they anchored daytime hours of convention coverage on MSNBC and contributed commentary each evening. Williams did not respond to a request for comment and Brokaw declined to comment. At a panel discussion in Denver, Brokaw said Olbermann and Matthews had "gone too far" at times, but emphasized they were "not the only voices" on MSNBC, according to The Washington Post.

Originally published by The New York Times Media Group.

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