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From AJR,   August/September 2008  issue

Bowing to the Inevitable   

Online Exclusive »: MSNBC wisely drops Olbermann and Matthews as politics anchors.


By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      

It had to happen.

There was a sense of inevitability about MSNBC's decision to separate Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews from their anchoring duties.

Olbermann and Matthews are both highly opinionated hosts and pundits. Nothing wrong with that. But having them preside over the coverage of major news stories like primary results and political conventions was simply a bad idea. Rather than blurring the line between news and opinion, it obliterated it.

Putting the outspoken personalities at the anchor desk was a completely understandable temptation, particularly in the case of Olbermann, who has singlehandedly given longtime also-ran MSNBC a personality and a much larger audience.

But as John Edwards could tell you, giving in to temptation is not always a good career move.

MSNBC's emergence as the liberal alternative to Fox has given it new life. But it's also complicated because MSNBC, unlike Fox, has a broadcast sibling in NBC. Network news isn't supposed to pick sides, at least not yet.

As cable has become such an important venue for political coverage, NBC's big hitters have appeared on MSNBC with increasing frequency. With Tom Brokaw and Brian Williams and Andrea Mitchell and all-knowing Political Director Chuck Todd showing up so often on MSNBC, it's no wonder if viewers get the two confused. The anchoring arrangement has also been a source of great tension at the network.

The endgame for the anchors no doubt began in earnest at the Democratic National Convention, when MSNBC made nearly as much news as it reported. At different times Olbermann dissed "Morning Joe" host Joe Scarborough, interviewee and political consultant Mike Murphy and Matthews himself. (For good measure, Scarborough, on his own show, went off on NBC reporter David Shuster.) Brokaw and Williams, two of the classier acts on TV, seemed increasingly out of place at this circus.

So now David Gregory, an NBC correspondent and MSNBC host, will be at the helm for the debates and on Election Night. Sounds like a much better idea.