Olbermann, Matthews now commentators

MSNBC’s decision to yank Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews from the anchor chairs of the cabler’s political coverage is drawing an array of reactions from media watchers.

But a former MSNBC producer said that the cable channel’s low ratings compared with its competitors’ during the two conventions motivated the decision as much as anything else.

Former NBC “Nightly News” White House correspondent David Gregory will assume anchor duties for the cabler’s political coverage.

Paul Waldman, senior fellow at Media Matters for America, which monitors conservative bias in news reports, said conservative complaints that Olbermann’s and Matthews’ lefty views were slanting their coverage of the presidential campaign and especially the recent party conventions are “not an unreasonable argument to make. It’s just the timing of this decision that makes it somewhat problematic.”

“Coming right after the Republican National Convention and its attacks on the media, it looks like MSNBC is being bullied into it,” Waldman said. “If they had done it six months ago, nobody would’ve raised an eyebrow.”

Olbermann a liberal cheerleader? Waldman can see that. “But Matthews is not a flaming liberal. In fact, he gushed over McCain for years and was basically a one-man fan club for him.

“It just looks like MSNBC is knuckling under to pressure from the right,” Waldman continued.

The move came after a period of turbulence at the cabler. There were widespread reports of infighting and arguments while MSNBC was in Denver for the Democratic National Convention, with an actual on-air tiff between Joe Scarborough and David Shuster.

But some conservative watchdog groups jumped on the move as evidence that MSNBC is acknowledging a liberal bias.

“MSNBC is finally waking up to the fact that their credibility has been suffering with those two characters as anchors,” said Cliff Kincaid, editor of Accuracy in Media’s AIM Report, which monitors liberal bias in reporting. “Their coverage has become a laughingstock, and they’re going to have to do more (than pulling Olbermann and Matthews) to restore their credibility.

“They’ve got a right to go in the direction they did, but their actions with Olbermann and Matthews suggest they realize they went too far,” Kincaid said.

Peter Hart, media analyst for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, said, “The right’s complaining about unfair treatment must have put pressure on (network) executives. The on-air spats probably just made it easier for them to make the decision.”

Hart acknowledged criticism that Olbermann and/or Matthews seemed “over the top” at times in their positive reactions to Barack Obama’s acceptance speech in Denver. “TV journalism isn’t a place for opinion outside of a certain context,” he said. “The anchor chair isn’t supposed to do that.”

“But if Olbermann were a conservative and had been gushing about (John) McCain or (Sarah) Palin, there wouldn’t be a problem,” Hart said. “There’s a willingness to go further to the right than to the left on television. It’s been that way for a while.”

Robert Lichter, exec director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, said the yanking of Olbermann and Matthews — who will continue in MSNBC’s political coverage as analysts — was less about politics or biases than about “wanting it both ways.”

“MSNBC has been caught between building an audience through commentary and satisfying journalistic responsibility,” Lichter said. “The market is telling them one thing, and their employees are telling them another,” he said, referring to reports that some of the network’s reporters and producers are distressed by the liberal tilt of primetime MSNBC.

“They’ve had a big success with a commentator,” Lichter said, “but they’ve also wanted journalistic respect. You can’t have it both ways.”

Something had to give, he said, and it turned out to be the co-anchor chairs.

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