Today David Bauder writes of the "uneasy coexistence" of NBC with MSNBC, its junior cable sibling living under the same roof at 30 Rock. Bauder points to last week's letter to NBC News prez Steve Capus from White House counsel Ed Gillespie wherein Gillespie totted up the various ways in which NBC had run afoul of the Bush administration — daring to edit an interview, daring to label long-term ethnic conflict in Iraq a civil war, hair-splitting over the definition of "recession" — and zeroes in on the last paragraph:
Mr. Capus, I'm sure you don't want people to conclude that there is really no distinction between the "news" as reported on NBC and the "opinion" as reported on MSNBC, despite the increasing blurring of those lines. I welcome your response to this letter, and hope it is one that reassures your broadcast network's viewers that blatantly partisan talk show hosts like Christopher Matthews and Keith Olbermann at MSNBC don't hold editorial sway over the NBC network news division.
That, says Bauder, is"the soft white underbelly" of NBC's relationship with MSNBC — echoing a concern raised last week by the NYT's Brian Stelter, who wondered "Is MSNBC a Political Liability to NBC?"
The question at the crux of both these articles is the one posed by Gillespie: Does the "increasing blurring of the lines" between NBC and MSNBC mean that the opinionated cable sibling is starting to "hold editorial sway" over its straight-news counterpart, threatening to tarnish the reputation built over decades as a news organization? Both articles point specifically to Keith Olbermann, the most opinionated, outspoken pundit on the network and the one whose ratings have shot up as his broadcast has veered left. One of the keystones of this success has been his tirades against the Bush administration, his "Special Comments" which have also targeted Hillary Clinton in recent months.
Yet Olbermann regularly co-anchors MSNBC'c primary coverage, along with Hardball host Chris Matthews — who, Bauder reminds us, made an on-air apology to Clinton after a sexist comment in January. As anchors, it is Olbermann and Matthews who lead the evening's coverage, bringing in NBC News journalists as MSNBC correspondents, including Tim Russert, Tom Brokaw and Brian Williams. There have been rumblings about whether Olbermann, who dedicated two of his last three Special Comments to criticism of Clinton, should be acting as anchor on one hand and partisan on the other.
Both articles frame the situation as a question — is it a problem for NBC or isn't it? — but even the suggestion of an appearance of a problem is a problem for a news division trying to report the news at any time, let alone during such a highly-charged election season. Bauder quotes former NBC News correspondent and former host of Fox News Watch host Eric Burns: "It's a fine point, but for someone who cares about news it's a very important one...and it's not something that has ever been raised before."
Well, it's being raised now, and how: There's the recent onslaught of attacks from Fox News (whereon Bill O'Reilly has been ripping into GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt) and Karl Rove's recent five-page letter ripping into MSNBC host (and former top exec) Dan Abrams, plus Gillespie's letter, firing a warning shot.
Capus shrugs off the criticism, calling it a "non-issue" and noting that the channel's success "comes with attention and scrutiny." Yes — and it's that scrutiny that has raised this question, even before the broadsides from the right. It remains to be seen whether continued scrutiny will keep the question alive...or get to the point where the question marks are removed.