After months of complaints that their shows are biased, Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews will no longer anchor political programming for the 24-hour cable news channel MSNBC, the network confirmed Sunday night.
The tangible effect is minor. Olbermann and Matthews will be replaced by NBC's David Gregory as anchor of the handful of major political events left this year, such as the presidential debates and Election Day. The two men will retain their shows and remain political commentators at the cable network.
But the decision reveals the tension at the heart of MSNBC's recent ratings success. While it remains in third place in the ratings behind Fox News and CNN, MSNBC has surged with the success of Olbermann's Countdown. The liberal prime-time talk show host frequently blasts President Bush and other conservatives and has also been a relentless critic of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
MSNBC this year appears to have adopted a left-of-center bent, as it dropped conservative journalist Tucker Carlson's show. It has created a show, set to debut tonight, built around liberal Air America talk show host Rachel Maddow.
Yet Olbermann, along with Matthews, a more idiosyncratic critic of the Bush White House, has been performing anchoring duties during major primaries and the conventions. That task has traditionally not been handled on mainstream broadcast outlets by opinion journalists.
Even Fox News, which has dominated cable news with a combination of edgy reporting and largely conservative commentators such as Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly and Neil Cavuto, does not ask those distinctive and popular figures to anchor their political news coverage. While O'Reilly, for example, did broadcast from the party conventions in Denver and St. Paul, Minn., his show was still branded The O'Reilly Factor — so viewers should know what they're getting.
Throughout the year, the channel has been accused of favoring Barack Obama's candidacy for president — first by Hillary Clinton's campaign in the Democratic primaries, and more recently by advisers to John McCain.
Unease within the network surfaced in a clash on the air between Olbermann and former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough. And some NBC journalists — including former NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw — appear uncomfortable that the liberal leaning of the cable channel's prime-time lineup may taint their own effort to be unbiased.
MSNBC President Phil Griffin in the past has said that Olbermann and Matthews were professionals who knew how to distinguish between their different roles as commentators and anchors. He's also said viewers are smart enough to make the distinction, too.
But delegates on the floor of the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul seemed to disagree; when speakers denounced the "media elites" said to have opposed the selection of Gov. Sarah Palin as the vice presidential nominee, delegates chanted, "NBC, NBC."
For his part, Olbermann criticized the Republicans for airing footage about the September 2001 attacks during the party's gathering. He said the footage, reminding viewers and voters of the terrorist threat, was exploitative and that MSNBC should not have aired it either.