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11.14.10

Vicious Infighting at NBC News

MSNBC’s president vowed to fire Keith Olbermann after he threatened to take his case to other networks. Howard Kurtz on the civil war that has NBC brass—and his own staff—fuming.

Keith Olbermann was having dinner with his manager at an Upper East Side restaurant, chewing over their battle to lift his suspension at MSNBC, when Phil Griffin called.   

Michael Price stepped out of the Atlantic Grill to talk to MSNBC’s president, leaving his client with a platter of 18 oysters. It was Sunday, Nov. 7, and Price informed Griffin that if they couldn’t resolve their differences quickly, Olbermann would take his complaints public by accepting invitations from Good Morning America, David Letterman, and Larry King.   

“Why are you putting us in the position where you’re daring us to do this?” Price demanded, his voice rising.   

“If you go on GMA, I will fire Keith,” Griffin shot back. Such a move was clearly grounds for dismissal.   

The manager returned to the restaurant. He and Olbermann, who had been pushing hard to end the suspension the next day, discussed whether they would be burning bridges by carrying out the threat. Minutes later, their phones buzzed with emails from reporters, asking about a statement that NBC had just released. Olbermann, it said, would be allowed to return to his prime-time show on Tuesday—a day later than he had wanted.   

Price called Griffin again. “What compelled you to do that in that way?” he asked.   

“We are at war,” Griffin responded.    

If so, it was a war that had spread beyond the principal combatants to many of the journalists who work at NBC and MSNBC. From the moment Olbermann was found to have donated money to three Democratic candidates, there has been a deepening sense of anger and frustration among his colleagues, according to interviews with eight knowledgeable sources. These sources, who declined to be quoted by name because of the sensitivity of the situation, say that several of NBC’s front-line stars, including Tom Brokaw, have expressed concern to management that Olbermann has badly damaged MSNBC’s reputation for independence.  (NBC and MSNBC executives declined to comment, and Olbermann declined to be interviewed.)

Network staffers use phrases like “scorched-earth policy” and “totally narcissistic response” to describe how Olbermann has dealt with criticism of his political donations. A recurring theme is that he has made it impossible for MSNBC to argue that it is journalistically different from Fox News, which has no prohibition against political donations by such commentators and talk-show hosts as Sean Hannity and Karl Rove. The word hypocrisy has frequently been aimed at Olbermann.

Network staffers use phrases like “scorched-earth policy” and “totally narcissistic response” to describe how Olbermann has dealt with criticism of his political donations.

The Countdown host, for his part, feels misunderstood and unfairly singled out, yet buoyed by a wave of support from his liberal fans, who view him as a courageous champion for their cause. Olbermann almost single-handedly led MSNBC’s move to the left and helped the floundering network overtake CNN in the prime-time ratings, though both remain far behind Fox.

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The fault lines became clear the day after Labor Day, when Olbermann’s new management team—Ted Chervin and Nick Kahn of the Hollywood super-agency ICM, and Price—met in Jeff Zucker’s spacious, 52nd-floor office at 30 Rock.     

Zucker, the network’s chief executive, delivered a simple message: Olbermann had to play by the rules. There had been a number of incidents over the years that had created problems for MSNBC.

Steve Capus, the NBC News president, strongly echoed this theme. Some of Olbermann’s behavior was bad for the company.

Griffin, who had been friends with Olbermann since they first worked together at CNN three decades ago, pleaded for understanding. Olbermann had had a difficult year, a difficult few years, in fact. He was critical to the network’s success, Griffin said, but his personal problems were affecting his work and he looked angrier on the air. They wanted the Good Keith back, the clever, smart, ironic anchor. Their new client had to stop fighting management on every little thing.

Even those who admired Olbermann’s broadcasting skills felt that his behavior, such as making his staff leave notes outside his door rather than speaking to him, had gone too far. He was a royal pain, they said, and management had become exhausted trying to rein him in.

Relations are so strained that Olbermann has not spoken directly with Capus or Griffin since the donations controversy erupted. While he is halfway through a four-year, $30 million contract, Olbermann has become, in the words of one staffer, “a man without a country."

The crisis erupted without warning. On the evening of Nov. 4, when Politico was first working on the story of Olbermann’s donations, Griffin told Price that he hoped MSNBC wouldn’t have to suspend his client. Together with MSNBC spokesman Jeremy Gaines, they went over an Olbermann statement confirming—and defending—the contributions, with Griffin suggesting several deletions.

Early the next morning, Griffin sharpened his stance. He was hearing from everyone at the network. Zucker was irritated. Capus was quite upset. Brokaw had weighed in. This was now about NBC News. Griffin told Price he would have to take Olbermann off the air indefinitely. Olbermann’s team balked, insisting on a definite return date.   

“What do you want, three months?” Griffin asked, as if that were crazy. If they did this right, he said, maybe the punishment would last a week.   

There were more calls back and forth. Olbermann’s agents viewed the suspension as an insane overreaction. “You don’t understand the pressure I’m under here,” Griffin said. He needed a written apology from Olbermann in time for the announcement.   

That never happened. While Olbermann was on the phone with Price, the indefinite suspension was made public. The manager later told Griffin that Olbermann was very unhappy. You’ve known the guy for 30 years, and this is how you treat him?   

The sniping grew worse. Olbermann’s side asked why he was being penalized when Joe Scarborough, the former Republican congressman who hosted Morning Joe, had given $5,000 to a state candidate in Alabama the previous spring. Griffin checked and Scarborough provided the bank record showing that his wife had made the donation to a friend.   

In a flurry of weekend calls among Griffin, Price, and Kahn, the sticking point remained Olbermann’s statement of apology. There were even discussions about Olbermann’s plans for a Twitter message as his liberal base rallied to his side. The tweet said: “Greetings From Exile! A quick, overwhelmed, stunned THANK YOU for support that feels like a global hug."

On Monday, Nov. 8, MSNBC still hadn’t approved the apology statement, but Olbermann’s team gave it to The New York Times and other outlets anyway. Olbermann said he was sorry for the “unnecessary drama” and “for having mistakenly violated an inconsistently applied rule” in making the $7,200 in donations.

He offered a similar on-air apology at the end of Tuesday’s program. The lack of a bow toward his colleagues rubbed salt in some very raw wounds, with some executives saying that Olbermann was trying to tarnish NBC and others saying the commentator had made it all about him. 
  

After the show, Olbermann called an hourlong staff meeting to try to clear the air. Some members of his own team confronted him, saying that his actions had hurt the network.

There have been attempts to lower the temperature. Price apologized to Griffin for shouting during one call. And the network decided that Olbermann would be paid for the days that he was kept off the air.   

It is entirely possible that the anger will subside and the former sportscaster will reclaim his cleanup spot, as the leader of a liberal lineup. But NBC executives say that the cable channel is far better positioned to withstand an Olbermann departure than it might have been a year ago. Rachel Maddow has emerged as a genuine star, Ed Schultz is gaining momentum, Chris Matthews has been energized by the midterm campaign, and Lawrence O’Donnell has successfully launched a new show in the 10 p.m. hour previously reserved for Countdown reruns.

What’s more, the incoming bosses at Comcast, which will soon close a deal to buy NBC from General Electric, are a more buttoned-down crowd, and people at the network expect less tolerance for Olbermann than Zucker has shown over the years.   

Olbermann quit MSNBC once before, in 1998, after openly criticizing his bosses. He is, today, a far bigger star. Management doesn’t want to turn him into a martyr, but no one will be shocked if he winds up leaving again.   

On one point, all sides seem to agree: With the notable exception of Maddow, his onetime protégée, Olbermann has no major allies left at 30 Rock. And that, given his history of crusading against authority, may be how he likes it.

Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast's Washington bureau chief. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program Reliable Sources , Sundays at 11 am ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.