Banter With The Beast: MSNBC’s Head Honcho Phil Griffin on Admiring Roger Ailes and More

He just shook up the network’s daytime schedule with two new hires. Lloyd Grove chats with the man in charge about his cohorts, competitors and companions.

01.30.14 10:45 AM ET

Phil Griffin’s legs are bouncing rapidly up and down, as though he’s possessed by a caged bird frantically trying to break free and take flight. 

“I’ve got to stop that. Everybody writes about that,” says the president of MSNBC, coiled behind a designer desk in his sleek, sun-dappled corner office on the third floor of Rockefeller Center. “I’m always churning.”   

The 57-year-old Griffin, who favors zippered exercise jackets over a standard-issue coat and tie, is a sports nut who frequents the gym and jogs in Central Park. He has toiled at NBC News and various sister outlets since 1984, when, in his first month as a budding producer, he accidentally scored a direct hit on a surprised John Chancellor while tossing a football during a pickup game being waged in an office corridor.

“Not well,” he says ruefully when I ask how the distinguished former Nightly News anchorman reacted. “He didn’t quite have the sense of humor I thought he might.”

Griffin’s undercarriage trembles at the memory—or maybe he’s simply churning again.

The latest manifestation of Griffin’s churn is the second-place cable network’s freshly reconfigured daytime schedule, in which he has shuffled a couple of his established anchors—Andrea Mitchell and Tamron Hall—to make room for new blood. Griffin’s two new hires, Ronan Farrow and Joy Reid, are bright and telegenic personalities, but largely unproven as viewer draws, who will launch their hour-long programs at 1 p.m. and 2 p.m., respectively, on Feb. 24.

“There is a rhyme or reason to this—it’s making the thread clearer from morning to night,” Griffin says, explaining that the latest line-up is organized in three-hour blocks. The first begins with Morning Joe, the bipartisan agenda-setter that airs from 6 to 9 a.m., continuing with a newsy block that runs from 9 to noon (with Hall newly installed at 11 a.m.), running through Mitchell at noon and followed by Farrow and Reid as “a more topical” bridge to an increasingly opinionated afternoon featuring The Cycle, a panel show, and Now With Alex Wagner. “Then you have the big voices of Ed Schultz, Rev [Al Sharpton], and Chris [Matthews],” Griffin continues, “and then the big deeper thinkers of Chris Hayes, Rachel [Maddow], and Lawrence [O’Donnell].” 

In other words, I jokingly ask, MSNBC’s day becomes increasingly Commie?

“I prefer not to describe it that way,” Griffin says with a laugh. “We get more analytical as the day goes on.”

Where some Republican operatives and office-holders see MSNBC as a liberal-Democrat collaborator of the Obama White House—with a promotional catchphrase, “Lean Forward,” that echoes the slogan of President Obama’s reelection campaign—Griffin admits only to what he calls “a progressive sensibility.”  A “sensibility,” he explains, is not the same as an “ideology.”

Still, after MSNBC’s official Twitter feed late Wednesday night suggested “rightwing” Republicans are racists, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus called for a party-wide boycott of the network unless Griffin personally apologized.

On Thursday afternoon—amid a firestorm of outrage over the offending tweet, which claimed “maybe the rightwing will hate” a new Cheerios commercial featuring a biracial family—Griffin did just that.

“The tweet last night was outrageous and unacceptable,” he wrote in a statement that was read on the air by The Cycle cohost Ari Melber. “We immediately acknowledged that it was offensive and wrong, apologized, and deleted it. We have dismissed the person responsible for the tweet.”

Griffin’s statement continued: “I personally apologize to Mr. Priebus and to everyone offended. At MSNBC we believe in passionate, strong debate about the issues and we invite voices from all sides to participate. That will never change.” 

In his office Griffin insists: “I think we’ve never had an ideology. An ideology is a single thought across all programs. We’ve never had that.” As evidence, he mentions the spirited on-air debates in 2010, pro and con, concerning whether the Bush tax cuts should be allowed to expire. “Obviously I hire people who fit the sensibility,” Griffin says. “We do stay true to facts. You have to build your argument. That’s why I call it a sensibility.”

He continues: “If you’re a Democrat in trouble, we’re not a place where we’re going to rehabilitate you. You’re not going to get a free ride if you did wrong.” As evidence that the cable outlet is by no means a White House shill, Griffin mentions Ed Schultz’s impassioned criticisms of the Obama administration’s trade policies, and various MSNBC hosts’ more general condemnation of Obama’s use of deadly drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Meanwhile, he stoutly defends All In host Chris Hayes, a former writer for the paleo-liberal Nation magazine and protégé of MSNBC’s prime-time star Rachel Maddow; he initially hosted Up, MSNBC’s early morning weekend program, until Griffin elevated him to 8 p.m. early last year. Hayes’s ratings, opposite Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly and CNN’s Anderson Cooper, had been anemic until recently. Hayes himself called them “bad."

 “I’m committed to Chris Hayes at 8 o’clock,” Griffin says, noting that a recent tweak of the schedule, positioning Schultz at 5 p.m., where Matthews had been, and airing Matthews live at 7 p.m. instead of a repeat of his earlier show, has resulted in a stronger lead-in and marked improvement in Hayes’s numbers. “The line is straight up, and I couldn’t be happier with where we are,” Griffin insists. “I’m glad, because I put him there.”

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Of course, there are notable exceptions to the prevailing center-left zeitgeist: Morning Joe, the panel and interview show in which former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough and broadcast veteran Mika Brzezinski, daughter of Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, preside over a multi-party conversation about the day’s developments; and The Daily Rundown, in which Chuck Todd, NBC News’s down-the-middle White House correspondent and political director, grills Washington players and provides canny analysis of their aims and motivations.

As for Fox News, “I think they do have an ideology,” Griffin says, “because every Republican who’s in trouble goes on that network to be taken care of…They’re owned by News Corp., which is Rupert Murdoch. Roger Ailes runs it, and he comes out of the Republican Party.” Griffin adds: “That’s fine. They’ve done an incredible job over there. They’ve been very successful. They drive a lot of the conversation.”

What if an angel descended from the cable television firmament and whispered in Griffin’s ear: “Phil, if you just change MSNBC’s sensibility to ‘right-wing Republican,’ you’ll make a billion dollars a year like Fox”? How would he respond?

“I don’t believe the angel’s coming to me—so I don’t have to deal with that answer,” Griffin says with laugh. However, he can’t resist adding: “It’s pretty obvious what you might do.” Presumably, follow the angel's prudent advice.

Since Griffin took up the reins in 2007, his leadership has brought forth a measure of success—notwithstanding that he recently emerged from an embarrassing several weeks in which he was forced to discipline two MSNBC hosts, veteran anchor Martin Bashir and the newly hired Alec Baldwin, who made ugly remarks on and off the air and, as a consequence, left the network. A third, weekend morning host Melissa Harris-Perry, kept her job after tearfully apologizing on her show to Mitt Romney for joining some of her panelists in mocking a family photo depicting an adopted Romney grandchild who happens to be black.

“We’re going to be totally transparent,” Griffin says. “If you make a mistake, you’ve got to address it, and we’ve done that throughout all the last six years that I’ve been here.”

The new year has begun on a better footing. The latest Nielsens for January 2014 put MSNBC solidly at No. 2 in raw ratings and the money-making demographic of adults aged 25-54, behind the Fox News juggernaut—this, after spending the past year trading places with CNN, whose latest numbers seem to be in collapse.

At a time when MSNBC’s corporate sibling, NBC News, also appears to be in trouble (with the Today show, once the news division’s reliable cash cow and No. 1 franchise, slipping into second place, and the historically top-rated Sunday program, Meet the Press, plunging into third), Griffin’s network has been posting healthy profits—around $300 million annually, by one informed estimate, although the real figures are not publicly released. 

“It’s a knife-fight for every viewer,” Griffin says melodramatically; his actual knife-fights are more likely limited to carving up the grilled salmon at Michael’s, the nearby eatery for the media elite. But he clearly brings passion to the rivalry with CNN and his cherished dream (detractors would say fantasy) of one day toppling Fox, which boasts 145 consecutive months—that is, a dozen years—at the top of the cable news ziggurat. 

Surprisingly, Griffin has high praise for the larger-than-life Ailes, who gave up a stellar career making political commercials and advising GOP candidates and presidents on their media strategies to become a key player in the development of CNBC and briefly launching a spinoff, the America’s Talking network, a precursor to MSNBC.

“Roger basically had a petri dish to see what worked on cable,” Griffin says. “Americas Talking was food shows, exercise shows, sex shows, politics”—for which Ailes initially developed Americas Talking host Chris Matthews as a fledgling television personality. “Roger even had his own show. It was great. He figured out what popped—and the rest is history.”

Griffin warms to his subject: “Look, I think he’s had a huge impact on media—as big an impact in media as anybody today…He gets it. He understood television from the beginning…He went, ‘I know how to reach an audience, and there’s an audience out there that’s left out and feels unrepresented,’ and he found it, targeted it. There’s no denying that Roger did something that nobody else has done.”

Griffin remains friendly with CNN President Jeff Zucker, who joined NBC, as a lowly researcher, two years after Griffin, and ended up running the whole NBC Universal empire until Comcast acquired it and forced him out. “He’s been one of my closer friends for the last 15 or 20 years,” Griffin says. “The only thing that’s changed is we really don’t talk about work a lot. We talk about sports.”

Griffin was present at the creation of MSNBC in July 1996 as a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal—then an odd-duck subsidiary of General Electric, which ultimately sold it to Comcast, the nation’s largest cable operator. He has watched, sometimes with alarm, as the network underwent disruptive changes in management and identity (at one point, in the months after 9-11, attempting to mimic Fox News with a misguided promotional campaign rebranding itself as “America’s News Channel”). The outlet was almost shut down entirely in the early 2000s.

“There was an issue of turning out the lights,” Griffin recalls, adding that it was Washington bureau chief Tim Russert who in 2007, as Griffin was taking the reins, urged him to rebrand MSNBC as “The Place for Politics.”

“Griff, the 2008 election is going to be the greatest election of our lifetime,” he says Russert told him before he died of a heart attack in the summer of 2008. “You’ve got to own this election.” Griffin reflects that at the time “we really didn’t have an identity. The media revolution was exploding. You had to stand for something, or you were going to get lost—and we were getting lost.”

But MSNBC was revived by the impassioned anti-Iraq war commentary of Chris Matthews and especially Keith Olbermann, for awhile the network’s prime-time star and reigning anchor-monster who reportedly even participated in management decisions, until he and Griffin had an acrimonious falling-out in early 2011, much as Olbermann ended up being fired in 2012 by his next boss at Current TV, former vice president Al Gore.  

“I don’t talk about it,” Griffin says of his Olbermann ordeal, though he admits to enjoying the curmudgeonly anchor's new program on ESPN2. “I watched it last night. He looks good. I wish him well. He has the same humor and he seems to be enjoying it, so, yeah, I’m happy for it.”