Media Quakes

The ex-MSNBC anchor announced Tuesday he’s launching a nightly show on Al Gore’s Current TV—and will control the channel’s news and opinion programming. Howard Kurtz on Olbermann’s gamble. Plus, the 13 biggest media quakes.

NPR Loses a CEO After Two Scandals

After a video emerged courtesy of conservative prankster James O’Keefe where, posing as representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood, he coaxed recently departed NPR fundraising executive Ron Schiller into trash talking the Tea Party (“racist people”), Republicans, and Juan Williams, NPR President and CEO Vivian Schiller (no relation) resigned. Although Vivian Schiller condemned Ron Schiller’s comments, this is the second gaffe under her leadership following the dismissal of NPR political analyst Juan Williams, for which Schiller came under harsh criticism. NPR’s David Folkenflik told NPR’s Morning Edition after the news broke: “I’m told by sources that she was forced out.” Joyce Slocum, SVP of Legal Affairs and General Counsel for NPR, has been appointed to the position of Interim CEO, according to a statement from NPR Board of Directors Chairman Dave Edwards.

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Keith Olbermann Hitches Up With Al Gore

Keith Olbermann is heading to the low-profile Current TV network to lead news programming and host his own program. Olbermann, who abruptly left MSNBC after disagreements with executives, will also hold the post of chief news officer at the channel founded by Al Gore. Olbermann will also be executive producer of his show, which Current says will begin “later in 2011” and will keep the name Countdown. Few have doubted that Olbermann would soon pitch his tent elsewhere with a new TV show; two days before Olbermann suddenly left MSNBC, the domain name was registered.

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AOL Pays Cash for the HuffPost

Just hours after the end of Super Bowl XLV, AOL announced it was buying Arianna Huffington’s growing news enterprise, The Huffington Post, for $315 million—$300 of million of that in cold, hard cash. Huffington will control all of AOL’s editorial content and assume the title of president and editor in chief of a newly created Huffington Post Media Group. She said that shortly after she met AOL CEO Tim Armstrong, a Google alumnus, the two were “finishing each other’s sentences,” and Armstrong said buying the HuffPost was right in line with his strategy for his ailing company.

Like most mergers, the announcement was replete with metaphors: Lifting a line from President Obama’s recent State of the Union, Huffington described it as a “Sputnik moment,” while Armstrong is sticking with his favored “1 + 1 = 11.” In addition to creating dozens of its own brands, AOL has been hoping to acquire marquee names in new media. Its first coup came in September 2010, when it purchased the popular tech blog TechCrunch. The Huffington Post, which draws 25 million visitors per month, represents millions of potential ad dollars for AOL. The Daily Beast’s Howard Kurtz said AOL could help Huffington expand her vision, while Newsweek’s Dan Lyons called the deal “a mess.”

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Gawker Founder Elizabeth Spiers to Run the New York Observer

When Elizabeth Spiers began as the sole employee of Gawker in 2003, it was a snarky media blog that expressed “the rage of the creative underclass.” Gawker reveled in the absurdities and gossip of the New York media, and pitilessly savaged its power players. Now, that same establishment is looking to people like Spiers for help: In early February 2011, the embattled New York Observer scooped her up to be its editor in chief. Spiers arrives after a series of abrupt changes: Legendary Observer editor Peter Kaplan left in 2009 after 25-year-old real-estate mogul Jared Kushner bought the paper, and his successor, Kyle Pope, stayed only 15 months. Like others, Pope had editorial disagreements with Kushner. The paper’s marriage to Spiers may be a necessity for both of them: Spiers’ stints at New York publications have all been relatively short-term. A high-profile job like this could put a positive spin on her career and raise hopes for a newspaper believed to be in a downward spiral.

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Stephen Drucker Out at Town & Country Despite Numbers Surge

A special thanks for a job well done: Despite a huge increase in ad sales and circulation during his tenure, Stephen Drucker was replaced after less than a year as editor of Hearst’s Town and Country. The former House Beautiful editor was swept aside for Jay Fielden, who previously edited the now-defunct Men’s Vogue; other top editors in the Hearst magazine stable were shuffled between titles. There was no explanation for the surprise switch other than that Drucker had “decided to leave the company.” Last spring, just rolling up his sleeves for his brief editorship, Drucker told The New York Observer that magazines have to be shaken up to stay fresh. "If you're gonna have a new magazine, you have to shake it up,” he said.

Mike Theiler / Newscom; Robin Platzer / Getty Images

Newsweek and The Daily Beast Get Hitched!

After announcing their relationship last December, Newsweek and The Daily Beast have officially completed their merger into the Newsweek/Daily Beast Company. “The paperwork is finished, and we are officially a combined company,” Tina Brown said Feb. 1. “We now move forward with the vision that Sidney Harman, Barry Diller and I have been relishing—the creation of a vibrant company to continue the groundbreaking online Daily Beast and a revitalized Newsweek. The Daily Beast is a thriving frontline of breaking news and commentary that will raise the profile of the magazine’s bylines and quicken the pace of a great magazine’s revival.”

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NBC Taken Over by Comcast, Late Night Wars

In late 2009, cable giant Comcast purchased a majority stake in NBC Universal and in January 2011, completed its takeover all the way down to ditching NBC’s trademark peacock logo. When it was announced, the deal was immediately derided—even by congressional Democrats like Al Franken—for concentrating too much power in one media organization, but the harried jockeying among top execs was anything but organized. USA Network chief Bonnie Hammer and Lauren Zalaznick, who runs Bravo and Oxygen, both stuck around, albeit with new roles. Steve Burke, a former Disney exec and Comcast COO, became president and CEO of NBC Universal. Former CEO Jeff Zucker, though, eventually got squeezed out.

Zucker didn't help his cause by overseeing the network’s disastrous late-night wars between Conan O’Brien and Jay Leno. As it became clear that Leno was returning to his old gig and O’Brien was going out the door (with an exit package estimated to be around $40 million), the fury surrounding Zucker reached a fever pitch. Between the Comcast takeover and ever-declining ratings, Zucker got the boot.

In late 2009, cable giant Comcast purchased a majority stake in NBC Universal. The deal was immediately derided—even by congressional Democrats like Al Franken—for concentrating too much power in one media organization, but the harried jockeying among top execs was anything but organized. USA Network chief Bonnie Hammer and Lauren Zalaznick, who runs Bravo and Oxygen, both stuck around, albeit with new roles. Steve Burke, a former Disney exec and Comcast COO, became president and CEO of NBC Universal. Former CEO Jeff Zucker, though, eventually got squeezed out.

Frazer Harrison / Getty Images; Neal Slavin; Peter Kramer / AP Photo

New York Times Magazine Bounces Mentor for Underling

Last September, The New York Times magazine—about which industry observers nearly universally agreed needed new blood—kicked up editor Jerry Marzorati to an executive gig and installed former New York Magazine editorial director Hugo Lindgren in the top job.

Lindgren’s appointment as editor was something of a shock. Like Marzorati, he’s a former lieutenant to the magazine’s much-heralded former editor Adam Moss, for whom he toiled at both The New York Times Magazine and at New York. He’s also younger than Marzorati and spent the last several years at a magazines—New York and, briefly, Bloomberg BusinessWeek—that are actually in the midst of renaissance. Needless to say, the media world is watching is to see whether the student can actually outdo his former master.

The magazine also recently axed a few contributors, including interview editor Deborah Solomon and tech columnist Virginia Heffernan. Deputy politics editor Alex Star left for the Times Book Review in December.

Frank Franklin II / AP Photo

The Hollywood Reporter Gets a Scoop: A Marquee Editor

In May, former Vogue publisher Richard Beckman shocked the media world when he successfully landed Janice Min, the highly regarded former editor in chief of Us Magazine, to oversee THR. Within a couple of months, the site was back to breaking big scoops, the most notable of which involved Steven McPherson’s firing at ABC amid rumors of sexual harassment.

Then, in November, Min and company launched an ambitious oversize glossy magazine (Think W by way of Studio City), with advertisers that included Dior and Estee Lauder. It’s a far cry from the days of yore, when the most glamorous campaigns you’d see in the trades were “For Your Considerations” bought by the movie studios during Oscar season. Min realizes the idea of a big expansion might be at odds with the current era of retrenchment, but says, “People moan and cry about how no one’s reading this or that and why did this magazine close, and I think a large majority of the decline can be attributed to the fact that sometimes, it’s just not a very compelling edit, given the options that are out there. I think there’s always a market for compelling information.”

Reed Saxon / AP Photo

Great Ratings Couldn’t Save ABC’s Chief

NBC isn’t the only major network that experienced its share of turmoil this year. In July, Steve McPherson, the executive who oversaw ABC during the run of Lost, Grey’s Anatomy and Desperate Housewives, got booted.

Was it stagnant ratings, a problem with inappropriate workplace behavior, or a clash with ABC TV Group President Anne Sweeney, with whom McPherson was said to have spent several years butting heads with? You be the judge.

Peter Kramer / AP Photo; Matt Sayles / AP Photo

A King Is Dethroned

The end of a very long era emerged as Larry King, iconic host of Larry King Live, finally “hung up the suspenders” from his show in December. King was on the cable network since 1985 and interviewed everyone from George W. Bush to Lady Gaga. He was replaced by America’s Got Talent judge Piers Morgan, whose selection for the role sparked dozens of questions: Does he have gravitas? Will his British accent hurt him with viewers? So far, he hasn’t been able to work a miracle turnaround for CNN’s ratings free-fall, but he’s keeping the bleeding in check: Morgan’s viewership has been steadily declining since he took the anchor’s chair, but is matching King’s numbers in the time slot.

Gustavo Caballero / Getty Images

CNN Anchor Finds Limit to Free Speech

CNN’s time slots have taken all kinds of beatings this year. None more so than the 3-5 p.m. spot, where the short-lived show Rick’s List used to be. The show only started in January, but on October 1 host Rick Sanchez was abruptly fired after calling Comedy Central’s Daily Show host Jon Stewart a “bigot” and claiming that the CNN network was “run by Jews”. All this was said on former Daily Show warm-up comedian Pete Dominick’s XM Sirius radio program Stand-Up with Pete Dominick. Talking about the incident with The Daily Beast’s Adam Hanft, Sanchez said the experience and press coverage had been indescribably painful. “It’s been traumatic,” he said. “I’m just starting to deal with this emotionally because it immobilized me so much, it happened so fast and furious that I was afraid to confront it. I shut down the last couple of months. I couldn’t read the horrible press. It was just too painful.”

Karen Bleier, AFP / Getty Images

Lou Dobbs Gets Picked Up Again

After an abrupt departure from CNN sparked by differences between the network and Dobbs over his brand of advocacy journalism, the immigration hawk kept us guessing—some even thought we might be in store for a President Dobbs. (He briefly considered a run. But a year after his departure, the polarizing pundit got back to his financial news roots, landing a gig at Fox Business.

Richard Drew / AP Photo

Juan Williams Starts a Firestorm

While appearing on The O'Reilly Factor, Juan Williams ignited a fierce left-right debate when he said people at the airport "identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims" make him nervous. His longtime employer, National Public Radio, fired him for violating their editorial standards—but NPR may have just been looking for a reason to cut him loose. On its website, NPR says that Williams' presence on Fox's "largely conservative and often contentious prime-time talk shows" had "long been a sore point with NPR News executives. Still, the firing served as ammunition for NPR’s critics, who cited Williams’ dismissal as incontrovertible proof that the federally funded news operation is actually a shill for liberals.