Not the Nightly News

New York’s cable news piece shows cable’s given up on news

There seems to be an uptick in big-magazine-takes-on-the-cable-TV-phenom stories lately, and Gabriel Sherman’s New York piece today, “Chasing Fox,” is a fascinating read for the TV Newser set.

There are some big takeaways:

Firstly, former CNN U.S. chief Jonathan Klein tried to poach MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann in 2006.

At the time, Olbermann had a window to negotiate in his MSNBC contract and Klein made a hard sell. He told Olbermann he could bring Countdown to CNN—the two even discussed which members of Olbermann’s staff would make the move with him. “Jon and I were in very deep discussions on a regular basis for me to go over there,” says Olbermann. “One of the premises was we would have put MSNBC out of business.”

The bid failed to pass muster with more senior CNN-ers who did not want the network to become an opinion house.

Secondly—and this was no shocker—Olbermann has some diva tendencies (don’t Tweet about him!) and isn’t necessarily the most popular of pundits stalking 30 Rock’s hallways.

Olbermann’s nightly numbers—Countdown tripled MSNBC’s audience in the 8 p.m. slot—give him immense power at the network and force his bosses to tolerate his mountain-size ego. MSNBC president Phil Griffin, who has worked with Olbermann on and off since their first days at CNN in the early eighties, acknowledges there have been issues. “It’s always complex because of management and Keith,” he says.

There’s tension between morning and night at MSNBC. “I don’t have an hour to waste for someone just reading Democratic or Republican Party talking points,” says Morning Joe host Joe Scarborough, who’s positioned himself as a moderate. “We’ve created a safe house,” he says of his show.

“I have no comment about him,” Olbermann says.

Then there are revelations that Rachel Maddow has a potty-mouth, MSNBC tried to buy The Huffington Post, and the channel’s new motto will be “lean forward”—more of an instruction your hairdresser might give you than an inspiring tagline, but we’ll see how it plays out.

Over at CNN, we find out that Kathleen Parker’s response to discovering she would be co-hosting with Eliot Spitzer was a single word: “Bold.”

All that is fun, gossipy, insidery stuff, but what intrigues most in the article is the degree to which the more successful cable players avoid calling themselves journalists, or their craft “journalism,” or even “news.” There are no claims of impartiality from the prime time partisans: Olbermann talks openly about his role being to attack the right and Fox News; Maddow desperately wants the last word in a dispute with O’Reilly; few lament the rise in opinion over straight news that has been the death knell for CNN. No cries for Times-style objectivity here. That ship has sailed. That ship has sunk.

It’s in a section of Sherman’s piece about CNN’s failed experiment with Campbell Brown that the reader gets perhaps the most profound takeaway of the piece: no one in cable news actually considers what they do news any more, at least after 5 p.m. There is no defense of it; and those who try to defend it don’t last.

Klein pestered Brown about conveying more emotion on-camera and to attack Olbermann and O’Reilly by name. When she confronted Indiana Republican Mike Pence and demanded to know what specific spending cuts he’d call for to balance the budget, Klein thought he saw an opening. “It was terrific to watch,” Klein tells me. “I came out of my office and said, ‘You should do that every day, have a different congressperson on every day, Democrat or GOP, and say, “What would you cut?”’ And it would become a viral feature of your show.”

Brown hated the idea; she felt it smacked of a stunt. “I am not sure that picking a fight every night just for the sake of picking a fight is good journalism,” she told me. It was, if one were needed, something of a last straw. Seeing the writing on the wall, Brown took control of the story line herself, releasing her own statement announcing she was leaving.

“Good journalism” is not the concern of cable news at night—that’s certainly not news. What Sherman’s piece shows, along with much else, is that cable channels are populated by prime time journalists who use journalistic tools to argue, squabble, bitch, pillory, delight, and entertain; produce something anything than good, solid, objective journalism. And they know it.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.