Good Ship MSNBC Prone to Leaks

Is it a trickle-down effect?

There must be something in the water at 30 Rock, the spiritual and actual home of news-breaker/news-maker MSNBC. It feels like every other week “insiders” from the network are dishing the goss on the colorful personalities who gab through its morning and nighttime lineups. While I’ll always be in the dark about whether O’Reilly does Thanksgiving at Beck’s Connecticut fortress, I know not to fantasize that Scarborough and Olbermann clink pint glasses together at Irish bar “Channel 4” after a tough day at the office. And, if you can believe Page Six—we don’t—you might have the impression that Ed Schultz is feeling a little left out at the left- forward-leaning network .

Today’s Howard Kurtz jaunt behind the curtain of Keith Olbermann’s “indefinite suspension” drama continues the network’s loose-lipped tradition. Kurtz finds “eight knowledgeable” sources “who declined to be quoted by name because of the sensitivity of the situation” and uses their tellings to recount what happened at MSNBC when Olbermann’s donations came to light. Titled “Vicious Infighting at NBC News,” it’s a pretty fun read, a Game Change vignette for cable war junkies. Typical is this section about a dinner between Olbermann and his manager Michael Price. Phil Griffin’s on the phone with Price as the “scandal” continues to erupt.

“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.

And so on and so on.

Olbermann, who many observers feel came out on top in last week’s events, comes out of Kurtz’s article a little worse for wear. Clearly this group of eight are no fans of Countdown.

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….

……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.”

And the man who came out of last week’s events looking less than in control, MSNBC chief Griffin, comes out of Kurtz’s story a bit of a hero—a negotiator who understands the old-worlders crowing about reputational damage, but also a friend of Olbermann’s looking out for the best interests of his buddy. Just the kind of guy a new owner might want to keep on board.

Reading this recount of a meeting to discuss Olbermann’s fate, one wonders whom one of these anonymous sources could have possibly been…

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.

And later, the cable chief takes charge.

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?

Interestingly, Griffin has emerged smelling of roses in other stories of anonymous source-fueled MSNBC palace intrigue. He came out of last month’s New York cable news cover (for which he was a significant named source) as the man who worked out how to use Olbermann—“Griffin recognized Olbermann’s titanic personality could be channeled… his ratings subsequently proved it”—and the man who understands the ratings game and how MSNBC needs to play it. He was also the man not afraid to let a reporter hear what he thought of some of his staff.

When he refers to Ed Schultz as a “used-tire salesman,” his staffers can hardly keep a straight face.

And then there was the time a Griffin-penned memo somehow ended up in the Huffington Post’s hands. Griffin had written the memo on team unity after an online scuffle between Scarbrough and Olbermann. What did it show? Griffin the arbiter looking to keep the peace and show a strong hand.

But that’s just observation—with not even an anonymous source to back it up.

How has Olbermann responded to the Kurtz piece? In very Olbermann fashion: via Twitter. This, from @Keith Olbermann just a couple of minutes ago.

Won’t waste everybody’s time responding to Kurtz’s hysteric source. But doesn’t all this anonymous bashing sound oddly familiar?

Yes, it certainly does.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.