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MSNBC makes right call by taking Matthews, Olbermann off anchor desk

Friday, September 19, 2008 | 10:32 a.m. CDT; updated 11:12 a.m. CDT, Friday, September 19, 2008

MSNBC's decision last week to replace the team of Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann as anchors of its live political coverage for the rest of the presidential campaign season cheered conservatives, and angered liberals.

It should encourage anyone clinging to the outdated notion that journalism and commentary should remain separated, regardless of ideology. In fact, no matter who your candidate of choice is in this superheated presidential election, MSNBC should be credited for choosing journalists to, well, commit journalism. It's a small thing, really, but if others (hello, Fox?) would engage in similar self-reflection, cable television journalism would profit from a similar return to sanity.

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The well-respected David Gregory, NBC News' chief White House correspondent, will serve as the primary host of coverage of the presidential and vice presidential debates coming up over the next two months, as well as election night, said Phil Griffin, MSNBC's president.

The decision was made easier by Matthews and Olbermann, who engaged in a juvenile series of verbal jousts through the Democratic convention, stopping just short of hair pulling and eye-poking.

On the first night in Denver, as the fellow MSNBC host Joe Scarborough talked about the resurgence of the McCain campaign, Olbermann dismissed it by saying: "Jesus, Joe, why don't you get a shovel?"

An MSNBC graphic labeled "Breaking News" asked: "How many houses does Palin add to the Republican ticket?" MSNBC executives apologized, calling the graphic "an embarrassment."

MSNBC is far from alone in cable's degradation of political discourse. Fox has made a cottage industry of such graphics, and its giddiness over Olbermann and Matthews' removal from the anchor chairs was palpable, as the official cable network of the GOP continues to play by its own rules, or lack thereof.

Don't blame the windbags, folks. Having created a cable television culture which clearly values volume over reflection, ego over expertise, and outrageousness over everything else, what did we expect? Changing the venue certainly wasn't going to change the shtick, for it's the shtick that pays the bills. Blaming Olbermann and Matthews for being over the top is like blaming the World Wrestling Entertainment for the lack of attention paid to Greco-Roman Olympic wrestling. Having opted for and supported beer and circus, cable news execs fully expected us to swallow more of the same old swill.

Perhaps that explains the outrage attendant to MSNBC's decision to bench the ideologues in favor of an actual journalist. Many observers criticized the decision as a capitulation to conservative critics opposed to such overt cheerleading simply because the anchors were cheering for the wrong team.

They miss the point. Having let its omnipresent commentary creep into what should be a news desk, MSNBC wisely saw the error of its ways and restored the credibility of its parent, NBC, and did so in transparent fashion. Had Joe Scarborough and Sean Hannity filled the anchor roles, the same decision would have been justified.

In this age of hyper-partisanship, in an era in which rumor and innuendo and outright falsehoods fly with the forward of an anonymous e-mail countless times daily, citizens need somewhere to turn for news, not merely the endless pontificating masquerading as news.

No one said journalists are perfect, or free from bias or error. But employing the age-old practices of newsgathering — verification of fact and independence from faction, not to mention a detached skepticism — journalists like Gregory are at the very least committed to trying to get at the truth.

We need that dispassionate pursuit of the truth now, perhaps more than ever. We have all the commentary we need, and perhaps far more than we need.

Charles Davis is the executive director of the National Freedom of Information Center and an associate professor for the Missouri School of Journalism.


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