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Chasing Fox

Cable couple Eliot Spitzer and Kathleen Parker.  

“Fox figured it out that you have to stand for something in cable,” MSNBC president Phil Griffin says. Since Griffin was appointed in 2008, the network has adopted much of the Fox News playbook. “What we’re doing is targeting an audience,” Griffin says. “In television, and in particular cable television, brand is everything,” NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker told me, before he announced his departure two weeks ago. “For a long time, MSNBC floundered with its identity.”

The cable-news business is creating politics in its own cartoonish, desperate, loopy, egomaniacal image. While Zucker and Griffin are both liberals, they got in the politics business for the ratings, and MSNBC’s new identity has been a ratings boon. Its audience is less than half the size of Fox’s, partly because liberals tend to pride themselves on being part of the fact-based community and may prefer media products like the New York Times, or the PBS NewsHour, which make their points without shouting. Griffin, now that he’s found ratings religion, is doubling down. In April 2009, he hired the liberal radio host Ed Schultz for a 6 p.m. show. This past summer, MSNBC announced it was developing a 10 p.m. show for Lawrence O’Donnell to replace reruns of Olbermann. Recently, MSNBC tried to buy the Huffington Post (Huffington Post founder Ken Lerer rejected the offer). The network hired Spike Lee to shoot a multi-million-dollar advertising campaign and developed its own obtuse slogan: “Lean Forward.”

MSNBC has not penetrated politics quite to the degree of Fox, with its four prospective presidential candidates on payroll. But it may just be a matter of time. Recently, Joe Scarborough quietly called political advisers after his name was circulated as a possible candidate in the blogosphere, but he was counseled against it. “Everyone says the same thing,” Scarborough tells me. “Why do you leave where you are to be the 99th-ranking member of the United States Senate?” Last year, Chris Matthews gave serious thought to running for the Senate from his home state of Pennsylvania in 2010. And already the opposition treats them like political powers. In March, Scott Brown sent a fund-raiser e-mail to supporters that claimed Rachel Maddow was being recruited to run against him in 2012. “Rachel Maddow has a nightly platform to push her far-left agenda. What about you?” Brown’s e-mail ominously read. And this summer, Florida tea-party darling Marco Rubio commissioned an ad saying: “How do you know [Rubio’s] plan is right? Rachel Maddow thinks it’s wrong.” Amazingly, now that he’s been pushed out, even Jeff Zucker is rumored to be contemplating a run for the Senate. After doing TV, how hard can it be?

The game may be destroying American politics—but it’s the only game in town, and CNN, thus far, is out of it. “Being a passionate centrist is always a bit harder than a raving lunatic on each side,” Eliot Spitzer told me. “They do not recognize a reality that Fox and MSNBC recognize,” says a former senior CNN staffer. “You have to be real showmen and hook into America, which is blue collar and angry. The CNN culture is still very strange. You walk into that building, you think you’re the Jesuits and you’re protecting a certain legacy. They still look at Fox as a carnival—not Fox as a brilliant marketing entity. It’s weird. They’re decades into it, and they’ll protect it to the end.”

Piers Morgan, coming in, knows he has to polarize, even if he’s not partisan. “I want to be that guy in a year’s time who’s the most loved or the most hated,” he says.

The cable channels are in politicians’ heads as never before (and who’s even thinking about network anchors nowadays? They’re yesterday’s news). In an interview published last week, President Obama told Rolling Stone that Fox is part of a worldview that is “destructive for the long-term growth” of the country. Later that day, White House spokesman Bill Burton praised MSNBC’s pundits, telling reporters that Olbermann and Rachel Maddow are some of “the folks who help to keep our government honest.”

And the cable folks have never been more certain of their place at the table. “I said this to [Obama], and I said this on the air, that he acts like Lincoln wanted to act in his second term, not realizing the better analogy [is that] he’s Lincoln in his first term,” Olbermann says. “It’s a freaking war out here on the left-versus-right battleground.”

Olbermann is sitting at his desk at 30 Rock on an August afternoon, dressed in baggy cargo shorts, a billowy white shirt, and rubberized socks designed for running barefoot. A prim blonde assistant silently deposited a venti Starbucks cup on his desk before scurrying from the room. “I’m an inveterate tea drinker, ironically given my opposition to the tea party,” he says. “I’ll out-tea them any day of the week.”