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Chasing Fox

Maddow thinks she’s settled on the appropriate comeback. “I want to wear a loon suit,” she says, flashing a raffish grin. She turns to her staff and pretends to address O’Reilly as a duck. “Sorry, you really hurt my feelings, I am a loon. I’m on the Canadian dollar bill. It’s awful”—she pauses—“but you, however, are also a race-baiting fuck.”

The room explodes in laughter. Maddow’s executive producer, Bill Wolff, has doubts about the bit and pushes Maddow to take on Rubio, not Fox. “My feeling is, Rubio is news. Rubio is trying to be the senator from Florida. O’Reilly is a media schmuck.”

“But it’s the Sherrod story,” Maddow counters. “I have leveled a serious charge about what’s happening with making white people afraid of black people as a political tactic by political activists, by people who want to harm the administration, and by Fox News as a political organization.”

On cable, schoolyard rules rule. “You should always get the last word,” Maddow reminds her team. “Right now, we don’t have the last word. Right now, the last word is loon.

Early on, Phil Griffin didn’t think Rachel Maddow had any chance in television when she debuted on the network, in 2005, as a commentator. A boyish-looking, openly gay liberal with short-cropped brown hair, blocky Elvis Costello–style glasses, and an aversion to makeup unless she’s on-camera, Maddow didn’t resemble the airbrushed fembots that populated cable-news programming, especially at Fox News. Executives gave Maddow a new wardrobe, and soon racks of pantsuits and blazers were wheeled into the office vacated by former anchor Connie Chung. A fast-talking, overly caffeinated television executive, Griffin has a loud, coarse voice and a fondness for towel-snapping, locker-room jokes. It’s a tribal sense of humor that, far from sparing his fellow Democrats and their sacred cows, seems to target them. Around the network, staffers call him “Buddy.” When he refers to Ed Schultz as a “used-tire salesman,” his staffers can hardly keep a straight face. He’s politically incorrect, a programmer and a businessman obsessed with ratings and his main rival. “Cable is for angry white males,” he’s been heard to say, though he told me he’s taking a different path. “It’s a knife fight for every viewer,” Griffin tells me one morning in his office on the third floor at 30 Rock. He has a large, bald dome of a head and looks like a lean Terry Bradshaw when he crouches forward, sleeves rolled, to press a point, usually about boosting his network’s ratings. “For a long time, we were sort of a subsidiary of NBC News, the little brother, the triple-A ball club. Over the last three years—we love NBC News—but we’re partners. We share resources, but we are independent. We are our own channel.”

Griffin’s satisfaction with MSNBC’s recent success is born of the decade he spent at the network when it was in last place. “To throw things up, which we did for many years and see if it sticks, is not a strategy. And I’ll never do it again,” he tells me. “It’s too painful.”

Griffin met Jeff Zucker at the Today show in the early nineties; Griffin went onto be a senior producer for Tom Brokaw at the Nightly News. In the spring of 1996, the then–NBC News president, Andy Lack, told Griffin he wanted him to work on a fledgling cable channel that NBC was launching with Microsoft.

To many inside the halls of 30 Rock, Griffin’s jump to cable news played like a demotion from his perch at Nightly News, where he globe-trotted to Somalia and Moscow on assignment. But even though his new job was in Secaucus, Griffin didn’t see his posting at MSNBC as an exile to Siberia. “I’m not a news snob,” Griffin says. “Never have been. I love it all. I love reading about Lindsay Lohan and I love the Whatchamacallit Leaks. I love it all. Life’s interesting!”

For years, the values of news snobs held considerable sway at MSNBC. “There was a question, Could the subsidiary take a political position?” remembers a former senior executive. Tim Russert, then NBC News’s Washington bureau chief and moderator of Meet the Press, was an Olympian figure inside NBC News, an information hub, a kingmaker, and the scorekeeper to official Washington. To Russert, the rise of a freewheeling cable channel attached to NBC News was worrisome. In response to Chris Matthews’s relentless attacks on the Clintons following the Lewinsky scandal, the White House had threatened to pull guests off Meet the Press. Congressmen would complain, too. “Then Tim would call Andy Lack or Tom Brokaw and say, ‘What the hell?’ ” the executive recalls. Brokaw would often call Griffin and tell him to rein in Matthews. Around this time, G.E. CEO Immelt confronted NBC News head Neal Shapiro. “MSNBC is a dot on the side of a pool ball,” Immelt told Shapiro, “but it’s embarrassing. I don’t like being No. 3.” And with the surge in patriotism following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, NBC CEO Bob Wright told Shapiro that MSNBC should try and outflank Fox on the right. “We have to be more conservative then they are,” Wright told Shapiro pointedly. Swirling graphics of the American flag soon became a fixture on the network along with the tagline “America’s News Channel.”