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Chasing Fox

Despite the network’s emphasis on flag waving, MSNBC showed how little it understood the Fox model when, with Griffin as MSNBC’s prime time head, it hired the liberal Phil Donahue, who’d been Griffin’s childhood idol, out of retirement in April 2002 to anchor an 8 p.m. prime-time talk show that would challenge O’Reilly. The show debuted with the highest ratings ever for an MSNBC program, attracting more than a million viewers in its first night. But within a month, the audience was cut in half. At the same time, executives expressed increasing unease about his vocal opposition to the looming war in Iraq. At a time when red-meat patriotism prevailed, Donahue booked antiwar guests like Michael Moore, Rosie O’Donnell, Susan Sarandon, and Tim Robbins. Soon the Donahue problem threatened Griffin’s job. In a tense phone conversation, Shapiro told MSNBC president Erik Sorenson to fire Griffin, but Sorenson pushed back.

“I’m not going to do that,” he told Shapiro. “No. 1: Phil’s been loyal to me for a long time. I don’t think it’s right. And No. 2: We’re short-handed. We have all this talent, and he’s the one who’s managing it.”

As a compromise, Griffin’s job was spared but he was stripped of responsibility for the show. The new producer insisted on a precise numerical balance between liberals and conservatives. Donahue’s problems only increased when Chris Matthews let it be known that he wanted Donahue off the air. Matthews was a rising force at the network, with a reported salary of $5 million. He cultivated former G.E. CEO Jack Welch and had the ear of NBC CEO Bob Wright (the two summered together on Nantucket). Matthews saw himself as MSNBC’s biggest star, and he was upset that the network was pumping significant resources into Donahue’s show. In the fall of 2002, U.S. News & World Report ran a gossip item that had Matthews saying over lunch in Washington that if Donahue stays on the air, he could bring down the network.

After the item was published, Matthews showed up at Donahue’s office and apologized. “He didn’t deny it,” Donahue remembers. With the war looming, Sorenson and Griffin decided to take him off the air to make way for 24/7 war coverage. (Matthews told me he had nothing to do with the decision.) For Griffin, the firing of his childhood idol was a painful experience. “The guy that got me into TV probably hates my guts, and I wish he didn’t because I love the guy,” Griffin says.

In the spring of 2005, Griffin’s friendship with Zucker paid off when Zucker, then the CEO of NBC Universal Television Group, brought Griffin back to 30 Rock to a new senior role overseeing the Today show. After nearly a decade at MSNBC, Griffin wanted to return to the NBC mother ship. If nothing else, he despised his daily commute across the Hudson. “I’m not a fan,” he says. “Thirty Rock? Secaucus, New Jersey? Take your pick.”

Griffin’s proximity to Zucker also gave him leverage over his former boss Rick Kaplan, who was brought in the year before to run MSNBC. Griffin let it be known he had no love for Kaplan. “I have to sit here and listen to this guy?” he groaned to a senior producer after one meeting with Kaplan. In 2006, Kaplan was canned, and Zucker put Griffin in charge. Griffin was happily ensconced at 30 Rock. To run the cable channel day-to-day in Secaucus, Dan Abrams, an NBC legal analyst and host of the now-defunct prime-time MSNBC show called The Abrams Report, was promoted to the position of MSNBC general manager. It was an odd move. Abrams had no management experience and had landed the job on the basis of writing a six-page memo about his plans for the network. It also helped that Abrams, like Griffin, was a Zucker friend and attended the same Hamptons parties as he did.

Abrams’s lack of experience soon became evident. He blew up at producers if a particular graphic or camera shot was off. He micromanaged decisions. During one conference call shortly after he got the job, Abrams shocked Hardball producers when he told Chris Matthews what questions to ask a guest on that night’s show. Adding to the toxic climate, the prime-time talent, most vocally Olbermann, didn’t listen to him. “Dan never really ran it,” Olbermann tells me. “He’s always tried to ride my coattails.” Staffers were in near open revolt after Abrams proposed a new tagline, “MSNBC: Keepin’ It Real.”

At CNN, there was a feeling in the ranks that news snobbery had blinded it to Fox’s power. “When I got there, I was stunned at how dismissive they were of Fox,” recalls former CNN anchor Aaron Brown. “They would say, ‘This is just talk radio on television.’ ” But Fox surpassed CNN in 2002 and was now outpacing the network in every prime-time hour by wide margins.