A week after Fox News’s boss wizard Roger Ailes dominated the media news cycle because of a subpar book, the man behind the curtain who’s nipping at his heels is getting a taste of the spotlight. The New Republic has a big, juicy profile of Phil Griffin, “The Roger Ailes of MSNBC,” who’s riding high after the election and still aiming upwards. Griffin speaks boldly about building “the MSNBC lifestyle” — “much more like a general-interest brand than a left-wing clubhouse,” according to writer Rebecca Dana — with an eye toward “covering fashion, entertainment, sports, and food.”
But beyond his ambition, the most revealing (and gossipy) bits about Griffin come through in his personal interactions with three big men in his life: Keith Olbermann, Jeff Zucker, and Roger Ailes. In comparison, Griffin’s ego and aggressiveness fall short, especially of Ailes.
Although considered a gracious manager and a self-proclaimed “player’s coach” with little star power of his own, Griffin is called “undependable and cold-blooded” with those who have crossed him. “He has a weakness for gossip and not even his biggest stars are safe,” Dana writes, calling him “vicious behind closed doors,” but his quippiness about former stars is not quite Ailes caliber:
… behind [Olbermann’s] back, Griffin could be scathing. To colleagues, he made fun of the way he wore his pants. He joked that he was a virgin. He employed every cutting expletive he knew and even invented a couple. “Listen, I can have salty language,” Griffin says. “It’s not like we all went down to the bar and told stories. Was Keith the central topic of conversation for everybody in this building? Yes. Did stories get whispered around? Was I at the center of all of it because I looked after Keith? Yes.”
Olbermann’s Twitter feed, meanwhile, is about as biting on any given Tuesday.
Once the hottest young producer at the Today show, Griffin was soon usurped by the “hotter, younger” Zucker. The two execs have been both allies — falling asleep in the same bathroom after four days straight on a story — and competitors, as it is once again with Zucker in charge at third-place CNN. “All I know is I kicked CNN’s ass without Jeff Zucker,” says Griffin, flexing a healthy bit of competitiveness. “Now I gotta kick his ass, too.” But Ailes remains the master at cutting down rivals, as he demonstrates on Griffin himself …
Griffin’s new-found cockiness is credited with one of his producers’ new nickname for Fox News, “Loserville,” but the MSNBC boss also understands the hierarchy. While Griffin looks up to Ailes, calling him “bold,” “strong,” and fondly remembering a time he recently “dominated” a room full of journalists and the Israeli Prime Minister (“More than Netanyahu. He was telling him what to do.”), Ailes continues to neg Griffin, as he’s done for years:
In 2003, when MSNBC was on deathwatch, Griffin found himself in Ailes’s office, on a job interview. As Griffin remembers it, the Fox News chief asked him where he went to college, and when Griffin told him Vassar, Ailes replied, “Liberal.”
“Why do you say that?” Griffin asked.
“Only liberals go there,” Ailes said.
And these days:
“I’m fond of Phil Griffin,” Ailes told me. “He’s like the guy next door who wants to borrow your lawnmower. And he does a pretty good job of managing that mean-spirited circus over there. But let’s be honest, he built his whole career out of being in Jeff Zucker’s wedding party.”
For all of MSNBC’s recent success, the numbers still back up Ailes, and “Fox executives mostly laugh at MSNBC and its dreams of cable news domination,” Dana writes. “In 2011, Fox News had profits of nearly $900 million on $1.6 billion of revenue, according to an analysis by SNL Kagan. The same year, MSNBC made $195 million on $420 million of revenue. And to catch Fox, MSNBC wouldn’t just have to sustain its current ratings; it’d have to double them.”
While Griffin talks big about the cable news “knife fight for every viewer,” he comes across as both more likable and thus more dull than his opponent. To match Ailes, Griffin would also have to double his bluster.