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Slyer Than Fox

The wild inside story of how MSNBC became the voice of the left

Photograph by Spencer Heyfron

To MSNBC president Phil Griffi n, news is war. And not one of those fancy modern wars fought by drones and computer hackers, either. “We are in a knife fight for every viewer,” he says often, and: “We are on the battleground.” So, this winter, as Blizzard Nemo was bearing down on New York City, Griffi n bunkered his top executives at the downtown Ritz Carlton for the cable news version of a military training exercise. A Navy SEAL spoke to them about how to manage fear during combat. They toured the September 11 museum, where they discussed the pressures of public scrutiny with the museum’s president. And, later, they participated in drills designed to sharpen their competitive instincts, including one where teams of two each created a specialty cocktail they felt “embodied MSNBC.” 

Bill Wolff, Rachel Maddow’s executive producer, joked that the last event combined two things that Griffin loves most: “talking about MSNBC and having a cocktail.” One pair chose a Michelada (beer, lime juice, hot sauce, and Worcestershire sauce) and explained that the drink conveyed MSNBC’s spice and unpredictability. Another chose a champagne cocktail (sugar cube soaked in angostura bitters, an ounce of cognac, champagne, and a twist of lemon), describing it, and the second-place cable news network, as classic, original, and unafraid to tell the “bitter” truth. A third mixed Gosling rum, Mezcal, and chocolate bitters and dubbed it “The Heart and the Fist,” which was the theme of the day’s activities and also the title of the SEAL’s memoir. In its cocktail incarnation, it was intended to convey MSNBC’s strength and compassion.

Griffin, a vodka drinker, picked a Guinness. It was an “acquired taste,” he explained. But those who drink it, drink a lot.

In its early years, MSNBC was more like a warm O’Doul’s: flat, bland, and buzz-free. Microsoft and NBC came together to launch the network on July 15, 1996, three months before Roger Ailes christened the Fox News Channel, and neither company had a clear vision of what MSNBC should be. “Our mandate was, ‘Go be CNN, but do it better,’ ” Griffin remembers.

In the network’s first year, about 24,000 viewers tuned in to prime time every night (compared with CNN’s 600,000). By its fifth anniversary, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer told a reporter that the whole enterprise, which cost $420 million to get off the ground, had been a mistake: “If we were starting it now,” he said, “I don’t think we would have started it.”

Fox News, on the other hand, was barreling through the end of the Clinton administration, reveling in the Monica Lewinsky scandal every night, and beating CNN soundly by the middle of George W. Bush’s first term. “I watched like a hawk,” Griffin says.

What he saw disturbed him. Griffin was a producer for MSNBC at the time, and Fox clearly had something his network did not: an identity. His NBC bosses, though, were a fussy bunch of old-school newsmen, and there was an institutional sanctimony about turning the network into a partisan outlet.

That changed after 9/11, when the news networks, cowed by Fox’s success and unsure of how to respond to tragedy, competed to see who could be the most patriotic. MSNBC started calling itself “America’s NewsChannel” and hired opinionated hosts like Alan Keyes, Phil Donahue, and Pat Buchanan. “Then we thought, ‘Well, maybe we should be conservative,’ ” Griffin remembers. It didn’t work. In the first year of MSNBC’s right-wing experiment, ratings fell 23 percent. In 2003, NBC was considering pulling the plug altogether.

The network managed to hang on for a couple more years before accidentally hitting upon an identity that worked. Right after Hurricane Katrina, in the summer of 2005, Keith Olbermann delivered a “Special Comment” at the end of his show about the Bush administration’s incompetence. Even though it was an instant sensation, picking up millions of hits online, Griffin demanded that Olbermann stop. Having his temperamental star fulminate against the White House for nine uninterrupted minutes at 8:50 p.m. wasn’t his idea of a perfect lead-in to Rita Cosby. But Olbermann, being Olbermann, persisted, eventually earning himself the designation of “truth teller of the year” in Rolling Stone.

This is how MSNBC as we know it developed: haphazardly, and often over Griffin’s initial skepticism. In 2005, Tucker Carlson’s team brought Rachel Maddow into the network based on a tape her agent sent them. Maddow wasn’t Griffin’s style—she didn’t look like a Fox blonde—but Carlson insisted that she stay on, and Maddow quickly proved herself to be erudite and winning on-air. When she was hired as a regular contributor, MSNBC gave her the keys to Connie Chung’s old dressing room, an enthusiastic makeup artist, and a closet full of high-end clothing. Hint hint.

“Morning Joe” has a similar creation story. In 2007, as part of an effort to persuade Griffin to give him a morning show, Joe Scarborough stayed up late one night to Photoshop a poster for his imagined program. He pasted pictures of his dream co-hosts, including Willie Geist, and bullet points of what the show would do. Finally, Griffin gave in. Scarborough then managed to hire Mika Brzezinski as his co-host, again over Griffin’s objections. Before their first show, Griffin gave them a piece of advice, “Pretend to have an audience of one: Tim Russert.”

“It took me about eight years to figure him out,” Scarborough says. “I sit, and I look at a problem, and I make a decision. Phil sits back and he lets things hit the wall and he waits to see what sticks.” He calls this Griffin’s “free-market, laissez-faire approach” to management, and it has been phenomenally successful over the last five years.

The 2008 campaign showed that there was a big audience for left-wing punditry, and Griffin, who took charge of the network that July, moved to capitalize. Liberals like Olbermann and Maddow were anchoring prime time shows, while reporters like Andrea Mitchell were pushed into the daytime hours. In time, Bill Clinton was able to call MSNBC “our version of Fox News.”

“Phil is the perfect distillation of the television mentality,” says one former MSNBC employee, “which is: whatever the audience wants.” And, actually, no one at the network knows much about his politics; he’s probably a Democrat, but it’s just not something he cares much about or discusses with ease. “[Fox News President] Roger Ailes is a lifelong TV guy,” says Chris Hayes, MSNBC’s new 8 p.m. anchor, “but he’s also a political consigliere. Phil is not. Whatever his politics are, they are not woven into the DNA of what we’re doing.” Put another way: Fox News is a TV network that succeeds because of its ideological slant. MSNBC is a TV network that has an ideological slant because that’s what happened to succeed.

And MSNBC is more successful now than it has ever been. At the end of this presidential election, it drew an average of 1.5 million viewers to its weekday prime time lineup. (The numbers have fallen since.) Fox still gets more than two million a night, but Griffin, optimistically, believes he can beat Fox by 2014. It’s a cockiness that has funneled down. In a recent staff meeting, one of Griffin’s producers coined a new term for Fox News: “Loserville.”

But even if MSNBC doesn’t surpass its main rival in the next year or the next five, Phil Griffin has managed an unprecedented feat. He has created a thriving and lucrative liberal TV business, the long-sought answer to Fox News and conservative talk radio. Above all a businessman, though, Griffin understands that people’s tastes change, so even now, at the height of MSNBC’s power, he’s talking about “evolving” the network. He wants it to become more of a lifestyle brand than a political hub. Which means that the biggest threat to MSNBC’s position as a liberal oasis may not be a newly invigorated CNN or Fox News; it may be the man who shaped the network into what it is today.

Griffin’s corner office overlooks Rockefeller Plaza, and the wall space that isn’t covered by televisions is devoted to photographs of his children and his beloved New York Mets. His idols are tough TV bosses—Roger Ailes, Tom Brokaw, former NBC News President Andy Lack—but his demeanor is restless and excitable, more Tigger than Tim Russert. When we discussed his childhood in his office a couple months back, he leaned forward as he talked, his elbows on his desk, his knees jiggling. At times, it appeared physically painful for him to sit still.

Growing up, Griffin was the youngest of four, the least political in a family of committed Democrats. His father, a successful executive at Macy’s, was the only McGovern voter in his demographic, Griffin says. His mother took the kids to marches for the hungry. His brother John, a magazine executive who used to work for Time, was a conscientious objector. “When I was little, it was annoying,” Griffin says. “We were always having loud political discussions around the dinner table.”

But it’d be crazy to feel bad for young Phil; his was a sunny, happy American childhood, split between the affluent suburbs of New York and the affluent suburbs of Toledo. “I’m the baby, and I got away with murder,” he says. “Everybody loved me.”

Photographs by Spencer Heyfron

He says that these nurturing early years gave him confidence and a thick skin. All the attention at home also spared him from seeking it on a grand scale. “I am one of the few people in television who never wanted to be on-air,” he told me over lunch at Oceana, a seafood restaurant in Midtown Manhattan where he is a regular (he doesn’t eat meat) and where he had to make sure the chef didn’t send out extra dishes on the house. Griffin suggests that his desire to be a manager instead of a star is what makes him good at stroking the sensitive egos of people who appear on live television. He calls himself a “player’s coach.”

“He works us one-on-one,” says Chris Matthews. “You’re never going to see Phil having a big group together.” The two have the occasional lunch or dinner, and pressed for personal details, Matthews recalled admiring Griffin’s dancing ability at a mutual friend’s wedding. Professionally, Matthews says he instinctively trusts his boss. “You may think I’m tougher than that,” he says, “but inside I basically do what he wants me to do.”

Something about Griffin’s manner inspires affection, even among people he has crossed over the years. (“I’m a Sagittarius!” he told me by way of explanation.) In 2011, Mika Brzezinski published a book called Knowing Your Value, a manifesto for women in the workplace, in which she details her own protracted contract negotiations with Griffin. Shortly before the book was to publish, she brought a manuscript to Griffin’s office and sat next to him on a couch for four and a half hours, alternately reading the book out loud to him and watching him read it. It is not the most flattering portrayal. She reveals that she was paid much less than her male counterparts and details her five frustrating efforts to fix it. Many p.r.-obsessed media bosses would have objected, but Griffin embraced it. “To put the words ‘man’ and ‘self-aware’ in the same sentence—that’s saying a lot,” Brzezinski says.

“I think he’s a little impulsive in a way that’s kind of adorable,” says Maddow, who describes her relationship with Griffin as “the most constructive professional relationship of my life.” He runs MSNBC with minimal bureaucracy, making swift hiring decisions and approving changes without a lot of red tape. One time, Brzezinski called Griffin to recommend that he hire a conservative female commentator she admired. “Fine! Done!” he barked and hung up the phone. “If you’ve got a good point, it can be sold very quickly,” Brzezinski says.

He can be impulsive in his personal life, too. In 1995, Griffin’s long-time girlfriend, Kory Apton, got pregnant, and Tom Brokaw offered to throw them a shotgun wedding. “First off, I’m a little bit of a rebel,” he said when I asked why he declined. “For a long time, I thought, ‘Do I really need to have a wedding?’ ... You wouldn’t believe the people who would talk to me, people who were married four times, and they would say, ‘Why aren’t you married?’ ”

But a year later, while on a golf course in Florida with his father and brothers, he had an idea: He would throw a surprise wedding. “I didn’t want to go through the year of preparation,” he says. “I didn’t want to go through the walking down the aisle.” Apton had mentioned once that she’d like to get married on the beach. This gave Griffin the idea to rent out Joe’s Fish Shack on the Upper West Side, hire a seven-piece band, and deck it out like a “tropical paradise” for one January night, which also happened to be Apton’s thirty-third birthday. She walked into what she thought was a surprise party, and then Griffin brought out a judge. “Kory said, ‘Now?’ and I said, ‘Yes!’ ” he remembers. “She loved it. It was a far more memorable wedding.”

But there’s a flip side to a personality like Griffin’s. The people he has soured on over the years describe him as undependable and cold-blooded. A common complaint is that, for all of Griffin’s vaunted talent-coddling ability, no one can be more vicious behind closed doors. He has a weakness for gossip and not even his biggest stars are safe.

Take the case of Keith Olbermann. The two worked together for over a decade, and by most accounts, Griffin was terrific with him. On days Olbermann wouldn’t come to work, a grindingly regular occurrence, Griffin would soothe his tantrums and coax him into the anchor’s chair. But behind his 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.”

By 2011, the two men’s differences were irreconcilable, and Olbermann left the network on bad terms. “We are at war,” Griffin told Olbermann’s manager around that time. His position hasn’t softened over the last two years. Of their split, Griffin would only say, “We’ll talk about that later, with the lawyers.”

Through the Olbermann debacle and for most of his career, Griffin has been able to count on his old pal Jeff Zucker to support him. The story of their intertwined careers begins in 1983, several years before their initial meeting.

Griffin was 26 and had left CNN to do “vacation relief” work on the “Today” show. It was a fairly thankless job—he’d just fill in for whichever producer was taking time off. But he was clearly good at it. “I loved Phil,” says Steve Friedman, then-executive producer of “Today.” “I wanted to give him a full-time job, but I knew I had to break him first.” He felt that Griffin was too bright and cheery, that he needed a dose of reality, so he declined to give him a permanent position. Six months later, while Griffin was traveling around the world, he heard that Friedman and his wife were in London. He tracked them down and begged for a job. It worked.

Griffin quickly stood out as a talented producer and a fun guy to have around the office. In one typically impressive performance, Griffin helped book Gary Dotson, a man who was convicted of rape in 1979 only to be put back out on bail six years later, when his accuser, Cathleen Crowell Webb, confessed to making the story up. Every network wanted the first interview with the duo, but NBC got the “get” thanks to some expert evasion techniques. Griffin picked up Webb and her husband at the airport and took off in a limo with six cars from rival outlets in pursuit. By the time they reached Manhattan, only four cars were still on their tail, and they cut through Chinatown and Little Italy in an attempt to shake them. When Griffin and the Webbs reached the busy South Street Seaport, they jumped out of the limo, disappeared into the crowd, and hailed a cab. The next day, Jane Pauley interviewed Webb and Dotson as they sat excruciatingly close to each other on a couch. It was morning-show gold. Executives saw big things in Griffin’s future.

The first big thing came in 1987, when Friedman brought Griffin with him to launch “USA Today: The Television Show.” The program, which aired in the same time slot as the network nightly news in some markets, focused on upbeat stories, dubbed “the journalism of hope.” It tanked, and one year later, Griffin went back to “Today,” ready to pick up where he left off. But when he arrived, he discovered a new competitor: Jeff Zucker. TV news is like this. One moment you’re the hot young talent, and the next, some hotter, younger talent is rocketing past you. Zucker, then 23, was indomitable.

Despite their rivaling portfolios and the eight-year age gap, Griffin and Zucker became fast friends. They talked sports. (Zucker, not for nothing, is a Yankees fan.) They traveled to Iraq with Willard Scott in the days before the first Gulf war. “My most vivid memory from the old days was when the San Francisco earthquake happened in 1989, and we both arrived there to cover the story for the ‘Today’ show,” Zucker says. “We both stayed up working together for four straight days without sleep. Literally, no sleep. After four days, we ended up back at the hotel, where we both fell asleep in the bathroom.” One was on the floor. One was in the bathtub. Neither man can remember which.

“At first we were equals,” Griffin says, “and then Jeff just soared.” Within two decades, Zucker went from a lowly sports researcher to the chief executive of NBC Universal—the fastest rise in network TV history. Griffin, for his part, was doing well, but not spectacularly. And he had Zucker to help him rise within the company. Zucker promoted Griffin to senior vice president of NBC News in 2005 and made him president of MSNBC in 2008. “Phil would not be here if it weren’t for Jeff,” Friedman says. “Jeff gave him jobs. It was Jeff who convinced Phil there was a future in cable when a lot of people didn’t believe it in the late ’90s and early 2000s.”

The two always remained personally close—Griffin signed Zucker’s ketubah in 1996 when he married Caryn Nathanson, and Zucker recommended a florist to Griffin when he married Apton a year later—but it wasn’t easy for Griffin. “I felt a little pit in my stomach,” he says, “but I just pushed it down because we were friends.”

Then, in 2010, came a filmic twist. Zucker lost his job right at the time that MSNBC was enjoying its biggest success yet. Initial reports had him considering a run for political office, but Zucker ended up producing Katie Couric’s daytime talk show, which drew mediocre ratings at first. If Griffin felt even a glimmer of schadenfreude, he won’t admit to it.

Certainly not now that they’re direct competitors. In November 2012, Time Warner named Zucker president of CNN Worldwide, giving him a sweeping mandate to rework the ailing news network. Thus far, Zucker hasn’t outlined a grand strategy, but it seems unlikely that he’ll take the network left or right. Instead, he’ll hire people he thinks can develop their own loyal audiences, regardless of slant—people like Jake Tapper and Chris Cuomo. What he’ll definitely do is make sure CNN dominates on breaking news stories. It’s what the network has always done best. The network got big ratings during this year’s State of the Union speech, and Zucker’s flood-the-zone coverage of the stranded Carnival cruise ship drew one million viewers the first night, a 62 percent increase from the network’s typical audience. Zucker knows how to milk a meteorological event, too. As Griffin was driving through the blizzard from the Ritz Carlton on February 8, he thought, I know exactly what Jeff’s going to do with this.

The problem for CNN has always been what to do when there isn’t a big story. The lesson of the last decade of cable news is that viewers want personality at night, and they don’t want to bother changing channels. Around 80 percent of MSNBC’s ratings come from people who watch it for 150 minutes or more a day. Fox has a similar number. These super-users keep cable news in business, and bringing them to CNN without adopting an obvious political position is going to be remarkably difficult.

“All I know is I kicked CNN’s ass without Jeff Zucker,” Griffin says. “Now I gotta kick his ass, too.”

Griffin doesn’t obsess about beating Zucker, though—at least not in the way he does about beating Ailes. It’s his life’s ambition.

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.

Griffin walked out without a job offer, and that has pretty much been the extent of their interpersonal dealings over the years, though Ailes doesn’t think ill of him. “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.”

Griffin’s feelings about Ailes tend more toward awe. They both recently attended a breakfast for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “It was amazing,” Griffin says. “All these top journalists were invited, but the guy who dominated was Roger. More than Netanyahu. He was telling him what to do.” Griffin marveled at Ailes’s fearlessness. “He’s bold, he’s strong, he does not hide his feelings,” Griffin says. “I’ve always enjoyed him from afar.”

And he has studied him from afar. “Every time I met somebody from Fox, I tried to get a debrief of how he runs that operation,” Griffin says. MSNBC, as a result, doesn’t look entirely dissimilar from Fox. A Pew survey found that 71 percent of stories MSNBC did about Mitt Romney during the last leg of the 2012 campaign were negative, compared with 3 percent that were positive. On Fox, 46 percent of the stories about Barack Obama were negative, and 6 percent were positive. And in that great Fox tradition, MSNBC is now hiring high-ranking party operatives. In February, two of Obama’s closest confidants, Robert Gibbs and David Axelrod, signed up as contributors to the network.

The courtship of Axelrod was particularly intense. Network bigwigs—including Griffin, Brian Williams, and former NBC News President Steve Capus—went to Washington for a meeting with Axelrod in his lawyer’s office. Zucker and CNN made a bid, too, but the NBC team, offering wider exposure, won out. “It was not a negative judgment about CNN,” Axelrod says. He’ll be appearing on a weekly basis on either NBC or MSNBC (“I don’t think I’ll be a ubiquitous presence”), and he expects to be featured on MSNBC’s new website. “I like to write, so I wouldn’t discount the possibility that I’ll do some writing for them as well,” he says.

Still, MSNBC isn’t an instrument of the Democratic Party in the way that Fox is of the GOP. Ailes has a direct line to conservative politicians and considerable influence over them. Griffin may go to the odd White House Christmas party, but he’s not talking strategy with Valerie Jarrett. “We have much closer relationships with the administration than he does,” says Scarborough, who told me Obama surrogates contacted him after plenty of shows during the last campaign, often to complain.

Many of MSNBC’s hosts are also more liberal than the White House is, particularly on issues like drone warfare, indefinite detention, and relief for the financial sector. And Maddow argues that Obama avoids the network (he hasn’t agreed to an interview since 2008) in part because his people know he’s going to get asked difficult questions. “What MSNBC has done is help create something of a North Star for a lot of progressive opinion to follow,” says Erik Smith, a senior media adviser to both Obama campaigns. “But as quickly as they’re with you, they can be on the left of you. It’s not like it’s a booster club on the air.” Axelrod noted the network’s lack of support after Obama’s poor first debate performance. “I wasn’t terribly happy about it,” he says of the MSNBC backlash, “but there’s no doubt they were opinion leaders.”

Political considerations aside, Fox executives mostly laugh at MSNBC and its dreams of cable news domination. 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.

Griffin has plans, though. First, he’s cutting back on “Lockup,” the very profitable prison documentaries that run in marathons on weekends, because he felt they undercut the network’s brand identity. “He busted into prisonville,” Maddow says, admiringly. “Those shows rate spectacularly well. They make so much money. It’s like having an ATM in the lobby that you don’t need a card for. And to make the decision to give up some of that free money in order to expand the news footprint of MSNBC—had I been in Phil’s shoes, I don’t know if I would have been brave enough to do that.”

Then there’s the matter of the website. For all its life (until it went offline this winter), had been a snooze, populated almost entirely by opinion-free content from NBC. Griffin hated it. But he recently brought on long-time MSNBC contributor Richard Wolffe to lead an overhaul. “We’re behind, but we’re gonna get there in a big way,” he says. “This is a friggin’ unique opportunity.”

Griffin tends to get especially excited, and say words like “friggin’,” when he talks about the future of the network. Back in his office, knees bouncing, he told me how he envisions MSNBC, over the next five or ten years, looking much more like a general-interest brand than a left-wing clubhouse. “It’s a mistake for us to limit ourselves to news,” he says. He wants to build something he calls “the MSNBC lifestyle,” and so he’s spending a lot of time figuring out what works for Bravo and USA, two hugely lucrative cable properties also owned by Comcast. “We may find that they can teach us more about how to find our audience than CNN or NBC News can,” he says.

He sees MSNBC covering fashion, entertainment, sports, and food, and he imagines an audience coming to his anchors not just for their takes on the immigration bill, but also for their restaurant recommendations or their thoughts on a summer blockbuster. “I’m giving Chris Matthews a [digital] channel to talk about movies and good television shows like ‘Mad Men’ and ‘Homeland,’ ” he says.

If it all sounds fuzzy, that’s because it is. But Griffin believes he has time to get it right. Throwing things against the wall has worked for him before, after all.

Rebecca Dana is an author and journalist in New York. Her first book Jujitsu Rabbi and the Godless Blonde, was published by Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam in January 2013.