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MSNBC Leans Forward Into the Post-Olbermann Era, And Chris Matthews Has a Lot to Say

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Keith Olbermann, former MSNBC star / bete noire, did not come up explicitly in the questioning at the MSNBC panel today at the TCA press tour. But his mutually negotiated departure earlier this year was a subtext of many of the questions addressed to news chief Phil Griffin and hosts Rachel Maddow, Lawrence O’Donnell and Chris Matthews: how the network was branding and building up staff for the future, how it was doing in the ratings, how it would fill holes in its schedule.

But when it came to directly talking about the state of the network, Griffin and company preferred to, well, lean forward. (Speaking to reporters after the session, Maddow said, “Keith and I haven’t talked at all since he left.”)

Griffin instead pitched a story of growth at the second-place (depending how you take the measurement) cable news network. Advertising was up. Maddow just signed to a new multi-year deal. And, Griffin said, this year MSNBC has beaten Fox News in the ratings 13 times. Yes, that’s 13 whole hours. (To be fair, Griffin was comparing this performance to the previous year, when he said his network had beaten Fox once.)

Olbermann’s departure for Current TV left the network with a primetime schedule to rearrange, and Griffin and hosts say they’re happy with how it’s shaken out. Not all the holes are yet filled, though: interim 6 p.m. host Cenk Uygur recently left, and though there’s talk that Al Sharpton may take his place, Griffin said there is no decision yet. ( “He fits into the MSNBC sensibility,” Griffin said.) And while MSNBC just hired Chris Hayes to host a weekend program, that still leaves a lot of Lockup and Caught on Camera filling up those lonely hours between Friday and Monday.

The panel was speaking on the very day that President Obama was applying his signature as the final garnish to the “Satan sandwich”–and/or long-awaited crisis solution–that is the debt-ceiling bill, and naturally much of the discussion turned to politics and how MSNBC covered or influenced those politics. Asked whether they felt that cable news had contributed to an environment in which voters and politicians are polarized and unwilling to compromise, Griffin and his hosts repeatedly argued that MSNBC leaves more room for varying points of view and strikes a different tone from Fox. Not that anyone on stage was discarding the idea that MSNBC now had a brand as the progressive network in primetime. When a questioner in the audience told the panel he was seated to the their right, Matthews cracked, “It’s easy to get to our right.”

As for the political questions—did you know that Chris Matthews is a man with a lot of ideas that he likes to talk about? He dominated much of the panel’s response time, with lengthy Matthewsian answers that included a lot of verbiage but also nuggets of insight and frankness. (And Reagan quotes. Everyone has a Reagan quote nowadays!) He blamed the debt-ceiling crisis on Tea Party representatives who, he said, refused to take fiduciary responsibility for the country once elected, instead behaving like they were still “a protest party rather than an opposition party.”

On the GOP 2012 field, Matthews likes Michele Bachmann’s authenticity–though Obama “would have a hoot” running against her–but dismissed Mitt Romney as “a mood ring. And I look at that other guy, Chet — Rick Perry? He should be a Chet.” Asked to predict who would win the election, O’Donnell answered “Barack Obama” immediately; Maddow picked Obama, but said that was mostly on the basis of the Republican field; and Matthews hedged, saying that Obama would have a very rough time if the economy stays bad, but that he’s been “the luckiest pol alive” in regard to the opponents he’s had to run against in his career.

And then Matthews’ talk took a detour, into a reflective, sad rumination on the state of the economy in America; companies, he said, are not pro-employee, and haven’t been for a long time. Corporations, he argued, are simply more interested in avoiding the creation of full-time jobs–through temp hiring or other devices–than in creating them, whether consumer demand goes up or not. “I’m really not happy with capitalism right now the way it’s working,” he said.

At least cable-news anchoring still remains a growth industry. Lockup can only fill so many hours.

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