MSNBC Exec Says the Network Is Beginning to 'Chip Away' at Fox

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President Phil Griffin confirms that MSNBC is talking to Al Sharpton about a regular on-air role and says he's "disappointed" that Cenk Uygur chose to leave.

BEVERLY HILLS – MSNBC president Phil Griffin has his sights set on Fox News. Griffin opened the network’s presentation at the Television Critics Association press tour here by noting that this year, MSNBC has surpassed perennial cable news leader Fox News in the ratings in multiple hours. The previous year, MSNBC did it once.

“It just gives you an indication of where we’re going,” said Griffin. “For the first time we’re beginning to chip away at Fox News Channel.”

Executives at the News Corp-owned network would probably quibble with the “chipping away” descriptor and Fox News is still the leader in a weekly, monthly and quarterly basis. But MSNBC has clearly carved out a successful perch as a progressive alternative at a time when once-dominant CNN is still clinging to the middle ground.

But Griffin disputed the assessment that MSNBC is the left-leaning version Fox News.

“I don’t see an equivalency between us and Fox News,” said Griffin. “There are no talking points. We don’t sit around and discuss how we’re going to cover any particular issue. That is something that you have to take account of when you compare the two of us. I just don’t see the same equivalency. I do say that we have a progressive attitude.”

Griffin appeared for a question and answer session with anchors Lawrence O’Donnell, Chris Matthews and Rachel Maddow – who just sealed a new multi-year deal that will keep her at MSNBC well beyond the 2012 presidential election.

“I think it’s easy to characterize us versus Fox, but I really don’t think we live up to the caricature,” said Maddow, adding that she’s done positive coverage of former Massachusetts governor and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s stance on climate change, for instance.

“They don’t know what to do with that [story at Fox News]. Neither Phil nor any other executive is telling us what to think of climate change. [Fox News] really are pushing a party line. Not every host. But I think we’re more unpredictable.”

“We all have favorites and they’re not always consistent with our politics or ideology,” said Matthews. “I find Michele Bachmann authentic. I’m very impressed, and I’ve said so, about how she’s raised all those foster kids. I look at Mitt Romney and I think he’s a mood ring. I think Jebb Bush will really be a political talent down the road. I look at different people and I judge them individually. I voted for [George W.] Bush in 2000. I thought he had some common sense.”

Griffin said that Al Sharpton will continue as the interim 6 p.m. anchor through the summer. And while he did not go as far to dispute that the network is talking to Sharpton about a regular arrangement.

“No decision has been made yet,” said Griffin. “He filled in for Ed [Schultz at 10 p.m.] and he did a very good job. He held the audience. We’ve made no decision. We’re looking at a number of people."

But Griffin said that he’s not bothered by Sharpton’s controversial edges. “I would not be putting him on if I had any doubts. I think Al has evolved into an elder statesman.”

He also said he’s still open having outspoken radio host Cenk Uygur return to the network despite Uygur’s abrupt departure and subsequent combative statements. (Uygur has said that MSNBC executives ordered him to “tone it down.”)

“We wanted Cenk to stay at MSNBC,” said Griffin. “I think Cenk fits our sensibility. We were working on a new contract that was going to have him on the weekends. Honestly, I was surprised that he chose not to take the deal and that’s the last we talked. And I was disappointed that he didn’t stay. And hopefully we’ll work it out someday and he’ll come back.”

The hosts were far from the political echo chamber of the northeast corridor. But they still had to deflect questions about their part in the debasement of the national political dialogue.

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Maddow countered that the just concluded debt ceiling crisis – which received copious attention on cable and broadcast news with many New York-based anchors hosting their programs from Washington – was in fact caused by Congress itself.

“I feel like the Michele Bachmann wing of the Republican Party was not created by me or by Fox News,” said Maddow, referring the the Minnesota congresswoman who has aligned herself with the Tea Party. (Matthews quipped: “I made Michele Bachmann, she’ll tell you.”)

“The thing that’s remarkable about the debt ceiling deal is it was absolutely not an external crisis,” said Maddow, adding that radical factions in Congress pushed “the country to the brink of utter economic catastrophe.”

Mathews added that lawmakers that align themselves with the anti-government Tea Party should be on the street “carrying placards” since they’re essentially abdicating their responsibility to govern, which requires compromise with the opposition party.

“They took the [government pay] check,” he said. “But they didn’t take the job.”

Matthews dismissed the notion that he only has people on his show that he agrees with ideologically. And Maddow added that she is “doubly, triply, quadruplely courteous” when trying to book Republican guests but it’s nevertheless very difficult to get them to come on The Rachel Maddow Show