MSNBC Chief Defends Anchor Apologies: 'We Took Responsibility'

MSNBC Illustration - H 2014
Illustration by: John Ueland

MSNBC Illustration - H 2014

Phil Griffin on meltdowns by Alec Baldwin, Martin Bashir and Melissa Harris-Perry as the public squabbling with Fox News and CNN intensifies.

This story first appeared in the Jan. 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

MSNBC Chief Phil Griffin is accepting responsibility for a spate of recent gaffes that have led to anchor apologies and exits at the news network. "These were judgment calls made by some of our people," Griffin tells THR. "We quickly took responsibility for them and took action. They were unfortunate, but I'm not going to allow these specific moments of lack of judgment to define us."

The embarrassments began when host Alec Baldwin was caught on camera allegedly using a gay slur. Baldwin parted ways with MSNBC on Nov. 26 after only five shows. Eight days later, host Martin Bashir resigned after criticism for a crude scatological suggestion involving Sarah Palin. Weekend host Melissa Harris-Perry is still at MSNBC after a heartfelt apology for ridiculing Mitt Romney's adopted black grandson during a Dec. 28 segment.

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"We handled them," says Griffin. "We were transparent. That is our philosophy: Be factual, and step up when you make a mistake. And I don't see that among our competition, whether it's getting something wrong on a major story or when there are clear inaccuracies and they're not corrected."

MSNBC is not the only network apologizing. CBS News executives acknowledged flaws in a November 60 Minutes report by Lara Logan that accused the State Department of failing to aid Americans under attack in Benghazi. But the transgressions of MSNBC's liberal-leaning hosts have been of particular interest to an aggressive contingent on the right, though Bashir's Palin commentary prompted bipartisan outrage. And multiple MSNBC staffers expressed amazement at Bashir's and his producers' "stupidity."

Griffin is known as a hands-off manager, but MSNBC disputes a report that star host Rachel Maddow is taking a role in management decisions and that an executive has been asked to review scripts in the wake of the gaffes. "We don't rely on one person to look at all scripts -- there are too many scripts," says Griffin, adding that he meets with producers daily. "Of course I've talked to everybody in the building about it -- and we move on. Some of these mistakes are being played out far more inside the media world. I don't think it hurt us in any way."

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In fact, MSNBC is coming off strong tune-in during the week ending Jan. 12. Maddow bested Fox News Channel's Megyn Kelly at 9 p.m. in the adults 25-to-54 demo. Thanks in part to the Chris Christie bridge scandal, MSNBC ranked No. 1 in primetime Jan. 9 and 10, while Chris Matthews' 7 p.m. show tied FNC's Greta van Susteren in the demo and Lawrence O'Donnell bested Sean Hannity on Jan. 8 and 9. They represent incremental gains on FNC's historic dominance.

But the cutthroat cable-news competition lately has spilled into public squabbling. FNC chief Roger Ailes and CNN Worldwide president Jeff Zucker have traded jabs over Ailes' comment to THR that CNN and MSNBC are "out of the news business." FNC also took out a full-page ad in the New York Post on Jan. 6 using a quote from Griffin saying MSNBC is "not the place" for breaking news.

Griffin maintains his quote was misconstrued. "I did not say that," he says. "It was in reference to CNN, that their brand is known for breaking news. And my reference was not that we don't do [breaking news], but we're not known for it in the way that CNN is. I stand by our coverage of any major news story." The tone of the debate "has gotten very nasty," he adds. "At some point it just becomes background noise, and I just ignore it." Griffin hasn't ignored the provocative Twitter feed of Ronan Farrow, whose afternoon MSNBC show debuts in February. During the Jan. 12 Golden Globe Awards tribute to his estranged father, Woody Allen, Farrow tweeted: "… did they put the part where a woman publicly confirmed he molested her at age 7 before or after Annie Hall?"

"He's a very clever guy," says Griffin. "That's a personal issue that he felt necessary to respond to. I'll let it speak for itself."