As you yourself point out, the cable nets’ audiences are tiny compared to the network evening news. NPR’s audience is huge, too. So why should we worry about cable?
I see cable as an agenda-setter. You’re right, it’s got a relatively tiny audience, but a lot of journalists watch it. A lot of media professionals watch it. A lot of political operatives watch it. So it sets an agenda for the political class of who’s important, who’s got a strong voice and who doesn’t. And what are the important issues. It’s on all day, so it’s easy even for busy members of the political class to tune in. So I think it has an impact on that political class, and it makes it far more important than the few million people watching it.

GE still owns MSNBC, but its new golden boy seems to be Keith Olbermann, a liberal. Doesn’t this suggest that TV executives will go with whatever works?
I wish. Do I wish. I’d still be there. I’d be rich and powerful. And famous.

I like Keith. I liked him years and years ago. I’ve never met the guy. I like his persona. Obviously others do, too. I like his smarts, I like his whimsy, and lately, obviously, he’s pandering to my political sensibilities as well as the next guy’s.

Phil was a passionate, progressive voice when Bush was high in the ratings and the war was coming. Olbermann is now on where Bush is low in the ratings and the war is sinking. I know it’s only been four years, but it feels like twenty. The times have changed a lot.

We could have had a show with aggressive, articulate, passionate people saying things on national TV seen nowhere else. And it would have happened night after night. This was the time that independent, smart, active news consumers were turning away from the mainstream and looking for alternatives. MoveOn was doubling its size during this time, and we were being muzzled. We could have been an alternative in the mainstream. The best of both worlds. And our ratings would have climbed.

But MSNBC management’s main preoccupation then wasn’t how to get ratings, it was how to tamp down the content. And one thing that irritated them was the guests that we had. Olbermann’s guest list is often semi-conventional.

It was conveyed to me repeatedly, day after day: “Phil’s badgering, he’s coming across as angry.” Keep in mind that we were up against a show — O’Reilly’s show, in that very time slot — and we were being told that anger and passion somehow isn’t going to get audience.

They didn’t care about audience. They cared more about muzzling the show. I almost could feel for management, that they couldn’t do what was good journalism. In our case they couldn’t even do what was good for ratings. And they were saying things to me that I felt they knew were silly. I could look them in the eye sometimes and say, this isn’t the guy talking to me. This is someone else in this dysfunctional ownership/management situation.

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