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NBC News, MSNBC: Uneasy coexistence?

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NBC News has managed to achieve the near-impossible this election season in getting Hillary Rodham Clinton and George Bush to agree on something.

That something, however, is antipathy toward NBC News.

Through its unusual public criticism of NBC's handling of Richard Engel's interview with the president, the Bush administration struck at the soft white underbelly of the news division's co-existence with the opinionated personalities of MSNBC.

"I'm sure you don't want people to conclude that there is really no distinction between the 'news' as reported on NBC and the 'opinion' as reported on MSNBC, despite the increasing blurring of those lines," Bush counselor Ed Gillespie wrote to NBC News President Steve Capus in a letter pointedly released to the public.

Capus said viewers are smart enough to understand the difference and that the criticism is a reflection of MSNBC's growing popularity.

Clinton's campaign didn't want to talk publicly about NBC, but it has been unhappy about the Democratic candidate's treatment by "Hardball" host Chris Matthews. That culminated in Matthews' apology in January for saying that the reason Clinton is a U.S. senator and candidate for president "is that her husband messed around."

Keith Olbermann has been critical of Clinton and supportive of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama on MSNBC's "Countdown."

When Tim Russert declared Obama the Democratic nominee during MSNBC's coverage of the North Carolina and Indiana primaries, the words carried extra weight because the "Meet the Press" host is generally considered the top broadcast journalist in Washington.

It was no coincidence when Clinton ran a campaign ad in Oregon criticizing pundits "who talk about who's up and who's down" instead of about issues, pictures of Matthews, Olbermann and Russert flashed past. The only non-NBC journalist was ABC's George Stephanopoulos, who has his own complicated relationship with the Clintons.

"Getting into the game of trying to attract an audience based on your point of view rather than reporting is dangerous because it does invite this kind of backlash," said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

It's hard, he said, to have it both ways.

A clash between two cultures at NBC played out vividly on the air during a discussion between Matthews and anchor emeritus Tom Brokaw on MSNBC's New Hampshire primary coverage, he said. Matthews had called for an investigation of opinion polls when Clinton surprisingly beat Obama that night.

"You know what I think we're going to have to go back and do?" Brokaw said. "Wait for the voters to make their judgment."

The network has emphasized that MSNBC and NBC News are synonymous. The bond was tightened recently when MSNBC moved out of its New Jersey headquarters to Rockefeller Center in Manhattan. Now Olbermann's "Countdown" and Brian Williams' "Nightly News" are produced under the same roof. NBC News personalities appear more frequently on MSNBC.

Olbermann's success has had a spillover effect on the network, said Eric Burns, an ex-NBC News correspondent and former host of "Fox News Watch" on Fox News Channel.

"He has made, just in terms of general image, MSNBC and by implication NBC (appear) much more liberal than it really is," Burns said.

Fox's Bill O'Reilly has relentlessly hammered NBC News on this issue because of his feud with Olbermann. That became heated enough to reach into the top levels of corporate owners General Electric Co. and News Corp., as outlined recently in The Washington Post.

Gillespie's letter also expressed several other complaints about NBC News, including Capus' declaration in fall 2006 that NBC would refer to violence in Iraq as a civil war. Grumbling by the Bush administration against NBC isn't surprising given the savage commentaries Olbermann has unleased against it.

To a certain extent, Gillespie's criticism may have been a lifesaver for NBC News after skirmishes with the Clinton campaign.

"We must be doing something right if people are squawking on both sides of the aisle," Capus said. "News and news-related programming is not always a popularity contest."

Certainly not with the subjects. Ratings indicate that "the public has demonstrated that this is a non-issue," he said.

It's wrong to base a network or a news division's image on one or two shows, he said. MSNBC has Olbermann and Matthews, but it also has former Republican politician Joe Scarborough on in the morning, he said.

"Viewers are savvy enough to know the differences in that kind of programming," Capus said. "The mission of NBC News hasn't changed. The difference is that MSNBC has had some success, and success comes with attention and scrutiny."

Research to be released by the Project for Excellence in Journalism will show that people would be hard-pressed to prove that opinionated MSNBC shows spill over in any way to NBC News programs like "Today," Rosenstiel said.

Burns said he knows Capus and Williams and doesn't question their credentials as solid, unbiased journalists. But the partnership with MSNBC means these issues won't disappear.

"It's a fine point, but for someone who cares about news it's a very important one," he said, "and it's not something that has ever been raised before."

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