At MSNBC, Big Stars Are the Big Story


It’s Day Three of cable’s MSNBC--the flashy new hybrid of NBC News and Microsoft Corp.--and behold the titans!

Bigger even than Bill.

Yes, MSNBC did get that trouper, President Clinton, to sit down with Tom Brokaw, cozy close-up to close-up, for its Monday debut. And there was something symbolic here, for starring that night on MSNBC’s competitor, CNN, was Clinton’s own opponent, GOP presumptive presidential candidate Bob Dole, schmoozing it up with Larry King.

As always on TV, though, the sales force is the news force.

So here this week is Brokaw, then Katie Couric, then Bryant Gumbel, then Jane Pauley, then Brian Williams. They are not just on the TV screen, not just filling the screen like solar eclipses or Eddie Murphy’s wide-bodied nutty professor. They are the screen, theatrically lit faces at times so near the camera in these promos that they appear poised to kiss the lens. Either that or, as in Williams’ case, the shot is from toe level, creating a worshipful angle that projects a grandeur and omnipotence belying the initial mediocrity of the MSNBC nightly newscast he anchors.


The sales slogan mouthed by these gleaming NBC News stars, now also designated as hood ornaments for MSNBC? “It’s time to get connected.”


For the moment, at least, CNN, not this uppity infant, is the 24-hour news network that Americans, to say nothing of the globe, are most connected to. Traveling this summer, for example? Then you’re probably traveling with CNN. Turn on TV in your hotel room in London or Istanbul, CNN is speaking. Got some time to fill before your flight, CNN’s brand of disco Muzak beams from monitors throughout the airport.

Regular CNN and its offspring, Headline News, seem nearly inescapable at times, the habits of choice for most cable-wired households with a taste for breaking news.

Such is the big rumble that MSNBC has gotten itself into with established CNN (now a sweet 16) in advance of the scheduled fall debut of still another cable news network from Fox.

MSNBC to date is something of a rough draft of an early sketch of a fuzzy work in progress still attached to its umbilical cord. So what you see now is not necessarily what you will get, which is not surprising, for CNN itself emerged in 1980 looking much like Quasimodo.

Thus, label these opinions very preliminary, fragmentary conclusions based on a smattering of instantaneous impressions akin to the way MSNBC itself is initially covering some events.


That was on display Tuesday morning when NBC correspondent Jim Miklaszewski and Andrea Mitchell both reported stories live based in part on documents they appeared to be reading cold. That’s the way things sometimes whiz by when news is breaking and break-neck.

Many regular NBC correspondents now do double duty on MSNBC, the plan being for their varying levels of credibility to rub off on the new network.

MSNBC’s main strength and major distinction, though, appears to be its interactive side, an online computer service that offers World Wide Web mavens a variety of text and visuals that complement the TV service. Not that it will matter to the masses who remain digitally challenged. Yet an MSNBC weeknight series titled “The Site” does strive to clear the fog from the technological revolution. In fact, Monday night’s “The Site” was not only a lot of fun but also, as a bonus, nearly comprehensible.

Also, credit daytime MSNBC with youthful verve in hashing over news with feisty young professionals instead of the usual frosty fossils from Washington think tanks who inevitably leaden discussions on CNN.

Elsewhere, though, freshly arrived MSNBC itself reeked of must and business as usual. For example, there was the unmerited banner headline treatment given Monday to the only moderately newsworthy White House chat with Clinton on “InterNight,” an interview/Internet program on which Gumbel, Couric, Bob Costas and Bill Moyers are joining Brokaw as alternating hosts.

Brokaw wrapped up “InterNight” with one of those hackneyed round-the-horn speculations about the presidential campaign with NBC correspondents Tim Russert, Lisa Myers and Gwen Ifill, in which everyone buckles under the heavy mantle of all-knowing, all-seeing sage.


Ifill, also a fast-talking sage, was asked by Williams at one point in his own newscast: “We have about 10 seconds, Gwen. How do you think tonight’s comments by the president will go over?” She took about 20.

In the curious way that TV newscasters debrief each other on camera, Williams also devoted part of his newscast to quizzing Russert and Brokaw about the Clinton interview (“What were the headlines as you heard them go by?”) and to a fresh MSNBC poll showing Clinton 24 points ahead of a sinking Dole.

Brokaw correctly cautioned against “betting the farm on any of this,” with the election still in the distance. Yet if that’s the case, then why was the poll, and the predictable response from the Dole camp, made the lead story on the Williams newscast, as if it were major news instead of merely an unverifiable survey?

Trumpeting such a poll as major is a form of self-promotion, only one of many used by TV news. Hence, on Tuesday, MSNBC somehow also found news value in that night’s episode of “Time and Again,” its Pauley-hosted hour that reviews history through the prism of NBC News. And when NBC’s “Today” show introduced its own story on the Clinton interview (“The president told Tom Brokaw . . . “), first came a close-up of the NBC anchorman, then one of Clinton.

Monday night’s big news, however, arose from King’s interview with Dole, who was beside his wife, Elizabeth.

It was not the former Senate majority leader’s proposed economics package or his naming of Rep. Susan Molinari (R-N.Y.) as keynote speaker for next month’s Republican National Convention in San Diego, both of which were covered by MSNBC.


Going unreported on MSNBC and elsewhere was the true blockbuster: Dole’s wife answered 12 questions herself during the hour interview and also aggressively interrupted her husband 20 times on campaign and policy issues. And when King got Molinari on the phone, she vowed to “double-check” with both Doles before finalizing her keynote address, raising the potential specter of a co-presidency the likes of which Clinton and his wife have been accused of foisting on America.

How will this go over with Democrats? You have 10 seconds to answer.