Things Get Ugly at MSNBC as Lawrence O’Donnell Takes His Contract Dispute Public

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By Joe Simonson | 6:34 pm, May 17, 2017
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Despite a record ratings surge, MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell has found himself inexplicably fighting to keep his cable news and opinion show on the air. And in a highly unusual move for the cloistered world of TV news, he’s taking his dispute with his bosses to the viewers.

On Wednesday, O’Donnell informed his fans of his employment contract’s expiration date and suggested he may soon be gone.

This followed several tweets in previous days in which O’Donnell asked his fans for their support and implied that something was awry.

Rumors about O’Donnell’s show getting axed have been swirling for the last few weeks, with the Huffington Post reporting Sunday that it was unlikely he’d get his contract renewed. A source later told The Daily Beast that HuffPo‘s reporting was wrong and that O’Donnell was negotiating with MSNBC management “with an eye towards renewal and a new deal.” There were similar reports in Variety on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Tuesday night, O’Donnell suggested he had the support of his boss, MSNBC President Phil Griffin, but Griffin’s job may also be in jeopardy, according to The Daily Beast.

So what’s going on inside MSNBC?

According to multiple reports, NBC News and MSNBC’s geriatric chairman, Andy Lack, is determined to hack away at MSNBC’s progressive programming, even though it’s getting record ratings.

In the last two years, Lack, who turned 70 last week, has removed a number of progressive hosts and shows from MSNBC’s air. These moves include ousting Melissa Harris Perry in a messy, public execution and dumping Al Sharpton’s daily, 6 pm show and replacing it with a rebroadcast of Bloomberg TV’s much derided Mark Halperin show With All Due Respect (now canceled).

Andy Lack, chairman of NBC News and MSNBC

More recently, Lack ousted liberal host Steve Kornacki from his daytime slot and replaced him with the Republican operative Nicolle Wallace. There are also reports that conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt is getting a weekend show.

MSNBC has also added paid conservative commentators to MSNBC’s ranks, including Charlie Sykes and George Will.

Now Lack is reportedly turning his scalpel toward O’Donnell — with an eye, insiders say, to replacing him at 10pm with Lack’s close friend Brian Williams, the disgraced former anchor of NBC Nightly News. Lack has been aggressively trying to rehabilitate Williams and putting him at 10pm, in a throwback to Williams’ MSNBC days in the early 2000s when he was being groomed to replace Tom Brokaw, could bring Williams one step closer to reclaiming his Nightly News chair from its current occupant, Lester Holt.

Brian Williams and MSNBC all star Rachel Maddow

Through all these changes, Phil Griffin’s presence has not been felt as he’s been forced to take a backseat to the assertive Lack on any significant changes to MSNBC’s line up or cast.

The MSNBC family has been bewildered by Lack’s behavior — confused about whether it’s grounded in blind loyalty to Williams or in something else — perhaps an effort to curry favor with his conservative bosses at Comcast, which owns NBC Universal.

Another explanation is that at age 70 and on his second tour of duty at NBC, that Lack is simply confused.

According to The Huffington Post, Lack has bristled at suggestions that MSNBC’s ratings surge has anything to do with Donald Trump, preferring that his programming genius receives the credit (It would be true to form. In 1997, when he was previously overseeing NBC News, Lack famously told The NewYork Times that “I am America’s news leader.”)

Lack is close personal friends with Brian Williams and NBC News’ biggest star, Matt Lauer

It’s possible that O’Donnell’s public pleas for support will help save his show, but also possible that they will backfire. Twitter campaigns are now underway urging O’Donnell fans to call the NBC switchboard, and O’Donnell has a powerful supporter in Rachel Maddow — currently the biggest star in cable news — who in recent days has made her support for O’Donnell clear.

Whether this is enough to circumvent Andy Lack and Brian Williams’ larger ambitions remains to be seen.

 

Follow Joe Simonson on Twitter.

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