Although experts predict that the future will be dominated by a television-Internet hybrid, the boldest experiment to date in merging the two has stalled. On Monday, MSNBC—the love child of NBC and Microsoft—announced that approximately 50 employees, or 20 per cent of MSNBC’s Internet staff, would be zapped mostly from its Redmond, Washington-based office.
Word of the falling ax leaked last week when, fittingly enough, one of the affected employees accidentally received a piece of e-mail that referred to the pending doom.
MSNBC was launched in July 1996, with a five-year commitment and an agreement that each media giant would invest $200 million. But the path thus far has been rocky; a Monday story in the Seattle Times quoted MSNBC sources who said that MSNBC’s Web site portion “is drawing far less advertising revenue than expected.”
MSNBC spokeperson Debby Fry Wilson confirmed Monday that MSNBC was cutting staff, but she insisted that the majority were “freelancers and consultants” recently brought on board to redesign the MSNBC Web site. “Only three full-time employees are being let go,” Wilson claimed, “because of increased efficiency in newsgathering.” By this she meant that someone at NBC would now be handling the job.
According to Wilson, MSNBC’s “baseline” employment level is 200, and the company brought on additional temporary employees whose contracts have now come up. Many people at MSNBC—including Wilson herself—work on three-month temporary contracts with no guarantee of renewal.
Wilson insisted no more cuts are planned, but under this reign of uncertainty, even remaining employees fear more are coming. “I’m rewriting my résumé right now,” an MSNBC employee said last week.
As of Monday, it did not appear that MSNBC’s cable end, which operates out of New Jersey, would be affected. Still, the numbers there are less than encouraging. While MSNBC experiences occasional breakthrough moments, the average audience at any given moment—as the New York Times magazine noted earlier this year—is less than 30,000 people, a minuscule figure even by cable standards.
How is it that the local media so missed the possibility that there would be no runoff following the Democratic primary?
“That’s a totally legitimate question,” said New York Times reporter Adam Nagourney, who implied that Board of Elections officials misled the press. “I’ve really been upset about it. After this year, I’m never going to trust the Board of Elections again. But who do you go to? It’s the old problem of authority. If there’s a murder, you go to the police; if there’s an election, you go the Board of Elections.”
In Sunday’s Times, columnist Bob Herbert accused Board of Elections spokeswoman Naomi Bernstein of engaging in “revisionist fantasies” by claiming that she told reporters on primary night that the election was “too close to call.”
Other journalists covering the race confirm Herbert’s assessment. Look at the Daily News, which had it right for 24 hours. On Wednesday September 10, the day after the primary, the News‘s Joel Siegel wrote, “Barring a change when absentee ballots are counted, Messinger and Sharpton will duel one-on-one for two weeks.”
But by the next day, the News—like everyone else—had been spun, asserting that “Daniel DeFrancesco, executive director of the Board of Elections, said the official tally next week is not likely to preclude a runoff.” Being misled by government officials, however, is an occupational hazard that reporters are supposed to avoid. At any rate, Juan Gonzalez’s Monday News column, which detailed strange irregularities in the Police Department vote tallies, suggests there’s more reporting to be done on this primary.
In other campaign news, the Campaign Finance Board (CFB) fine against the Giuliani campaign gave the New York Post an ideal opportunity to display its double standard for political reporting. In 1993, when the city Campaign Finance Board fined David Dinkins’s campaign $320,000 for overspending in that year’s virtually nonexistent Democratic primary, the Post blared the headline across page two: DAVE’S CAMP FINED 320G FOR PRIMARY ERROR. The lead quote in that story was from a Giuliani aide, who condemned the Dinkins campaign’s “growing pattern of lawlessness.”
Fast forward to last week: the CFB charged the Giuliani campaign $220,000 for allowing 138 donors to exceed the legal limit for contributions—and the Post hid it on page 20. Coincidentally, the first quote in that story, too, came from the Giuliani camp; nothing from his foes. The Post is also the only daily that, as of our Monday deadline, has failed to write an editorial chastising the mayor for violating the law. If Clinton had broken the same law, you’d be able to wallpaper the Post newsroom in editorials calling for an independent counsel to send somebody to jail.
None of the media wanted to dig too deeply into the peculiar events at the CFB last week. On the day that the CFB voted to fine Giuliani, the mayor’s office tried to make sure that a Giuliani appointee, Joseph Erazo, was there, even though he had yet to be cleared by the city Department of Investigation (DOI). Miraculously, DOI came through later that day with a letter clearing Erazo, which New York 1 and all the dailies noted.
But why weren’t we told exactly what the DOI was investigating? The oft-overlooked Newsday noted—on page 50!—that a health care company that Erazo was involved with was dropped from a city contract after an investigation. Erazo also heads the Nassau County Medical Center; two years ago, a Nassau County comptroller’s investigation found that Erazo had repeatedly ignored standard contracting procedures. In one instance, he allowed a contractor to perform a service for years without submitting a competitive bid; once it was made competitive, the contract went to a different bidder.
One charge—that Erazo used a county hospital employee to perform hundreds of hours of his personal work—was referred to the Nassau County District Attorney for a criminal investigation. If that was worth reporting in 1995—and both the News and Newsday thought it was—it certainly seems relevant to mention when Giuliani tries to rush Erazo’s appointment onto a city board.
Research: Dan Levine