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MSNBC, a bastion of Obama advocates?

By Howard Kurtz, CNN
updated 7:54 AM EST, Thu February 21, 2013
Senior adviser David Axelrod, left, with press secretary Robert Gibbs on December 22, 2010.
Senior adviser David Axelrod, left, with press secretary Robert Gibbs on December 22, 2010.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Axelrod and Robert Gibbs will become pundits for MSNBC
  • Howard Kurtz: Is NBC's cable channel turning into an Obama administration in exile?
  • He says MSNBC didn't start this, Fox News did when it served as a platform for Bush officials
  • Kurtz: As advocates for Obama, it might be tough for Axelrod and Gibbs to show independence

Editor's note: Howard Kurtz is the host of CNN's "Reliable Sources" and is Newsweek's Washington bureau chief. He is also a contributor to the website Daily Download.

(CNN) -- David Axelrod is a smart guy who knows a heck of a lot about politics and the press.

Robert Gibbs is also a smart guy who knows a heck of a lot about politics and the press.

They will now be dispensing their wisdom as paid contributors at MSNBC, and I'll be interested in what they have to say.

Howard Kurtz
Howard Kurtz

But I have to ask: Is NBC's cable channel turning into an Obama administration in exile?

It's hardly a news flash that MSNBC long ago decided to be cable's liberal bastion, a left-wing counterweight to Fox News. But the more the studios are populated with people who worked for the president, the more the network may seem like an off-campus adjunct of the West Wing.

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To be sure, MSNBC was already packed with former Democratic presidential candidates, from Al Sharpton to Howard Dean. Former party chairman and Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell has also become a fixture, as well as former party spokeswoman Karen Finney.

Watch: Should Fox News have hired tarnished candidate Herman Cain?

But now that the president is into his second term, there is a growing band of alumni available for pundit duty. Jared Bernstein went from Joe Biden's chief economist to MSNBC talking head. Now the former senior adviser and former press secretary will be holding forth on their former boss.

Occasionally, the liberals on MSNBC criticize Obama from the left. The network's few conservative commentators, such as former Republican Party chairman Michael Steele, take aim from the right. But isn't that going to be considerably harder for Axelrod and Gibbs, who have devoted their lives to this president?

Gibbs tells me he sees his job "as a political analyst and as someone who has been in the room during important meetings and when big decisions are made who can convey what that's like to viewers. I don't see it either as being a cheerleader for the president or as a spokesman for the administration's point of view."

Watch: Mark Sanford launches post-affair forgiveness tour

"I will be honest with my opinions and when I believe the White House has made a mistake I will say so. I'm sure no one in the White House thought my comments on Chuck Hagel's confirmation hearing were necessarily pro-Obama."

Axelrod also sees himself taking a different approach: "My role is not that of a surrogate, but an analyst and commentator. I'm proud of my work for and with the president. But in this role, I will offer observations, based on my experience over 35 years in journalism and politics, and will call them as I see them." He added: "I'd also note that NBC and MSNBC have, on their roster of analysts, both Republicans and Democrats."

MSNBC didn't invent this practice; Fox News is the model.

For a while, it served as the Bush administration in exile, with such loyalists as Karl Rove, former U.N. ambassador John Bolton and ex-press secretary Dana Perino. Fox also provided Bush with a spokesman when the late Tony Snow made the jump from Roger Ailes' network to the White House.

The Fox payroll was soon packed with potential 2012 contenders like Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, with the latter two jumping from Rupert Murdoch's team into the presidential primaries. There is no question that the high-profile platform gave them a boost. Now, Herman Cain, who left the race under a cloud after denying allegations of sexual harassment and an extramarital affair, has joined the Fox team. In his first outing the other night, Cain said 51% of Americans were "misled" into voting for Obama, prompting a dissent from Bill O'Reilly. Is this the kind of unvarnished analysis we can expect from Cain?

Watch: Obama, Biden learn pitfalls of Google and Facebook chat

CNN is not exempt from this game, having provided a home for Pat Buchanan between his presidential runs and, later, hiring Bush 41 lieutenants John Sununu and Mary Matalin, Clinton alumni Paul Begala and James Carville, and W.'s press secretary, Ari Fleischer. The network also got into the disgraced ex-governor business through its ill-fated fling with Eliot Spitzer. But CNN, at least, makes a point of tapping partisans from both sides. (ABC, for its part, brought in George Stephanopoulos from the Clinton White House, and he gradually earned credibility in his new profession.)

When networks employ active partisans such as Rove, who raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for GOP candidates in 2012 and has now launched a new super PAC, it's fair for viewers to wonder whether their commentary is subjugated to an agenda. That was the question with Dick Morris, who was recently dumped by Fox after acknowledging that his predictions of a big Mitt Romney victory were in part an effort to boost Republican morale.

Watch: How did Washington Post get the Sarah Palin story so wrong?

Now that this revolving door is spinning like crazy, are current Obama staffers eyeing a television future? If so, might they be a tad nicer to a future employer? Former Time correspondent Jay Carney was a pretty good television guest before joining the administration; could he follow the well-beaten path to MSNBC?

And what if Hillary Clinton gets bored giving big-money speeches?

Maybe Axelrod and Gibbs will surprise me and show an independent streak as members of the commentariat. But having labored so long as fierce advocates for Barack Obama, that could be a tough transition.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Howard Kurtz.

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