Concha: Baldwin’s Brutally Candid Essay as Revealing as It Is Riveting

There are many takeaways one can gather from Alec Baldwin’s epic tell-all essay in New York Magazine:

Shia LaBeouf is more difficult to work with than Richie Incognito.

He really, really loathes the media.

He may be moving out of New York City to a more “gated” community near Los Angeles. Anyone know of a property fitting that description in Brentwood?

But the most fascinating aspect—at least to those who cover cable news—was obviously Baldwin’s candid retrospective on his five weeks at MSNBC and those who run the network. Granted, the messenger’s word should not be taken as gospel. Mr. Baldwin has been known to have a chip on both shoulders, and may not be what one would consider a rock-solid source. But one aspect of the essay cannot be questioned: He clearly portrays himself as someone with nothing to lose, especially when it comes to his commentary on the cable news version of 30 Rock.

The first takeaway is an aspect rarely spoken of in the news business: Producers increasingly becoming paper tigers. In this case, Baldwin references Executive Producer Jonathan Larsen when talking about who was put in charge of his ill-fated 10:00 PM Friday program. Problem is, according to Baldwin, Mr. Larsen was there to serve only as a messenger back to MSNBC President Phil Griffin on what Baldwin was doing with the show.

The way the relationship is supposed to work is for the EP to captain the ship. The anchor’s input is important, yes, and should always be considered when putting together a program. But—and we see this more often in cable news these days—the anchor/host gets paid far more than the EP…has far more influence with top executives at the network—and therefore has all the juice in deciding content, which really isn’t an anchor’s/host’s job. And oftentimes, anchors/hosts will do bubble stories that are appealing to them, and not necessarily what the audience may be tuning in for.

In Larsen’s case, he simply allowed Baldwin to book whomever he wanted for the show. And Alec, who had no interest in doing a show featuring his powerful friends in Hollywood or at NBC (Tina Fey, Cate Blanchett, Jimmy Fallon, etc.), went the eclectic route instead (Debra Winger, relevant in the 80s) or Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood (relevant in the 60s) or Bill de Blasio (the unknown-outside-of-New York-candidate-version). Larsen—despite being at the network for a few years and EP-ing Up on weekends—apparently had zero say on who was booked. But rocking the boat with a new anchor is far worse to one’s survival than putting on a tedious program, so Larsen let it happen…just as many producers do to stay in good standing with those more powerful. The dynamic of Fred Friendly and Edward R. Murrow is long gone.

From a ratings perspective, the results were below what Mr. Griffin was anticipating from someone with such star quality and connections. So when the incident on a Manhattan street occurred with Baldwin getting caught on camera hurling a gay slur at a photographer—which the actor still denies doing—it was the perfect excuse to axe Baldwin (who happens to strongly support gay causes such as Elizabeth Taylor’s AIDS Foundation).

That’s why a Martin Bashir—who committed a far worse transgression in stating on-air that someone should defecate in Sarah Palin’s mouth—wasn’t fired (he resigned on his own and got a public pat on the back from Griffin on the way out) and Baldwin—who made his error nowhere near a live broadcast—was unceremoniously dumped. Note: Bashir’s ratings were dreadful as well, but his tune at least played well in the MSNBC jukebox. Baldwin’s was more like hearing Air Supply at an Eminem concert.

Then there’s Baldwin’s perspective on the relationship between Rachel Maddow and the aforementioned Griffin. A few weeks back, you may recall the National Review piece by Eliana Johnson titled Rachel’s Show, which stated Maddow, not Griffin, “provides MSNBC’s editorial direction, and that she also holds considerable sway over personnel decisions.”

For those who cover the industry, this isn’t exactly a secret. And it isn’t a new development at MSNBC, either. Before Maddow—who isn’t an executive or manager–it was Keith Olbermann calling the shots on content and talent. Know this: It was KO who hand-picked Maddow to have her own show, not Griffin. And according to many in the industry, it was Maddow who hand-picked Hayes for 8:00 PM. Griffin—according to Baldwin—only cares about the numbers. He is not an ideolog and isn’t an innovator of content. How he achieves something respectable enough to keep his job is left to the experts…folks like Olbermann—who is now back at ESPN—and Maddow, who is arguably the voice of MSNBC both on-camera and off (Rachel steadfastly denies the latter role).

From the Baldwin essay:

“Once they fired me, a former MSNBC employee I knew emailed me. He said, ‘You watch now, Phil is going to start leaking left and right to bury you.’ When I left, ‘Page Six’ was flooded with lies about me…Another source told me, ‘You know who’s going to get you fired, don’t you? Rachel. Phil will do whatever Rachel tells him to do…I think Rachel Maddow is quite good at what she does. I also think she’s a phony who doesn’t have the same passion for the truth off-camera that she seems to have on the air.”

Whether that’s true or not is in the eye of the beholder. We believe what we want to believe. But if unsubstantiated gossip of cable news personalities is your guilty pleasure, reading Baldwin’s unfiltered take in New York Magazine is highly recommended.

So now the 55-year-old actor is off to the left coast. Apparently it’s time to pack up the wife, the new baby girl and move to a Stepford-esque community in the California suburbs.

Alec Baldwin has issues, both of the anger management and patently-thin-skinned variety.

But you can’t argue against his resume. His Always Be Closing speech in Glengarry Glen Ross 22 years ago is a Top-3 movie speech of all-time. His work in 30 Rock was tremendous. When he does return to the stage, you’ll see he’s as good as anyone out there. Movies, television and stage are a tough trifecta few in acting can pull off.

What Baldwin needs now is peace.

The kind of peace one can only enjoy after burning almost every bridge he’s ever crossed with an essay from the most dangerous kind of person out there:

The kind of someone who has nothing to lose.

[Editor’s note: This post has been updated to reflect that Jonathan Larsen previously EP’d Up, not All In.]

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Follow Joe Concha on Twitter @ConchaMedia

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