He's on a leash. His handlers give enough slack to try and make him look edgy. The current ratings increase show that their plans are working for now but there will always be a point where he "stops short".
Just another rising "media whore".
It's a shame. I seem to think that if given the chance, he just might be a real "truther" but fat chance on that. He's bought and controlled.
by Peter J. Boyer June 23, 2008
It was nearly midnight before Keith Olbermann left the NBC News election studio on May 13th, having spent five hours on the air, co-anchoring coverage of the West Virginia Democratic primary. Olbermann had a short ride home from Rockefeller Plaza to his condominium on the Upper East Side, and he was in bed by 2 A.M. But he lay wide awake, overcome by an urge to get up and move about. He has been given a diagnosis of Wittmaack-Ekbom’s syndrome, also known as “restless-legs syndrome” (and also “the kicks,” “Jimmy legs,” and “jitters”), a neurological disorder that produces a prickling, itching, or crawling feeling in the legs, profoundly disturbing sleep. Reclining exacerbates the condition, so Olbermann got out of bed, took a pill for the ailment, and, while waiting for the drug to kick in, scrolled through his BlackBerry, scanning recent messages. One arrested his attention. It was a link to the Web site Politico, which featured an interview conducted that day with President Bush. Olbermann was struck by two questions from the interview, and by Bush’s answers to them:
BUSH: Doomsday scenario of course is that extremists throughout the Middle East would be emboldened, which would eventually lead to another attack on the United States. The biggest issue we face is—it’s bigger than Iraq—it’s this ideological struggle against cold-blooded killers who will kill people to achieve their political objectives. Iraq just happens to be a part of this global war. . . .
Q: Mr. President, you haven’t been golfing in recent years. Is that related to Iraq?
BUSH: Yes, it really is. I don’t want some mom whose son may have recently died to see the Commander-in-Chief playing golf. I feel I owe it to the families to be as—to be in solidarity as best as I can with them. And I think playing golf during a war just sends the wrong signal.
Olbermann suddenly had another sensation, unrelated to neurology—a feeling, he later recalled, that was “like being hit by lightning.” He sat down at his computer and began to write. After an hour, he had the first draft of a lacerating indictment of Bush, a twelve-minute-long (eighteen pages in teleprompter script) j ’accuse, addressed personally to the President.
“Mr. Bush, at long last, has it not dawned on you that the America you have now created includes ‘cold-blooded killers who will kill people to achieve their political objectives’?” Olbermann wrote. “They are those in—or formerly in—your employ, who may yet be charged some day with war crimes.”
The denunciation hit the high notes of the most fevered antiwar rhetoric, accusing Bush (he of the “addled brain”), his alleged puppet master (“the American snake-oil salesman Dick Cheney”), and the “tragically know-it-all minions,” “sycophants,” and “mental dwarves” who serve them in the Administration of perpetrating a “panoramic and murderous deceit” on America and the world. Intelligence was faked, W.M.D.s were imagined, Iraq was laid waste, and American freedoms were trashed.
Olbermann turned to Bush’s golf remark, which he called the “final blow to our nation’s solar plexus.” He wrote:
Mr. Bush, I hate to break it to you six and a half years after you yoked this nation and your place in history to the wrong war, in the wrong place, against the wrong people, but the war in Iraq is not about you. . . . It is not, Mr. Bush, about your golf game! And, sir, if you have any hopes that next January 20th will not be celebrated as a day of soul-wrenching, heartfelt thanksgiving, because your faithless stewardship of this presidency will have finally come to a merciful end, this last piece of advice . . . when somebody asks you, sir, about your gallant, noble, self-abnegating sacrifice of your golf game so as to soothe the families of the war dead. This advice, Mr. Bush: Shut the hell up!
Olbermann finished the script shortly after 3 A.M. He e-mailed copies to his producers, and then he went to bed.
The jeremiad against Bush was a signature Olbermann effort, the sort of stylized, mocking tirade that has lately made him a cable-news sensation, the Edward R. Murrow of the Angry Left. Olbermann was pleased with the script, and the next day, before going on the air with it, he posted excerpts on the liberal blog Daily Kos, which is a fairly good representation of the Olbermann fan base. The Kossacks wholly approved. (“You excoriated the bloodyhanded, warmongering imbecile.” “This country cannot survive without you.” “Dude, you’ve got a pair of steel ones!” “I’m gonna print it out, hang it up and memorize it.”)
At MSNBC, the feedback was slightly more cautious. Olbermann’s original script identified the “cold-blooded killers” as everyone at the Pentagon and in the Bush Cabinet; when a colleague noted that that would include such relative moderates as Colin Powell and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Olbermann modified the line. Phil Griffin, the senior vice-president in charge of MSNBC (“Phil thinks he’s my boss,” Olbermann says), raised the matter of tone. Why did Olbermann need to end his commentary by telling the President of the United States to “shut the hell up”?
“Because I can’t say, ‘Shut the fuck up,’ that’s why, frankly,” Olbermann responded. The line stayed in.
Phil Griffin is a compact, nearly bald man with the intensity and the revved-up metabolism of a TV-news field producer, which is how he spent his early career. He speaks in quick bursts, and his conversations tend to the elliptical. Griffin was Olbermann’s first television producer, nearly thirty years ago, when both of them were at the start of their careers, Griffin as a CNN producer, Olbermann as an innovative, eccentric radio sportscaster making his first foray into television. It was Griffin’s job to handle Olbermann, to teach him about the frenetic, video-hungry new world of cable news. In a way, he still sees himself as Olbermann’s handler. “You don’t take Keith on by just saying, ‘You can’t do that,’ ” Griffin told me. “Keith is reasonable. But you’ve got to be smart. Keith is usually two steps ahead of me, when I do come and say, ‘Keith . . .’ It’s a give-and-take.”
When, in 1981, Olbermann arrived at CNN, then still in its startup throes, he was, at twenty-two, seen as a sportscasting wunderkind—smart, offbeat, and possessed of an encyclopedic range of knowledge. He also had the reputation, even among those who admired his talents, of being somewhat difficult. Growing up in suburban Hastings-on-Hudson, in Westchester County, he was the sort of kid who, when his parents thought psychological testing was in order, responded to the Rorschach test by saying, “It looks like an inkblot.” Advised that Keith might be better served by a private education, his parents—Theodore, a commercial architect, and Marie, a preschool teacher—enrolled him at the Hackley School, in Tarrytown. It wasn’t an easy adjustment; Keith had skipped a grade and was younger than anyone else in his class, and he wasn’t a jock. But he was a good student, and the school’s radio station became his home. Olbermann worked as a sports stringer in college, at Cornell, and when he graduated, in 1979, he went directly to a sportscasting job at UPI radio in New York.
Olbermann’s style stood out from the start. He gently mocked the conventions of sportscasting (in his deep broadcaster’s timbre) even while observing them. At UPI, he became famous for drolly tallying the number of times athletes said “Y’know” during interviews. He also had a sometimes overbearing self-certainty. When he was twenty-three, he told Bill MacPhail, the former CBS Sports executive who had overseen the introduction of instant replay, that MacPhail didn’t know anything about television sports. In an argument with one of his supervisors at UPI, he so forcefully advocated his position (“God damn it, this is the minor leagues here,” he said, “and it’s things like this that are keeping us the minor leagues’’) that he was fired that afternoon. (The Wire Service Guild stepped in and saved his job.) His three-year career at CNN was, he says, “a continuing pitched battle.” He moved to a television station in Boston, and lasted a few months. At the age of twenty-five, he moved back home, a flameout, with few prospects. His agent sent his highlight tapes to stations around the country, but most station managers didn’t quite know what to make of him. “The standard response,” he says, “was ‘I like him, but is Baltimore ready for him?’ ”
Jeff Wald, who was then the news director of KTLA Channel 5, in Los Angeles, had heard the stories, but he saw Olbermann’s tapes, and was curious. “I just said, ‘He’s the guy,’ ” Wald recalls. “Regardless of the baggage he may or may not have, I want to meet this guy and see if he’s the real deal. And he was.”
Wald wanted someone unusual, and he got it. For one thing, Olbermann almost certainly was the only television sportscaster in Los Angeles who didn’t drive. Olbermann, who is six feet three and a half, once bumped his head while leaping into a subway car; it permanently upset his equilibrium, which makes driving a trial. (He says he loses depth perception at speeds greater than fifteen miles per hour.) He also hates flying, and that made it difficult to follow the local teams, but it was just as well; Olbermann firmly resisted the chumminess that often develops between sports journalists and their subjects. Wald says that the only argument he had with Olbermann came when Olbermann refused an assignment to cover spring training. “He thought that was going to compromise his objectivity and reporting,” Wald recalls. “I didn’t know at the time that he didn’t like to fly, but I think that he was probably right in his reasons.”
In 1992, Olbermann joined ESPN, where his erudite, wise-guy style flowered into an artful, full-blown satire of the cliché-ridden form: “That’s a six-four-three double play if you’re scoring at home. Or if you’re by yourself.”
Olbermann’s tenure at ESPN was characteristically contentious. One of his co-anchors, Suzy Kolber, has said that Olbermann was sometimes so overbearing that she would lock herself in the bathroom and cry. Another colleague, Mike Soltys, has said that when Olbermann left the network, in 1997, “he didn’t burn bridges here—he napalmed them.”
Olbermann was glad enough to be leaving the grind of full-time sportscasting behind. His new job brought him out of the toy department and into the news side of broadcasting, with a show on NBC’s new cable-news channel, MSNBC. The producer of the broadcast, called “The Big Show,” was Phil Griffin, who was delighted to be working with Olbermann again. But in 1998, when the news cycle was hijacked by the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Olbermann found himself the anchor of a nightly newscast called “White House in Crisis.” He grew so weary of the story that getting him on the air every day became a battle. “Keith just didn’t want to go there,” Griffin recalls. “He didn’t want to do the story, and it evolved into the hottest story of the time. It made my life miserable. It was bad. And it did not end pretty.”
Once again, Olbermann left a job unhappily, returning to sportscasting at Fox Sports. He was subsequently fired, and the remainder of his contract was paid off. (“I fired him,” Rupert Murdoch said recently. “He’s crazy.”)
But Phil Griffin continued to admire Olbermann’s on-air talents, and helped to bring him back to MSNBC in 2003, to do a new show called “Countdown.” Shortly afterward, Griffin ran into an old colleague at CNN, who told him that that network had considered hiring Olbermann, but focus-group tests showed that audiences didn’t like him. “I can honestly tell you it shook me up a little bit,” Griffin recalls. “But we knew what we were getting.” He added, “I’ve known Keith for twenty-seven years. CNN. First day he was in TV, I knew right away that Keith had something that I’d never seen. He was made for this. I mean, the guy is crazy, but he is made for this.”
Olbermann chose his office, a corner office on the fourth floor of NBC’s Rockefeller Plaza headquarters, for its view. From his desk, he can look out the window and see, directly across Sixth Avenue, the studios of Fox News, the broadcast home of his rival Bill O’Reilly. “Sometimes I imagine that I hear a howl coming from there,” Olbermann told me during a visit one afternoon. “I have been accused of having an obsession with him. I am a minor-leaguer compared to his obsession with me.”
The Olbermann-O’Reilly feud, which is wholly Olbermann’s creation, began with a wisecrack in 2003, the first year of “Countdown.” It evolved after Olbermann instituted a farcical segment called “The Worst Person in the World,” in which O’Reilly, depicted as a pompous buffoon, was regularly cited. O’Reilly, the biggest draw of the highest-rated cable-news network, could only lose by engaging with Olbermann, but he could not resist. Refusing to mention Olbermann by name, he sponsored a petition drive to have him replaced, and eventually began to aim on-air broadsides against NBC’s parent company, General Electric, and its chairman, Jeffrey Immelt. “If my child were killed in Iraq, I would blame the likes of Jeffrey Immelt,” O’Reilly asserted in April, citing G.E.’s business relationship with Iran. (The company began phasing out its contracts there in 2005.) This only encouraged Olbermann, who subjected Bill-O (as Olbermann calls him) to near-daily barrages of acid caricature. Instead of using video clips of O’Reilly for his routines, Olbermann began voicing O’Reilly’s words himself, in a demonic mimicry of the Ted Baxter character on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”
When “Countdown” was still new, in 2004, Rick Kaplan, then the president of MSNBC, told Olbermann that he wanted the program to be the cable network’s “newscast of record.” Largely owing to the license that Olbermann took in his on-air duelling with O’Reilly, it has become more like a nightly political insult-comedy routine. Olbermann’s Fox-bashing struck a chord with a core audience deeply sympathetic to the view that the conservative-leaning Fox News (“Fox Noise,” Olbermann calls it) has degraded journalism “in the same sense that George Bush lowered and made even more disreputable the Presidency of the United States.”
“Bill O’Reilly made Keith Olbermann,” Phil Griffin says. Olbermann concurs, saying, “I really do owe him a percentage of my salary.”
The O’Reilly feud was the gateway to Olbermann’s emergence as a political polemicist. It was a short leap from denigrating Bill-O to Olbermann’s first “Special Comment,” aimed at then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, in August, 2006. While waiting out a flight delay in Los Angeles, Olbermann read the highlights of a speech that Rumsfeld had just delivered to the American Legion, in which he charged that some critics of the Administration’s war plan suffered “moral or intellectual confusion about what is right or wrong.” Downing “a couple of screwdrivers,” Olbermann says, he wrote a rebuke of the Defense Secretary, which he read on the air the next day. “The man who sees absolutes where all other men see nuances and shades of meaning is either a prophet or a quack,” he began. “Donald H. Rumsfeld is not a prophet.” Olbermann went on to lecture Rumsfeld about the workings of a democracy and the nature of fascism, and concluded by quoting from Edward R. Murrow’s 1954 denunciation of Joseph McCarthy and McCarthyism. He says that he didn’t know how the commentary would play, with the NBC brass or with the audience. “I really did think, Well, if this is the end of my career, I will have gone down for a good cause.”
His bosses loved it. “I think we’re onto something,” the president of NBC News, Steve Capus, told me. “That’s what we keep hearing from the audience, more and more, is that they appreciate that we have people who are actually speaking truth to power, or being transparent in their own personal viewpoints.” That’s another way of saying that liberals, after many failed attempts, seem finally to have found their own Bill O’Reilly. Fox News still dominates the cable competition, and MSNBC over all continues to lag behind second-place CNN. O’Reilly’s audience is more than twice as big as Olbermann’s, which airs in the same prime-time period. But Olbermann’s ratings grew by nearly seventy-five per cent the year he began doing Special Comments, and the show is making money, a rare hit in MSNBC’s twelve-year run. “All of a sudden, he took off,” Griffin says. “In ways that MSNBC never had a show take off.”
Olbermann’s success, like O’Reilly’s, is evidence of viewer cocooning—the inclination to seek out programming that reinforces one’s own firmly held political views. “People want to identify,” Griffin says. “They want the shortcut. ‘Wow, that guy’s smart. I get him.’ In this crazy world of so much information, you look for places where you identify, or you see where you fit into the spectrum, because you get all this information all day long.”
Capus and Griffin insist that Olbermann’s broadcast is like an opinion section in a newspaper, suitable to what they call MSNBC’s “cable sensibility.” Olbermann differs. He begins each “Countdown” with the Beethoven theme from NBC’s “Huntley-Brinkley Report,” and concludes with Murrow’s signature sign-off, “Good night, and good luck.” He maintains that “Countdown” is very much part of that continuum. “It is a newscast with commentary and analysis, the way most really good newscasts used to be,” he says. “Dosages of the various components vary in a greater degree than we’re used to, or maybe were even done in the heyday of this kind of thing. But if you listen to those daily Murrow newscasts in the forties on the radio, Murrow would do the news, two and a half, three minutes, take a break, and then do a two- or three-minute commentary.” It could be argued that Murrow’s work in wartime London—he would report on the Battle of Britain, and also advocate against continued American neutrality in the war—is hardly the same thing as telling the President to “shut the hell up,’’ or posing the question regarding Bush (as Olbermann did): “Pathological Presidential Liar or an Idiot-in-Chief?”
But Olbermann contends that the labored pretense of neutrality in the news business is a fruitless exercise. “There are people who, with absolute conviction, believe that Brian Williams is a Communist,” he said. “There are people who, with absolute conviction, believe that Katie Couric is in the pay of the Pentagon. There are people who are absolutely certain that Charlie Gibson sleeps with Hillary Clinton, based on the last debate. This is an old schoolyard thing I learned from being repeatedly beat up in the fourth grade. It finally dawned on me one day—they are going to keep beating me up whether I respond to them or not.” Olbermann continued, “Brian sometimes looks like his collar button is going to burst from the restraint that he has. I know the pain that he goes through; he measures each word like an apothecary—and they beat him up, too. The point is, why not? Why not add something to the discourse?”
Some might find Olbermann’s frequent invocation of Murrow, and, especially, his appropriation of Murrow’s sign-off, wildly presumptuous. But when, in 2005, CBS was looking for a permanent replacement for Dan Rather network executives met with Olbermann twice about the prospect of his becoming the anchor of the “CBS Evening News.”
After Rather’s unhappy departure from CBS, the network’s president, Leslie Moonves, said that he wanted to blow up the “Evening News”—by which he meant, he later explained, that he wanted to do away with the program’s outmoded “broadcast of record” posture, and its accompanying burden of summarizing the world in twenty-two minutes each night. Moonves and Andrew Heyward, then the president of CBS News, held a secret meeting with Olbermann at his apartment, and asked how he would approach the “Evening News” job. Olbermann, who was nearing the end of his contract at MSNBC, said he thought that it was a waste for networks to spend so much money on their anchors, when they shared so much airtime with field correspondents. Olbermann said that he would, of course, be less freewheeling than he had been at “Countdown,” and that he would redirect the broadcast incrementally, beginning with a three-minute block at the end of each newscast to which he would apply his personal touch. “Maybe in a year’s time, after you’ve given me those three minutes to sort of reprogram, maybe I’ll get four or five,” Olbermann says now. “You don’t go in for the full revolution. You do not come on and do ‘Naked News.’ ”
The meeting ended, and Heyward was not convinced that Olbermann was the right choice for an institution where even the use of music in a news report, let alone voice impersonations by the anchor, is strictly forbidden. But soon afterward Heyward was replaced as news-division president by the head of CBS Sports, Sean McManus, who agreed to a second meeting with Olbermann, at CBS News headquarters on West Fifty-seventh Street. In the end, CBS hired Katie Couric—a decision, Olbermann likes to point out, that has not worked as well as had been hoped. (Couric consistently comes in third in the network ratings.)
Asked about the prospect of an Olbermann reign at “CBS Evening News,” Sandy Socolow, Walter Cronkite’s final executive producer, responded emphatically. “Oh, no, no, no, he’s not a newsman,” Socolow said. “He’s not a reporter. I’ve never seen anything that he’s done that was original, in terms of the information. It’s all derivative. I like him, I agree with his perspective, and I think he’s very, very good on television. But he’s not a newsman.” Socolow added, “Ten years ago, if he had done at CBS what he does every day on the air at MSNBC, he would have been fired by the end of the day.”
Olbermann himself thinks that he could succeed in the traditional nightly network-news slot. “I think it would not do any worse than the three that are out there now,” he says. “It would not get more than double the amount of protest that any of the shows have now.”
At a celebration of the fifth anniversary of “Countdown,” this spring, Phil Griffin praised Olbermann as a transformative figure in broadcasting. “Keith went into sports and changed sports,” Griffin said. “And now he’s doing that in news.’’ There are those at NBC News who worry that Griffin may be right.
NBC is alone among the traditional broadcast networks in having its own twenty-four-hour cable-news channel, which presents NBC News with a distinct advantage over its competitors, as well as inevitable institutional tensions. In a time of constrained news budgets and diminishing airtime for news on the main broadcast schedule, having a huge cable-news hole to fill demands a significant commitment of resources. NBC News is likelier to assign full-time coverage of a big story, say, if it can amortize the cost across both its cable and its broadcast operations. For television journalists, for whom airtime is everything, a cable network means frequent exposure throughout the day, rather than two minutes on the “Nightly News.” When the late Tim Russert, the Washington bureau chief of NBC News, realized last year that the Democratic Presidential nominating process might become a once-in-a-lifetime political story, he volunteered to become a regular contributor to MSNBC’s broadcasts. Other NBC News stars, such as Brian Williams, the White House correspondent David Gregory, and the chief foreign-affairs correspondent, Andrea Mitchell, followed Russert’s path.
Such reporters bring to the cable side a grounding in traditional network-news standards and proprieties, a set of norms rooted in the very beginnings of broadcast news. Network-news departments adopted the structures, the language, and the guiding principles of serious print journalism—a central tenet of which was the conceit of objective neutrality.
As Russert put it to me shortly before his death, “Keith and I have each carved out our roles in this vast information spectrum.” He continued, “What cable emphasizes, more and more, is opinion, or even advocacy. Whether it’s Bill O’Reilly or Keith Olbermann or Lou Dobbs, that’s what that particular platform or venue does. It’s not what I do. What I do is different. I try very, very hard not to come up and say to people, ‘This is what I believe,’ or ‘This is good,’ or ‘This is bad.’ But, rather, ‘This is what I’m learning in my reporting,’ or ‘This is what my analysis shows based on my reporting.’ And as long as I can do that I’m very, very comfortable. And nobody has asked me to do anything but that.”
At Fox News and MSNBC, the old pieties do hold less sway. Cable-news culture is informed more by the new media, blogs, and talk radio. “Cable’s about rejection,” Griffin says. “Ninety-nine per cent of the people are passing you by. You try to stop them and grab them. That’s most of cable news. And then there are the élite in cable news—Olbermann, O’Reilly. They have audiences that come to them—and they’re unique.”
In cable news, the dominant personality puts an identifying stamp on the entire organization. The stamp at MSNBC is indisputably that of Keith Olbermann. The television gossip pages occasionally report grumblings of some NBC News personalities about Olbermann’s dominion at MSNBC, but most, even the traditionalists, seem happy for the airtime, and glad that Olbermann’s success redounds to them. As Olbermann puts it, “A rising tide lifts all boats.”
Olbermann’s central place at MSNBC is nowhere more evident than in the network’s extensive political coverage. One on-air promotional ad extolled MSNBC as “The Place for Politics”: it showed a full-screen image of Olbermann, followed by smaller images of such NBC News figures as Russert, Williams, Mitchell, and Tom Brokaw, who were presented in groups of four. The ad reflected the decision, made in 2006 by NBC News managers, to install Olbermann as co-anchor of MSNBC’s election coverage, along with Chris Matthews, the host of “Hardball.”
“Ultimately, that’s the viewers’ call,” Olbermann says. “If they are watching me in larger numbers than anything else on the network, it would behoove the network to put me on as often as possible, especially in a political context.”
MSNBC’s election coverage is, by default, the political coverage of NBC News. Throughout the protracted Democratic-primary season, after the twenty-two-minute “Nightly News” broadcast went off the air on a big night, NBC’s coverage—and its news stars—moved across the studio to MSNBC, where coverage was co-anchored by a broadcaster who makes his personal perspective plainly known. The risk for NBC News is that this commingling has colored the NBC News brand, so carefully burnished over the generations, with the attitudes and predilections of the cable arm.
“Listen, it’s a strain,” says Tom Brokaw, the longtime anchor of “Nightly News,” who remains an active and revered figure at NBC. “And it’s under constant examination. There’s dialogue going on behind the scenes all the time. It’s not perfectly sorted out.”
Brokaw calls this moment in the news media “the second big bang.” “We are creating a new universe, and it has all kinds of new laws and science and physics coming into play as well, in this information world,” he told me. “And you’ve got planets out there colliding with each other, new life forms taking shape; others have drifted too close to the sun, and they’ve burned up. And we don’t know how it’s all going to settle down. And it has, now and forevermore, a radiant effect.”
Shortly after Olbermann’s “shut the hell up” commentary on President Bush last month, conservative radio pounced on the implication that he was calling American troops in Iraq “cold-blooded killers,” and Olbermann took particular note of criticism from Laura Ingraham, who said on the air, “I believe MSNBC really needs to bring in a medical team at this point. . . . I don’t know what happened to him. I really don’t. He didn’t use to be this way.” (Olbermann dated Ingraham briefly a decade ago. “There were a few problems,” he told me. “There were a few things that I could see were going to be impediments. Oddly, they were not political things.”)
On his next broadcast, Olbermann said that he hadn’t been referring to American troops as “cold-blooded killers.” He’d meant people in the Pentagon, and contractors like Blackwater. Citing Ingraham by name, he said, “I cannot imagine that kind of evil knee-jerk reflex” that would have caused anyone to suppose he’d been talking about the troops.
In May, after NBC broadcast an interview by Richard Engel with President Bush, Ed Gillespie, the White House counsel, sent Steve Capus a thousand-word letter of complaint, objecting to the editing of the interview but also broadly suggesting a creeping partisanship at NBC News. “Mr. Capus,” Gillespie wrote, “I’m sure you don’t want people to conclude that there is really no distinction between the ‘news’ as reported on NBC and the ‘opinion’ as reported on MSNBC, despite the increasing blurring of those lines.” Gillespie’s complaint mentioned Olbermann by name.
Charges of media unfairness from a Republican White House are unremarkable, and were regarded as such by NBC. “We always read with great interest what the White House sends us,” Brian Williams said. “And we wake up the next day and do what we do for a living.”
The long Democratic-nomination process, with its rancorously divided Democratic base, presented a particular challenge to MSNBC on the question of journalistic slant. Over time, some sensed a discernible tilt toward Barack Obama in the tone of the cable network’s political coverage, especially in the banter of its anchors. Matthews, who is given to bursts of on-air exuberance (“like an out-of-control sprinkler system,” Olbermann says), uttered the season’s most memorable line when, after an Obama speech, he said, “My, I felt this thrill going up my leg!” Olbermann’s preference for Obama was less graphically put, and longer in coming, but it was far more insistent.
Olbermann says that he began the campaign season determined to remain neutral on the Democratic race, although he was plainly friendly with the Clintons. (During an interview with Bill Clinton in 2006, Olbermann handed the former President a personal donation to the Clinton Foundation.) Olbermann liked Obama, but he believed, at first, that he would not make a strong candidate. As the tide began to turn Obama’s way, Olbermann began to grow impatient with Clinton surrogates’ attacks on Obama, and, seemingly, with the persistence of the candidate herself. As Obama neared apparent assurance of the nomination, Olbermann began to raise questions about Clinton’s arithmetic on the popular vote, about her wanting to change the rules regarding the Florida and Michigan primaries, about why she didn’t just do the right thing and get out.
The potential difficulty for NBC regarding Hillary Clinton became clear early in the primary season, during MSNBC’s coverage of the New Hampshire primary. The entire MSNBC team, transported by Obama’s victory in Iowa a week earlier, plainly anticipated an Obama win (as did much of the rest of the press), a view that was only scarcely contained on the air, while the polls were still open. Clinton, of course, won New Hampshire, which prompted a gentle on-air warning from Tom Brokaw to his colleagues to stay out of “the business of making judgments before the polls have closed and trying to stampede, in effect, the process.” He added, “I think that the people out there are going to begin to make some judgments about us, if they haven’t already, if we don’t begin to temper that temptation to constantly try to get ahead of what the voters are deciding.”
Brokaw says he sometimes feels that he has been cast in the role of hall monitor at NBC News; if so, his charges have kept him busy. The day after the New Hampshire primary, Matthews asserted that Hillary Clinton owed her election as senator to public sympathy for her in light of her husband’s sexual peccadilloes. “It was completely out of line,” Brokaw says. “And Keith took it to another level” with his “shut the hell up” commentary.
In March, after Geraldine Ferraro said that Obama would not be where he is if he were not a black man, Olbermann issued a Special Comment that was aimed expressly at Clinton’s advisers (and their countenancing of Ferraro’s “cheap, ignorant, vile racism”) but that struck Clinton nonetheless. “Voluntarily or inadvertently,” Olbermann said, addressing Clinton directly, “you are still awash in this filth.”
At MSNBC, Phil Griffin was worried, and with good reason. The average “Countdown” viewer is fifty-nine years old, and forty-five per cent of the viewers are women, presumably Democratic—a fair description of a Hillary Clinton supporter. Griffin believed that Olbermann was beginning to alienate his core audience, and asked him to ease up a bit on Clinton, and possibly even make some conciliatory gesture to the Clinton camp. Olbermann was offended by the suggestion. “I can’t do that!” he says, recalling that conversation. “Me doing a commentary against my own opinion is pandering. Black and white. And I’m not going to do it. Would I pull back a little bit, or think long and hard about whether or not I want to knowingly alienate part of the audience? Yeah. And I did. I mean, I held fire on Senator Clinton for quite a while after she began to really scare me, with some of these tactics.”
On May 23rd, at an editorial-board meeting in South Dakota, Clinton was asked, again, whether she should drop out of the race for the good of the Party. Clinton, saying she would not, employed a historical reference meant to remind her listeners that the nomination process had extended into June in previous primary campaigns. “My husband did not wrap up the nomination in 1992 until he won the California primary somewhere in the middle of June, right? We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California.”
For those willing to ascribe iniquity to all things Clinton, the remark was shocking. “Why, in the name of all that all of us hold dear, would anybody ever say anything like this?” Olbermann asked, at the beginning of his broadcast that night. “Can she in good conscience continue in the race for President after having said anything like this? Is her political career at an end?” At the conclusion of his show, Olbermann subjected Clinton to the Special Comment treatment. Assuming a posture of animated outrage, Olbermann blasted Clinton for nearly eleven minutes, suggesting that her remarks were calculated and “heartless.” He recited a number of sins for which Clinton had already been forgiven, from her landing-under-fire-in-Bosnia claim to her exploitation of the Jeremiah Wright controversy.
“This, Senator, is too much,” he concluded. “Because a senator, a politician, a person who can let hang in midair the prospect that she might just be sticking around, in part, just in case the other guy gets shot has no business being, and no capacity to be, the President of the United States.”
Toward the end of the primary season, with Montana and South Dakota going for Obama and Clinton, respectively, on June 3rd, Olbermann earned another on-air scolding from Brokaw after asserting that Clinton was “trying to shoehorn her way” into the coverage of the presumed nominees of the two parties. “I think that’s unfair, Keith,” Brokaw said. “When you look at the states that she won and the popular vote that she piled up, and the number of delegates that she has on her side, she’s got real bargaining power in all of this.”
Olbermann was in a more conciliatory mood toward Clinton by the time she finally suspended her campaign and endorsed Obama. Of that speech, on Saturday, June 7th, Olbermann observed, “It was marbled, it was striated,” and, of the section in which Clinton praised Obama, “I mean, six home runs, six minutes’ worth of home runs, one after the other, out of the ballpark.”
But, just as Obama must work to win Clinton supporters for the fall campaign, Phil Griffin has to repair a fractured audience base, a portion of which saw sexism in his network’s Clinton coverage and vowed to boycott MSNBC. Griffin knows that some of that anger is aimed at his star anchor. “It was, like, you meet a guy and you fall in love with him, and he’s funny and he’s clever and he’s witty, and he’s all these great things,” Griffin said of the relationship between Olbermann and the Clinton supporters among his viewers. “And then you commit yourself to him, and he turns out to be a jerk and difficult and brutal. And that is how the Hillary viewers see him. It’s true. But I do think they’re going to come back. There’s nowhere else to go.”
Griffin added that a certain level of stress is part of the job of managing Keith Olbermann. “You ride the horse, and you start winning, and then all of a sudden you’re off. And we’re just riding, full speed. And it can be a dangerous ride.” ♦