The Olbermann factor

The MSNBC maverick gives Salon the countdown on his anti-Bush orations, battling with Bill O'Reilly, and the nauseating truth about cable news.

Published September 11, 2006 12:00PM (EDT)

MSNBC host Keith Olbermann has been building ratings for his nightly show, "Countdown," and has become a darling of the liberal half of the Internet, by tacking to the left while most of cable's chattering class veers right. His 3-year-old show continues to add viewers, especially the young ones that advertisers crave; the numbers for such conservative warhorses as Bill O'Reilly, with whom Olbermann has pursued a long-running feud, are down, as are the ratings for the Fox News Channel generally.

Olbermann closes each broadcast with a personal, often acerbic, commentary. In the past two weeks, as the Bush administration launched its pre-election anti-terror public relations blitz, Olbermann upped the ante and cemented his hero status in Left Blogistan with two especially acid speeches. On Aug. 30, he blistered Donald Rumsfeld with a breathtaking on-air screed that called the defense secretary a quack, explicitly compared him to Neville Chamberlain, and implicitly accused him of fascism and McCarthyism. Clips and transcripts of the jeremiad immediately sprouted everywhere on the Web. Six days later, Olbermann followed with a second salvo, this time lambasting President Bush himself for an "awful," "cynical" and "un-American" equation of dissent and disloyalty. Olbermann, who usually ends his commentaries with a quote that pays tribute to Edward R. Murrow -- "Good night and good luck" -- instead closed with a different, and much angrier, echo of the McCarthy era. He asked the president, "Have you no sense of decency, sir?"

Now in his second tour with MSNBC, Olbermann first came to prominence as one of the anchors of ESPN's "SportsCenter." He's since been a host for the Fox Sports Network, a radio reporter and (full disclosure) a columnist for Salon. His latest book, "The Worst Person in the World: And 202 Strong Contenders," will be released Sept. 15.

You're obviously rather upset with the statements that President Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and other officials have been making recently about the war on terror.

It, in many respects, is accomplishing -- as I said on the air the other night -- that which the terrorists are supposed to be looking to do, which is to divide us, make us fearful, change our way of life. I believe Mr. Bush said they hate us for our liberty, and the government seems to be intent on reducing many of those freedoms and liberties. It's been building; this is not the first time I've said anything about this, about the administration or about its conduct. Pretty much this has been constant since this newscast went on the air. As they have wandered further from reality and our history and what I think all of us -- liberals and conservatives and everybody else -- were taught as far as our way of life. The further they wander away, the harder you have to reach out to try and grab them and pull them back.

Why did you decide to start making your commentaries so harsh?

I didn't, actually. These are just the first ones -- well, I wouldn't say the first ones -- that got prominent play. I did one a year ago that was necessitated by the administration's reaction to Katrina, in particular the Homeland Security secretary's rather Freudian slip, when he said, "Louisiana is a city that is largely under water," which I thought summarized their whole problem with it. I think that was five or six minutes long.

There is a public platform afforded to you. If you spend your entire time on it trying to bend the ordinary rules of news to encourage people to ask what's really going on, if you do that nonstop, it necessarily becomes an act. You really should have that weapon close to you, but you should keep it holstered as much as possible. If you don't have it, or you don't ever use it, you might as well be a trained monkey doing the news, which unfortunately is the case in a lot of places.

My skepticism -- I think that's the right word, as opposed to "cynicism" -- toward the administration has been evident from -- I think the day it started was May 1 of 2003, the flight-suit story. I can remember interviewing several people that day and saying, "Isn't this a little premature? Isn't this a little theatrical? Isn't this a little staged?" and being assured that my opinion was ridiculous and alone and this was George Bush's historic moment, all the rest of that.

I'm not saying I come out and beat anybody over the head on a regular basis, but when it's merited -- it sounds almost like a tautology, almost too simple to be true -- when it's merited, this is the sort of stuff people on television ought to be doing, and it doesn't matter who's running the country. The country belongs to the people, not to the government that happens to be in charge at the moment. We should remind ourselves of that fact periodically.

But don't these kinds of commentaries pay off in ratings? Doesn't controversy mean more viewers?

I don't think you can draw a direct cause-and-effect relationship with the commentaries. I think the kind of skeptical, "Wait a minute, they're talking about the long war on terror. On the other hand, our principal ally in the region just made a deal with the warlords surrounding where bin Laden is believed to be hiding out. Aren't those two things contradictory?" -- that approach has been true of this newscast since the Jessica Lynch story. I think, I'm pretty sure, we were the first television outlet in this country to question the official story of the Jessica Lynch rescue, and I remember taking a huge amount of heat for that, because that was a great comic-book kind of war story.

I think over a long period of time this clearly has affected the ratings. We have gone from a distant third place to having won in the demographic that everybody looks for, the 25- to 54-year-olds; we defeated the CNN show at 8 o'clock in the first two quarters. And I think on a year-to-year basis, the numbers are extraordinarily up compared to the other networks that are on at 8 o'clock. I think we're up about 9 percent in that demographic, and CNN is down 30 and Fox is off 23 percent. I don't think you can say, "Hey, we did this commentary and the ratings doubled the next night." It doesn't usually work that way. But overall we've had a very steady climb, a climb from third place in the ratings to essentially second place in the ratings, and I think you can attribute it to the approach, if not the specifics, of the commentaries.

Is there anyone over in corporate headquarters who's seeing what happens as you take this approach and saying, "Keep doing this, it's helping you"?

Oh, yeah. If there has been any negative reaction to it, it has been kept from me. In other words, they have [approached it] the way you would want employers in this situation to approach it. They have been supportive. They have been interested in what they are supposed to be interested in on a corporate level, which is making money. More ratings, of course. More money. It's not a complicated solution. It's the reason that Fox owns Fox News Channel and, say, "Family Guy." Wherever you can make the money is what interests them and it's -- ironically, given the flaws in commercial broadcasting as opposed to some other models, such as commercial-free broadcasting -- it is one of the protections of our liberties that the people who are owning most of it are at bottom line interested only in making money, and whatever makes money is what they will go for. That's one of our great protections ... In fact, sometimes I have to turn to them and say, "No. I know you like this and I know you think this is going to do real well for you in the ratings, but just don't pull the gun out of the holster every 35 seconds." If anything, I have to calm them down, rather than the other way around.

Speaking of ratings, according to the latest reports the numbers at Fox are down pretty badly while MSNBC and CNN are up. Why do you think that is?

I think this has been a steady truth since Katrina, ironically enough, given that most of the issues relate to not natural disasters but man-made disasters. It's ironic that a natural disaster would serve to be the tipping point, but I think there was just no convincing even the people who wanted to be convinced that everything was great after what people saw in the United States of America in New Orleans. It was overwhelming. And it had, although it was not given credit for it at the time, or blame, the kind of visceral impact that 9/11 didn't in a different sense, that it woke people up to the idea that a government that was reelected on the premise that it was going to protect everyone from everything, and that the other guys probably couldn't -- did not get the job done. And I think a lot of people at that point began to say, to use that classic and most overwrought of clichés, that the kid in the front there is right: The emperor is not wearing anything except new clothes that only he can see. He's naked, and much of what he'd told us besides that is probably not true.

I think that the news operations that were willing to address that, to approach it in any kind of analytical way, even by means of commentary, could benefit in a situation where people are looking for the truth. And an organization that is beholden to a political party and to a point of view -- entirely beholden to that -- is going to lose, as they have.

The salesmanship techniques and the production techniques that they are expert at have not suddenly slipped, which is I believe their conclusion. It's not their guys who've suddenly seemed implausible, except the ones who have stuck to the party line, but it's the message. "Gee whiz, everything's great, everything's great, it's the media's fault." I don't think that's what most of America feels anymore, and I think that has been reflected particularly in the ratings at Fox News.

Any chance of a truce with Bill O'Reilly?

We have of late. I made kind of a joke of it [on Sept. 6]. He attacked MSNBC [on his show] along with a plethora of usual suspects for, in his opinion, misreporting the Valerie Plame story, and demanded that we say that we're sorry that Karl Rove was not indicted. And I said, "All right, Bill, you're right. We are sorry Karl Rove wasn't indicted. But please, I can't play with you now. I have bigger fish to fry."

From, let's see, a year, year and a half ago, the whole tenor of this thing changed. It had essentially been me pointing out what kind of crap he was putting on the air, and then it became anything that was said about Bill merited some sort of brilliant overreaction, like an on-air petition to get me fired. Or this thing -- and it would be really funny in a different context -- where he thought he could call up Fox security and local police and get them to somehow go to the house of someone who called his radio show and mentioned my name. I just wait for his overreactions and respond to them now. It's really, it's almost a passive feud from my end. Also, the level of the fight from him has dropped off appreciably. His stuff is getting very old, and we've had to raise the bar a little bit higher because his answers get a little lower. So we devote less and less time to him. I wouldn't say a truce, but I don't think there's very much fight left in him at this point.

Also, if you suddenly find yourself in a position, unintentionally, of being somewhat adversarial to the secretary of defense and the president of the United States, then there's some truth in the joke that I used last night. I've got bigger fish to fry at the moment. [Senate minority leader] Harry Reid's reading part of my script into the Senate record. Arguing with Bill O'Reilly is a waste of valuable arguing time.

Partially because of the feud with O'Reilly, and for other reasons, you've become something of a hero to the liberals in the blogosphere. Was there a conscious choice made to reach out to them?

No, I don't think so. I had gathered for a while that they had felt themselves very underserved in the media, and a reasonable analysis would suggest that's true overall. But you can go out and, I think, find a certain kind of person who wants to sit there and be told what to think by the television. These tend to be authoritarian personalities, as John Dean has suggested in his book. I don't know if it's true for other political people. I don't think you can get a bunch of liberals to watch one television network, because they'd be sitting there arguing the nuance of it. So I'm not courting the liberals.

I also, I don't think in these issues that I'm a liberal; I think that I'm an American. I think I'm acting almost as a historian on these particular things, with the Rumsfeld commentary and now the Bush commentary. I get nauseated when I see someone perpetually wrap themselves in the flag -- which is the logo that appears on Fox, that's what they're doing, and many other people do it.

You know, every once in a while you should bring the flag out and say, "What does our country stand for?" The first thing that I think of is the statement that I disagree with your beliefs, but I will fight to the death for your right to express them. When the secretary of defense and the president of the United States make statements that indicate those statements are no longer operative, then you have to say something. It's no longer liberal versus conservative at that point. It's American versus truly un-American. So I'm not courting anybody with these things, I'm saying these things because I think they need to be said. I think they need to be underlined and underscored in the public discourse.

>After your first stint with MSNBC in the late '90s, you said, and I think it was specifically about the Lewinsky scandal, that your time there "[made] me ashamed, [made] me depressed, [made] me cry out." What's different now?

There were many components of the Lewinsky story that inspired that. First of them, and this was the stuff that I didn't really talk about then because it was really internal relative to my employer, that story didn't change very much. There were new developments, but in some stretches there were no new developments for two weeks, and yet we devoted an hour of news time to it every night. This is just a fundamental violation of my chromosomes as a sportscaster and a newscaster. If something's more than six hours old, you have to convince me that it's worth talking about. I mean, really, there is supposed to be a shelf life on news, and if nothing happens in two weeks, it's like that old joke from the movie "L.A. Story" about the weather report, "Sunny and warmer, next report in four days." That's what covering the Lewinsky story was really like most of the time.

I also felt that it was trivial in terms of public dialogue, and a blatant misuse of public airwaves, and there was a sneaking suspicion in the back of my mind throughout 1998 that there were more important things that we should be discussing. And I certainly can't call myself a prophet and say I knew what they were, but the last week or so before the Lewinsky story took over, I can remember interviewing Dr. Richard Haass, who's just late of the Bush administration, and a fellow named Jim Dunnigan, a couple times each at least, about Middle Eastern-based terrorism and goals to bring that to the United States. That's what we should have been talking about in 1998, and instead, a political party decided to take trivia and turn it into the only issue of public discourse.

This is, what we're going through now, monumentally more important. Monica Lewinsky, and the events surrounding Monica Lewinsky, will get a paragraph, perhaps, in the history books. This era gets its own chapter, at least, and in the history of this country it may be as pivotal as the time of the Civil War. There has never been, I think, since then any kind of comparable political struggle going on over what we are, and what we represent, and what our standards have to be whether we are under attack or we are not.

The difference is between an exhibition game in spring training and the World Series.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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