Keith Olbermann: A history of (too much) backbone

As this week reminds us, the MSNBC host has a distinguished record of defying authority

By Emma Mustich
Published November 9, 2010 10:10PM (EST)
Keith Olbermann
Keith Olbermann

The half-gracious, half-combative tone of Keith Olbermann's "Statement to the Viewers of Countdown," released Monday afternoon, was striking, but certainly not surprising. Olbermann's career path is littered with antagonistic statements like this one, directed at current and former bosses, and following the trail of these media battles is nothing if not entertaining. Some highlights:

  • In his first MSNBC stint, as host of "The Big Show" in the late '90s, Olbermann told students in a Cornell convocation speech that he was "having dry heaves in the bathroom" over his boss' insistence that he devote so much coverage to the Monica Lewinsky scandal. He went on:

"There are days now when my line of work makes me ashamed, makes me depressed, makes me cry ... About three weeks ago I awakened from my stupor on this subject and told my employers that I simply could not continue doing this show about the endless investigation and the investigation of the investigation, and the investigation of the investigation of the investigation. I had to choose what I felt in my heart was right over what I felt in my wallet was smart. I did not tell them they had 24 hours. I did not threaten them. I let them balance for themselves their professional and moral forces and set their timetable. I await their answer. Of course, I am not buying any new furniture for my home."

  • Olbermann's contentious relationship with his bosses at ESPN, where he worked as a "SportsCenter" anchor between 1992 and 1997, came to a head in the spring of '97, when Olbermann appeared as a guest on former ESPN colleague Craig Kilborn's "The Daily Show." Both men traded playful jabs with each other, with Olbermann also making a crack about his employer's less-than-cosmopolitan home town, Bristol, Conn. The unauthorized appearance led to a two-week broadcasting leave from ESPN, followed a few months later by his departure.
  • Amid chatter that Olbermann might seek a return to the network in 2001, ESPN P.R. officer Mike Soltys famously said: "He didn't burn bridges here, he napalmed them." Olbermann did return to the ESPN fold in 2005, to host a radio show with his old "SportsCenter" sidekick, Dan Patrick, but it was broadcast from New York; he told David Letterman he was "banned" from the network's Connecticut headquarters, adding, "I don't burn bridges; I burn rivers."
  • In a column written for Salon in 2002, Olbermann apologized for his actions at ESPN, admitting that he had "too much backbone" -- both literally and figuratively. "It feels as if I've been coming out of a huge fog bank," he wrote, explaining that he could be unpleasant to work with because "deep down inside I've always believed that everybody around me was qualified and competent, and I wasn't, and that some day I'd be found out." He also addressed some of the more egregious comments he made in Michael Freeman's book, "ESPN: The Uncensored History," writing:

"There's a lot in Freeman's book that I regret ... [For instance, r]eferring to ESPN's executives, I told Freeman that 'other than Steve Anderson, I don't think any of them are any good.' Well, that was ridiculous then and it is ridiculous now. Without even judging how good they were, just to keep a monolith like ESPN on the air every day requires as many good executives as they have at NORAD."

  • In 1999, after leaving MSNBC, Olbermann joined the Rupert Murdoch-owned Fox Sports Net, where he anchored "The Keith Olbermann Evening News," which was in direct competition with "SportsCenter." The new program proved unable to beat its ESPN rival's ratings, and his contract with Fox was terminated early, in the spring of 2001. Murdoch later said he "fired" Olbermann because "he was crazy," to which Olbermann replied: "As to the 'crazy' part, he had to pay me $800,000 for the rest of 2001, and lord knows how many tens of millions I’ve helped MSNBC take out of his pocket ever since -- so: who’s crazy?" Murdoch and his empire became one of Olbermann's favorite punching bags as he developed "Countdown" at MSNBC.

Emma Mustich

Emma Mustich is a Salon contributor. Follow her on Twitter: @emustich.

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