Anti-Bush views have driven up the ratings of the former sportscaster's MSNBC show.
By Matea Gold
Times Staff Writer
November 27, 2006
SECAUCUS, N.J. -- The Democrats may have wrested back control of power in Congress, but that hasn't quieted the ire of Keith Olbermann.
Last week, he delivered one of his trademark blistering critiques of the country's leadership — this time charging that President Bush failed to learn the lessons of Vietnam by perpetuating the "monumental lie that is our presence in Iraq." And don't think the victors of the midterm election are going to escape his sharp tongue.
"If the Democrats don't undo a lot of the things that have been done, like the Military Commissions Act and many of the other infringements on freedom, as I see it, there will be a special comment with their name on it," Olbermann vowed on a recent afternoon, wearing a crisp, striped shirt and suspenders, his large frame hunched over his desk at the cable news network's Secaucus headquarters.
The 47-year-old broadcaster's "special comments" are not a regular feature on "Countdown With Keith Olbermann," the dramatically intoned, fast-paced mélange of politics and pop culture that he has anchored since 2003 and that recently emerged as MSNBC's top-rated show. (The newscast airs at 5 p.m. on the West Coast, with a repeat at 9 p.m.)
But Olbermann's occasional soliloquies — typically a no-holds-barred excoriation of the Bush administration — have dramatically elevated his profile in the last several months, especially in the liberal blogosphere, and helped drive up the ratings for the third-place cable news network.
The longtime sportscaster, who doesn't vote and eschews any political identity — "I may be a Whig, possibly a Free-Soiler," he quipped — has nevertheless become an unexpected folk hero for the frustrated left. One woman approached him in a New York restaurant recently and burst into tears as she thanked him.
"People just think, 'He speaks for me,' " said Jane Hamsher, a Mill Valley, Calif., author who runs a liberal blog at firedoglake.com. "There was no resonance within the media for their perspective, and suddenly Keith came on the scene and gave voice to these long-simmering feelings of disgust with the war."
Olbermann said he never set out to court disaffected liberals.
"But there's a time when what you're covering ceases to look like news and begins to look like history," he said. "And you say, well, it doesn't matter how people might brand me or respond to this — I feel as if something very important is not being said."
It's perhaps a sign of the recent shift in the country's political mood that his message has translated into ratings.
"Countdown's" audience has grown by 21% this year compared with the same point last year, while its cable news competitors have lost viewers at that hour, according to Nielsen Media Research.
With an average nightly viewership of 464,000, Olbermann lags far behind Fox News' Bill O'Reilly, whose audience has averaged nearly 2.15 million viewers this year. But the MSNBC host is creeping up on second-place CNN. In October, "Countdown" edged out "Paula Zahn Now" by 11,000 viewers.
His gains come as all of MSNBC's ratings are on an upswing, a fact that has triggered no small amount of jubilation at the perpetually last-place network.
"MSNBC is now a player in the competitive world of cable news in a way that we have not been for many, many years, and that's a really big deal," said General Manager Dan Abrams, the network's onetime legal affairs anchor who was tapped to run the channel in June.
Abrams said MSNBC is finally finding its identity, which he described as "NBC News' younger brother or sister."
"It doesn't mean the older sibling is more intelligent or better at what they do," he added. "It just means they've been doing it longer. We may be a little brasher, a little more petulant, but we are one family."
Abrams credits Olbermann with a large share of the network's recent success, so much so that he paired the longtime ESPN host with Chris Matthews to anchor the network's election night coverage — potentially risky, considering Olbermann's outspoken political views.
"Anyone who watches what Keith did on election night can't possibly suggest that he was cheerleading for the Democrats," Abrams said.
MSNBC more than doubled its viewership compared with the 2002 midterms. And its share of the cable news audience in prime time also increased, from 15% four years ago to 25% this year.
Olbermann is negotiating a new contract with MSNBC; his current one expires in March.
"It is, to some degree, a perfect setup," he said of his relationship with the network. "They leave me alone, I leave them alone, and I deliver what they need, both in terms of journalism and the money end of it, the ratings."
As his profile has risen, so has criticism of his provocative style. This summer, amid an on-air feud with O'Reilly, he addressed a gathering of television critics by donning a mask of the Fox News host and giving a Nazi salute.
A network spokesman said the gesture was intended as a satirical comment.
Robert Cox, who runs Olbermann Watch, a critical blog that monitors the cable news host's comments, said that Olbermann employs some of the same tactics that he decries.
"I think at the end of the day he has, by and large, become that which he has criticized — a demagogue like Bill O'Reilly," said Cox, a management consultant in New Rochelle, N.Y.
Olbermann rejects the comparison.
"I'm not trying to whip up a political frenzy," he said. "If I was out there every night beating people over the head with this, I would become a Rush Limbaugh. That's not my goal. I don't make the facts up to fit the political viewpoint that happens to parallel what it is I'm trying to express."
A longtime sportscaster who first got a show at MSNBC when he joined NBC Sports in 1997, Olbermann devotes nearly the same amount of time on "Countdown" to the tabloid stories, such as the latest Tom Cruise gossip, as to stories about Iraq.
When he's not lecturing Bush, he wears a perpetually amused expression on the air and casually tosses papers off his desk.
He said he doesn't vote because he doesn't want to be accused of having "a horse in the race." But he decided to give an on-air commentary last year after Hurricane Katrina, outraged by the lackluster federal reaction.
"We went on the air with it on Monday and got a response, and management was in here on that Tuesday saying, 'Could you do that on a regular basis?' " he recalled. "And I said, 'No, I have no intention of doing that on a regular basis.' "
The urge to speak out struck him again in late August, ashe sat on a plane on the runway at LAX and read an account ofa speech in which Secretaryof Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld equated critics of the Bushadministration to Nazi appeasers.
Response to Rumsfeld
Infuriated, he spent his flight scribbling out a response in which he compared Rumsfeld's attack on Bush's opponents to the way Neville Chamberlain attempted to marginalize Winston Churchill in the run-up to World War II.
"Dissent and disagreement with government is the life's blood of human freedom and not merely because it is the first roadblock against the kind of tyranny the men Mr. Rumsfeld likes to think of as his troops still fight this very evening in Iraq," he wrote in the essay he delivered that night on the air. "It is also essential, because just every once in a while it is right, and the power to which it speaks is wrong."
His commentary was downloaded more than 300,000 times from the website Crooks and Liars, with liberal bloggers tagging it Olbermann's "Murrow moment."
When the cable host participated in a live chat at firedoglake.com this month, he was peppered with gushing messages, including one from former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, who thanked him for "all you are doing to reenergize the fourth estate and its role to be a skeptic of authority."
That includes the new Democratic leadership in Congress.
"They're serving as a balancing factor, a check and a balance against anybody being carted out of Gitmo without a hearing," Olbermann said. "But that's an interim measure. We have to do things to protect the Constitution.
"And if they don't," he added in a mock stentorian voice, "damn it, I will!"