Anchor Olbermann counts on commentary to boost MSNBC's ratings

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Stacy Innerst, Post-Gazette
Keith Olbermann frequently needles Bill O'Reilly on the air.
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MSNBC anchor Keith Olbermann can do sarcasm -- tinged with rage -- very effectively. He does it, in fact, every night on his cable channel's top-rated show, "Countdown," where he systematically eviscerates President George W. Bush, his policies, and assorted members of America's conservative political establishment.

"Apologize, sir!" Mr. Olbermann barked on Sept. 25, after the president said it was "unacceptable to think" one could compare U.S. behavior in Iraq with that of Islamic extremists.

Such presidential cautions against free thinking take us, Olbermann thundered, "toward a new and fearful path -- one heretofore the realm of science fiction authors and apocalyptic visionaries."

Yikes.

Rush Limbaugh, too, gets smacked in the kisser on "Countdown." When the conservative radio host apologized for mocking actor and liberal activist Michael J. Fox's symptoms of Parkinson's disease, Olbermann wasn't buying it.

"Rush, your lies used to be slightly entertaining, but no more," and added: "Please, go back on the drugs!"

While the House and Senate may have gone Democratic last month, giving the 47-year-old Olbermann fewer GOP figures in authority to rail against, "Countdown's" ratings just keep going up. And if Democrats don't act quickly to undo some of the Bush administration's abuses, they'll be targets too, he vows.

But during a recent telephone interview, Olbermann took pains to stress one important point: While anger has its uses on his newscast, it hasn't consumed him.

"I am not Peter Finch walking around the streets of New York in my pajamas as Howard Beale muttering to myself and saying, 'I must bear my witness.' It's not like that."

A pungent brew of opinion, straight news, tabloid and celebrity gossip, "Countdown" is hardly a traditional newscast. And while it may not be "Network," Olbermann's show is attracting plenty of viewers who are mad as hell at the Bush administration and don't want to take it anymore.

His commentaries, delivered in the stentorian, staccato style of Edward R. Murrow, along with snarky asides and "Worst Person in the World" awards to various political foes, have made him a hero to liberals and anathema to conservatives, and, most important, they have boosted MSNBC's ratings out of the third-place cellar.

"Countdown's" audience jumped 67 percent this year over last, and the cable channel's overall numbers are up 6 percent this year compared with last year, according to Nielsen Media Research. They're also up 10 percent from last year among 25- to 54-year-olds, a coveted advertising demographic. This comes at a time when Fox and CNN, overall, have been posting a decline in ratings.

Still, "Countdown" boasts a relatively puny overall audience of 469,000, compared to 2.1 million viewers for Fox News' Bill O'Reilly, whose show airs opposite Olbermann's. But "Countdown" has bested CNN's "Paula Zahn Now" 18 out of 25 nights since the start of November 2006 among viewers age 25-54.

Some, including Olbermann's boss, Dan Abrams, are calling "Countdown" "the newscast of the future."

At least of MSNBC's future.

"I think the viewers have found Keith," Abrams said, noting that ratings were building even before Olbermann began his special comments. "Countdown has been a fantastic show for a while, but I do think his special comments have helped. What they do is say to the viewers, 'Here's where I stand,' and they appreciate his honesty."

Others look back in history to the early 20th century's newspaper wars, whose publishers openly paraded their biases.

Jay Rosen, a media critic and journalism professor at New York University, believes that Olbermann's show is a fulfillment of his 2004 prediction of the rise of an "opposition press" in response to a deepening cultural divide and what he called bland media coverage of the Bush administration during its first term.

CNN's Lou Dobbs, who regularly editorializes about U.S. immigration and outsourcing policies, may be one example of that, and Olbermann another -- and that's not necessarily bad.

"In the last year, Keith Olbermann has basically put the idea of "opposition press" into practice," said Rosen. "Did journalism collapse? No. But his ratings went up, and a lot of things got said that needed to be said."

Olbermann's critics, however, see him as nothing more than a left-wing blowhard masquerading as a newscaster.

"My concern is that people are mistaking his show for real news," said Noel Sheppard, a blogger with NewsBusters.Org, a Web site founded by conservative media watchdog Brent Bozell. "But there's no question he is indeed Howard Beale. The whole Paddy Chayevsky concept in 'Network' was that news had to be entertaining. You had the anchorman flip out one day, and the ratings exploded. The same is going on with Keith Olbermann, who really does get into a snit like Beale did."

Robert Cox, a New York businessman, has even started his own anti-Olbermann Web site, "OlbermannWatch.com," where he regularly dissects Olbermann's commentaries and news reports, which he calls sloppily researched.

"I happen to like NBC news," says Cox. "I grew up watching it. My sense is, though, that he's undermining the brand of NBC news and the integrity of that organization by not fact-checking stories, lifting material from other Web sites and only putting on guests he agrees with, which is totally irresponsible."

To be sure, Olbermann originally vowed not to "screw around with the news" when his show debuted in 2003. Then came that moment in August, when he found himself stuck on a plane on a runway at Los Angeles International Airport.

After reading that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had compared opponents of the Iraq War to Nazi sympathizers, he got out his pen and wrote a scorching critique of Rumsfeld, which began, "The man who sees absolutes, where all other men see nuances and shades of meaning, is either a prophet or a quack."

"Donald H. Rumsfeld is not a prophet," he added.

That became either his famous "Murrow moment" or his "Rummy Rant," depending on who's talking. After being posted on CrooksandLiars.com, the Rumsfeld commentary quickly gained traction, downloaded more than 300,000 times, and suddenly made Olbermann a player in the ongoing political and cultural wars.

Still, he's "a little mystified by the reaction because I don't see these [special comments] as being extraordinary. In other words, these merely are facts and analyses of facts that I think need to be made, and I haven't seen them done by anybody else."

Born in New York City, Olbermann grew up in affluent Westchester County, graduating from Hackley School in Tarrytown, a private school, and earning a Bachelor of Science degree in communications arts from Cornell University in 1979. He is not married, although his name is frequently linked to one woman or another in the gossip columns. Some factoids: He can't drive a car because of an injury at age 21 that affected his depth perception, he's a diehard Yankees fan and he keeps a collection of 35,000 baseball cards.

He didn't grow up in a particularly political household, he says, and despite his identity as a kind of therapist for liberals, Olbermann resists being pigeonholed politically. "I'm not a liberal, I'm an American," he once told Salon.com. Today, he doesn't vote, although he says he would have voted for Richard Nixon in 1972 if he had been old enough.

"I was surrounded by people in high school who wore McGovern stickers on their heads," he recalled. "I saw Nixon as a fairly decent president who should get another term." The following summer, though, he watched the Watergate hearings, "and that was American history unfolding in front of me. I understood when Alex Butterfield came in the room and talked about a taping system, and I remember saying, 'Holy crap.'"

The news and political junkie in him lay dormant for years, however, while he pursued a career in sports broadcasting, most notably as ESPN "SportsCenter" co-anchor with Dan Patrick in the early 1990s. There, the two pioneered a mix of sports scores, strong visuals and funny, biting commentary that remains the sportscast program's signature style today. But the famously prickly Olbermann left after a dispute with his bosses and went to MSNBC, where he hosted "The Big Show" -- which aired during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. After a year, he quit MSNBC, too, claiming Monica-fatigue -- covering it "gave me the dry heaves," he once announced in a speech.

But he was back at MSNBC by 2003 and landed on "Countdown," which was originally called "Countdown: Iraq" and was created to cover the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

While Olbermann is still on Dan Patrick's ESPN radio show for an hour each day, "In my heart of hearts now I think I'm a newscaster and commentator. That corner has been turned," he says.

Olbermann's finely tuned sense of the absurd sometimes veers into tastelessness. Some feminists have criticized him for making disparaging remarks about women -- usually tabloid favorites like Paris Hilton. In blasting Fox News for "sandbagging" former President Bill Clinton in an interview about al-Qaida, Olbermann called interviewer Chris Wallace "a monkey posing as a newscaster."

This summer, while addressing television critics in California, he gave a Nazi salute while wearing a mask of conservative Fox commentator Bill O'Reilly, whom he frequently needles on the air, calling him "Bill-O."

While O'Reilly assiduously avoids uttering Olbermann's name on the air, he frequently complains about MSNBC and its political coverage. He also once began a petition drive to force MSNBC to replace Olbermann -- without citing him by name -- with Phil Donahue.

The next night on "Countdown," Olbermann offered to sign the petition.

"We've been in the same room twice," said Olbermann, recalling the event with almost a lover's command of detail. "It was a charity event last year, with my friend Joe Torre, manager of the Yankees. [O'Reilly] never got within 25 feet of me, but he always was just about that far away, and when I'd see him -- I'd look up and I'd catch him quickly looking away," he laughed.

Their "feud," such as it is, has undoubtedly given Olbermann's show a boost, says Robert Thompson, director of the Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.

"They've both got a huge sense of self-importance," said Thompson, although Olbermann delivers his monologues "with a little bit of a smirk. He knows it's a game, while Mr. O'Reilly is so sincere about everything."

"Still, it's like the feud between Jack Benny and Fred Allen," he said. "What you've got is show business that's going on here. Both guys know it's making people pay attention."

"I have been accused of arrogance for 27 years in this business, and 31 if you count my college broadcasting career, and so far it has not derailed me," countered Olbermann, who seemed somewhat stung by Thompson's remarks.

"It's not self-importance; it's an awareness of the importance of the platform and the time."

If the newscast of the future requires a return to the opinionated journalism of Edward R. Murrow -- or even William Randolph Hearst -- so be it, Olbermann says.

"'Countdown' was not designed as a political broadcast. It was not even a politically oriented newscast; it was just an hourlong news [show] with a different kind of approach to things," he said.

Although he tried to avoid commentary, "there's a point at which you can't sit inside a burning building without shouting 'fire,'" he said. "And that point has been reached, and I think it was reached at the point I was sitting on that tarmac at LAX."

MSNBC
The "Countdown With Keith Olbermann" host says, "I'm not a liberal, I'm an American."
Click photo for larger image.

Mackenzie Carpenter can be reached at mcarpenter@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1949.


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