NEW YORK—When MSNBC moved a couple of months ago from its longtime home in New Jersey to 30 Rockefeller Plaza in Midtown Manhattan, Keith Olbermann got his pick of offices.
It was a nice perk for the anchor whose bracing mix of irony and stridency made him the first big star the 11-year-old cable channel can call its own.
Olbermann chose a room looking directly into the street-front studios of MSNBC’s rival, Fox News. If you’re walking up Sixth Avenue, look for the huge cardboard cutout of Bill O’Reilly’s head gazing out of a third-floor window in the world headquarters of the National Broadcasting Co.
Rare is the night when “Countdown With Keith Olbermann,” MSNBC’s highest-rated program, doesn’t take aim at something said on “Fox Noise” or “Fixed News,” Olbermann’s pet names for the channel. He has more ways of describing O’Reilly than baseball announcers have home-run calls. Bill-O. Bill Orally. Bill ” Oh Really?” Falafel Guy. The Frank Burns of new s. And so on.
But when I asked Olbermann about being able to peer into the glassy soul of the enemy, he said the point was not inspiration but caution.
“The reason my computer faces out that window is not for me to stare and think, `What am I going to do to him next?’” he said. “It’s to remember the lessons learned in that building.”
To Olbermann, Fox News is an object lesson in how not to handle success. To an observer familiar with Olbermann’s career missteps, he seems determined not to repeat them as his star rises again.
By any measure 2007 was a terrific year for him. Since mid-2006, when he began inveighing against the Bush administration in a series of on-air editorials, known as “Special Comments,” ratings for “Countdown” have risen 55 percent. MSNBC is beating CNN when Olbermann is on, and catching up to the second-place news channel overall.
His new book, “Truth and Consequences: Special Comments on the Bush Administration’s War on American Values,” was assembled from a year’s worth of editorials on “Countdown.” This weekend it will enter the New York Times nonfiction best-seller list at No. 19.
“I’ve often thought the real danger in broadcasting is people going on the air without ever stopping to ask: `Now why is it again that I think people want to hear me talk about this?’” Olbermann said. It was four hours before that night’s “Countdown,” and the 6-foot-3 native New Yorker was taking a break before shutting himself in his office to compose the last few hundred words for that night’s broadcast.
“Inasmuch as it is a responsibility and it is the public airwaves, I think I owe the viewers and the industry and the people who’ve gone before me—who have been role models, who have faced actual dangers to do this in the history of our country—I owe all those things and people my best. To try to present an honest version of what I see around me.”
Fair enough, but detractors contend that Olbermann’s “honesty” has seeped into every corner of his show. With its opinionated take on the news, its mocking tone and its lack of dissenting voices, “Countdown” in some ways is a lot like the radio show hosted by Rush Limbaugh, who is Olbermann’s biggest target after O’Reilly.
“Is this a straight newscast at this point?” Olbermann said. “Probably not. It is, however, entirely news-driven. If there is no daily controversy about the Iraq war, we’re not going to start the show with one.”
Olbermann’s saving grace is that he is funny, which covers a multitude of sins, including self-righteousness. From years in sportscasting, trying to pump life into look-alike game highlights night after night, he developed a comic cadence and an arsenal of silly voices (his Walter Cronkite is the best). And “Countdown” is structured less like a traditional newscast and more like “SportsCenter,” where he became a national cable star on ESPN in the 1990s.
Even the “Worst Person in the World” segment, where Olbermann first began to vent his spleen, is many nights a three-minute scripted comedy routine—an oasis for political junkies at a time when ” The Daily Show” and ” The Colbert Report” writers are on strike. (Those two shows are returning to Comedy Central this week, sans writers.)
One night, he nominated televangelist Pat Robertson for “Worst Person” for calling yoga “evil” and read the offending quote in a passable Pat impersonation: “By repeating common yoga mantras, you’re actually praying to the Hindu god Vishnu.” He dropped the accent and said to the camera: “Then don’t say the mantras, moron, just stretch!”
“Keith has attracted an audience that no program on our network has attracted,” said Phil Griffin, the NBC News executive who oversees MSNBC. He calls the show “the model for everybody on this network.”
Yet even with “Countdown” and the spiffy new digs at 30 Rock, the third-rated cable news channel faces an uncertain future. Millions of dollars are to be lopped from its budget this year. Olbermann can’t control MSNBC’s fate, only his own. Hence the “lessons learned inside that building” that he and cardboard Bill-O look out on every day.
He knows all too well the Fox News temptation to lash out at critics and even create enemies where there were none. Olbermann did it at ESPN. An executive there once said, “He didn’t burn bridges here, he napalmed them.” Olbermann eventually wrote a public apology to his ESPN colleagues.
More recently, in 2006, the New York Daily News got hold of a couple of nastygrams he sent to e-mailers after they said al-Qaida leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi must be “your hero.” In one, Olbermann wrote, “Hey, save the oxygen for somebody whose brain can use it. Kill yourself.”
Does he still respond to e-taunters? He gave me a dirt-eating grin and said, “Nope! They took my e-mail away from me.” Trying to engage his critics in a medium other than television “does not relieve paranoia or delusion, it only increases it,” he said.
Anyway, he has more reasons than ever to ignore the ankle-biters. He lives with his beautiful, young girlfriend, Katy Tur. He signed a new long-term deal with NBC in 2007. And last fall he landed a sports gig on the big network, joining Bob Costas and Cris Collinsworth in the studio for “Sunday Night Football.”
Most tellingly, the man who left ESPN declaring he was “burned out” on sports has fallen back in love with his childhood passion, baseball. He even joined a fantasy league with the actor Jason Bateman and others. “I didn’t realize the degree to which being part of the job subtracted from my enjoyment of the game,” he said.
On Sept. 23, he’s planning “something special” to mark the 100th anniversary of “Merkle’s Boner.” In this infamous baseball incident, Fred Merkle, a 19-year-old first baseman for the New York Giants, cost his team the pennant for failing to touch second base at the end of the game. His teammate had already scored the winning run, and no umpire had ever called out a runner for heading to the dugout.
“They changed the rules on him somewhere between first and second base,” Olbermann said. ” He probably should’ve been a Hall of Famer, but he got worn down. His daughters said he never went on the field without somebody yelling at him: `Don’t forget to touch second base!’ I just always thought that was terrifically unfair.” He has broadcast an item or a story about Merkle every year since 1977.
“I don’t sit around championing the underdog,” Olbermann said. “But when you think that the establishment has turned against someone—who could be any one of us, whether it’s a ballplayer in his first start or some kid who signed up for (National Guard duty) and he’s going back for his fourth tour with Prozac in his system because he has PTSD—somebody needs to talk about that. Even if it doesn’t change anything.”
BEHIND THE SCENES
Do Keith Olbermann’s producers really make him do those stories?
When he’s not raking Bill O’Reilly over the coals, Olbermann might use a few minutes of the “Countdown” to report the latest from the celebrity press about Britney or LiLo or some other tabloid favorite. He often begins these segments by telling viewers, “Here’s another story my producers are making me do.”
Is that true? I ask Izzy Povich, his good-natured executive producer.
“If you hear him say, `This is a story my producer’s forcing me to do,’ hello, it’s me,” Povich said. “But then,” she added sarcastically, “there’s nothing I’m ever forced to do around here.”
Celebrity news is useful because, like the nightly “Oddball” segment of viral video clips, it lightens the load, said Povich (who, speaking of celebs, is related by marriage to Maury and Maury’s dad, the late sportswriting legend Shirley Povich). Olbermann also believes that news about Britney helps bring viewers into the tent who wouldn’t necessarily come for the Bush-bashing. “Every new person makes it easier to keep doing this show,” Olbermann said.
`I QUIT,’ TWO YEARS LATER
After hearing the news that ABC anchor Peter Jennings had died of lung cancer, Olbermann gave up cigars and began a segment on “Countdown” called “I Quit,” with encouragement and advice for other smokers. He hasn’t done that bit in a while, so I asked if he’s still off the junk.
“I am,” he said, and credited abstinence with an improved speaking voice. “There is literally no way I could be doing as much on the air as I’ve been doing the last two years if I had still been smoking. I just know it. I can do things with my voice now that I haven’t been able to do since I was in college. Just amazing. So the practical benefits of it are much more than the obvious ones of, you know, probably living a little longer.”
“Countdown With Keith Olbermann” airs at 8 p.m. and repeats at midnight EST weeknights on MSNBC.