Olbermann Departs MSNBC

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Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's a Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on The Brian Lehrer Show, Howard Kurtz, Washington Bureau chief at The Daily Beast, discussed Keith Olbermann's sudden departure from MSNBC.

On last Friday's episode of Countdown with Keith Olbermann, MSNBC's most popular star announced he was leaving the network.

That broadcast turned out to be the show's last. While Olbermann's exit happened in a surprising manner, Howard Kurtz said that it was a long time coming.

I am not surprised because a couple months ago...when he contributed to a couple Democratic candidates and got suspended for a few days, there was a war between Keith Olbermann and the top management of MSNBC and NBC. Things got so bad that Olbermann said he was going to go public, air his grievances on Good Morning America, Larry King. The president of MSNBC threatened to fire him if he did. From that point on, relations were so poisoned, they were so deteriorated after years—Olbermann has always been a brilliant but difficult character to deal with, that a divorce was inevitable.

Extending the marriage metaphor, Kurtz said that the network would feel Olbermann's absence, but that divergent opinions and goals had fermented into irreconcilable differences.

I think he had a view of himself that he'd become bigger than the network, that he wants to say what he wants to say without any interference from management. In the end I think it was like a bad marriage where both sides got their lawyers and wanted to get out.

The network is losing more than a flagship voice. According to Kurtz, you could credit MSNBC's success in recent years almost entirely to Olbermann, whose presence attracted viewers and television personalities alike. Commentators like Rachel Maddow and Ed Schultz essentially rode the Olbermann wave on to MSNBC, creating a brand where there was once a vacuum.

MSNBC was floundering for years, it had no identity. Whether you like or dislike Keith Olbermann, I would say he almost single-handedly revived that network by pulling it to the left. I think the people at Comcast, whatever their personal and political views, would have to be cognizant that the ratings have been rising the last couple of years, that MSNBC has overtaken CNN in prime time, and while I think they're not going to want incendiary commentary, I would be surprised if there's any sort of outright ideological interference.

What role did Olbermann's ideology play in this situation? Kurtz said that there had been a noticeable trend over the last two years in which the host grew increasingly agitated and possibly alienated many of MSNBC's once-avid viewers. In part, we can chalk up the schism to anger fatigue.

I think Olbermann peaked in a way during the Bush administration because he was able to play offense, and he really touched a nerve with liberal viewers who felt the media had rolled over for President Bush on the Iraq invasion. Particularly in this Obama year, as he got angrier, people at MSNBC feel like his anger kind of consumed him. I think he became more predictable, more strident, more partisan, and even some liberals got tired of him.

While incendiary commentary may be wearing on certain audiences, Kurtz said that Olbermann's departure doesn't mean we're any closer to a bombast-free media landscape.

I'd like to say we're ushering in a new era of civility, but I don't really believe that to be the case...The fact is, these are businesses, they're driven by ratings, and if you can get ratings by being "hot," then that's what's going to happen.