Olbermann Departs MSNBC

Monday, January 24, 2011

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.


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Comments [42]


Olbermann and Maddow = Limbaugh and Beck, just different sides of the fence.

Jan. 24 2011 09:36 PM
Nick Lento from nj

mc from Brooklyn says....

"@Nick Lento: Never hateful or ugly? Characterizing Paris Hilton's getting punched as "a slut and battery?" Guess it all depends on your point of view doesn't it?"

I hadn't heard that I haven't seen every minute of his shows over all these years.

You are correct to point out that that comment was cruel in a clever kind of way........and I suspect there are more examples of Olbermann's being childish and flawed. I shouldn't have said "never" as that's too absolute a term.

The clear and obvious fact remains that one can listen/watch just about any broadcast from Limbaugh/O'Reilly/Beck et al and find numerous instances of truly deeply vicious and ugly distortions.....and some outright lies. They come from a place of almost exclusive hate/fear mongering.

Olbermann was/is coming from a far more human place in which common human decency was/is the prevailing motivation. That's what my "nose" tells me at any rate.

I reassert that Kurz's drawing of a kind of moral/ethical equivalence between Olbermann and his nemeses is absurdly unjust and not supported by the facts.

As for Paris Hilton, she should be left alone to live her life as she pleases...the fact that any one cares to follow her misadventures is an indication of a broader social pathology that goes beyond the topic at hand here.

Thanks mc for the opportunity to sharpen/clarify my point!

Jan. 24 2011 05:15 PM
DTorres from Nathan Straus Projects

I cut out my Time Warner Cable,
over a year ago and don't miss it.
I found that I didn't watch anything
they had on and I was wasting my
money paying a monthly cable bill.

I found that I get all the news I want
on the internet with BBC, Telesur,
RT, Haaretz, Ynetnews, El Nuevo Dia,

I did continue to watch Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow and
Chris Matthews via the internet.

I liked Keith Olbermann very much,
and if he signs on the internet, I will
sign on to that.

Jan. 24 2011 03:28 PM
caroline from nyc

Olbermann was an informed, intelligent relief when Bush & Co. and the primaries needed the cold light of day, but he rendered his opinions dismissable when he started the diatribes and the nastiness. Maddow was an informed, articulate boon when she first arrived but has gotten "cute," an Olbermann wannabee. I'm pinning my hopes on O'Donnell who has both sides on his show, and plays it tough, sometimes too tough, but straight.

Jan. 24 2011 02:03 PM
Ron Raphael from NYC-Manhattan

Keith Olbermann was a very important person to me and I am very sad to see him go. I feel it is too much of a coincidence that his leaving MSNBC and the take over of NBC by Comcast happened within such a short space of time.

His way of breaking news, although radical, was accurate as well as informative. Very frequently his comments appeared on the next mornings news,

I will surely miss him and hope he pops up in a different roll as soon as possible.

Jan. 24 2011 01:07 PM
RCT from NYC

Yes, Olbermann was sometimes "over the top", in that he was highly emotional in a forum whose conventions mandate restraint. He did not, however, misrepresent the facts.

Moreover, he was the person -- us -- yelling "We are getting screwed; I am getting screwed; and, damn it, I am a human being!" Isn't this what progressives are really about: namely, declaring that moral and ethical imperatives should trump economics and politics; and that, damn it, there are real, live people out here, not merely statistics?

I will greatly miss Keith. I love Rachel and Lawrence, but they are the fact-gathers of MSNBC. Keith was its soul.

Jan. 24 2011 11:58 AM

They take kieth oberman ..and leave two nut jobs like glenn beck and rush limbaugh on the air to spew more hate

Jan. 24 2011 11:55 AM

What do I care? I don't have cable.

Jan. 24 2011 11:50 AM
mc from Brooklyn

@Nick Lento: Never hateful or ugly? Characterizing Paris Hilton's getting punched as "a slut and battery?" Guess it all depends on your point of view doesn't it?

Jan. 24 2011 11:30 AM
ak from ny

It's a tragedy that Keith left MSNBC. He has been consistent, honest, forceful in analysing whitehouse, congress and other media messages. He was instrumental in passing health care reform.

I already miss his energetic, inspirational and honest coverage.

Jan. 24 2011 11:14 AM

This is truly sad and pathetic

Online Movement Afoot To Draft Olbermasnn For CT Senate Run

Jan. 24 2011 11:05 AM
L. McLean from Brooklyn, NY

I will really miss Keith Olbermann. He was brilliant, fearless and entertaining. He was able to take on the likes of O'Reilly and Beck and provide balance to their partisan diatribes. As an educated person, I can analyze the news. I will now look to BBC for my news.
Since the other networks are not providing objective news, it is fallacious to say that Keith was bombastic, over-emotional, etc. At least he was factual!! I intend to boycott MSNBC and hope others will do the same. That is the only way that we can register displeasure with management --HURT THEM IN THEIR POCKETBOOKS.
Keith, come back in another form as soon as your contract allows--your fans will follow.

Jan. 24 2011 11:02 AM

24/7 cable news on all 3 cable news channels is about 85% entertainment and 15% news. If a liberal viewpoint can only be presented in a childish clownish vein a la Olbermann, Maddow, and Shultz, I'd rather have a straight, down the middle perspective with commentators and hosts following in the tradition of Walter Cronkite, Edwin Newman, Marvin Kalb, Roger Mudd, Eric Sevareid, and Howard K. Smith.

Jan. 24 2011 11:01 AM
CC from NJ from Gillette, nj

I am sorry to see him go, I agree he was sometime over the edge and was hard to take but he was a voice. I think part of the problem is liberals have a hard time with over the top talk, they do not enjoy it the same way conservatives do. If he left because of personal reasons that is fine but if he was PUSHED because of his opinions or the Comcaste merger that is diabolical and I am angry. I would be happy to boycott msnbc but I do like RM and LO. I will have to wait and see what the circumstances were, it always comes out. I have now stopped watching the Joe morning show can not take that phony any longer.

Jan. 24 2011 11:00 AM
Nick Lento from NJ

Kurt's declaration of some kind of equivalence between Olbermann and the Beck's et all was outrageously simplistic at best and a perverse distortion at worst.

Olbermann channeled legitimate indignation......he was intense, but NEVER hateful or ugly or nasty.

I could go on for 50 thousand pages enumerating the fear and hate mongering that is standard fare from Fox and the rest of the hate radio establishment which dominates the airwaves but anyone who has seen Fox or listened to WABC et al knows whereof I speak.

Without people like Olbermann who have the will and the ability to actually STAND UP to the bullies (without becoming one!) the right wing and the corporations and the various "industrial complexes" will continue to utterly dominate American life in all ways and on every level. It's not sustainable indefinitely...but that's another discussion.

Jan. 24 2011 10:59 AM
Barbara Orlando from Manhattan

Olberman's departure from MSNBC is a real loss. He's smart, articulate and dedicated to a functioning democracy that serves the less advantaged as well as the rich. We need more media voices from the Left to counter the anger and distortions coming regularly from Fox and elsewhere on the right.

Jan. 24 2011 10:54 AM
mattinwahingtonheights from Manhattan

This is a tragedy. He's one of the only ones to stand up to the right. Why do we describe him with words like "bombastic" and "incendiary," but we don't use those words for the likes of Beck, Limbaugh, or any of the other right wingers out there? Olberman based his comments in facts -- this is what people are afraid of.
Also - what a champion for gay marriage, thanks Keith!!!

Jan. 24 2011 10:54 AM

Let's put to rest the idea that MSNBC cares about journalism. Their entire weekend lineup is devoted to true crime documentaries. Rachel Maddow might not be as "incendiary" as Olbermann but she's just as prone to buffoonery as he was with her Rachel Maddow players and gimmicks like wearing waders in order to mock Sarah Palin.

Jan. 24 2011 10:54 AM
Ed from Brooklyn

Beck would be hiding....

Jan. 24 2011 10:53 AM
Ed from Brooklyn

Just love the poll questions. Not biased at all.

Please. As long as Rupert gives an open stage to his collection of hot air machines, there should be at least some sort of another perspective, as clownish as they all may be.

And just imagine a real and vocal "Left" in this country. Wow, yours and Kurtz's heads would explode, amongst others. Buck would hide under his bed.

Jan. 24 2011 10:52 AM
dboy from nyc

Go, Korporate Media®!

Jan. 24 2011 10:47 AM
Evan from Yorkville

I like having voices to oppose Beck, Hannity, et al. but Olbermann was not a martyr for a cause anymore than Dr. Laura. He has created problems wherever he went. When he left ESPN, one co-anchor said, "He didn't just burn bridges, he napalmed them."

Jan. 24 2011 10:47 AM

I didn't find Olbermann incendiary, but definitely buffoonish with his Oddball and Worst Person in the World segments. I'm starving for a left leaning perspective, but why does it have to accompanied by childish and tasteless segments such as these?

Jan. 24 2011 10:46 AM
ernie from UWS

Once again, WNYC, and the media in general, are too preoccupied with the media itself. We really don't care.

Jan. 24 2011 10:44 AM

Keith wasn't just angry - he was clever and FUNNY too. It was entertaining.

I also object to Lawrence O'Donnell jumping over Rachel to get the plum 8:00 spot. That's just sexist.

Jan. 24 2011 10:43 AM
dboy from nyc

Martin Chuzzlewit from Manhattan:

... speaking of blowhards.

Jan. 24 2011 10:43 AM
Nora from Cold Spring, NY

I'm sorry to see him go. Who will dare to break the media black out on the sick Gulf residents after the BP disaster? He covered it July 2010 and promised a follow up with marine toxicologists. Now with the Comcast merger will Maddow or O'Donnell speak out or will they be squelched? I am concerned.

Jan. 24 2011 10:42 AM
Linda from Park Slope

People forget that political shows are above all entertainment. Olberman and Maddow are selling the exact same ad spots as Hannity and Beck. They appealing to a specific audience for the sole purpose of moving product.

Jan. 24 2011 10:42 AM
JD Reynolds

The right-wing money machine continues to silence alternative views to Rush, O'Reily and the rest that get more and more exposure in real news media.

The public doesn't know the difference between a talk show host and commentator and news-tainment that's currently going on the airways.

Time to read again. Try the Economist or any publication not US based.


Jan. 24 2011 10:42 AM
dboy from nyc

I'm down with all of Keith's issues.

... rarely disagreed but, he was definitely the sort of guy you hate to have on your team.

Jan. 24 2011 10:41 AM
rlewis from bowery

I'm all for liberal politics, but Olberman made a cartoon out of it all. He jumped the shark. Matthews and O'Donnell are much better. Next they could get rid of Schultz, and I wouldn't be sad. I just don't think that the best way to be better than the other side is to act like them. The bigger problem is that with all these channels to fill, we've created the entertainmentization of politics, and entertainment counts on drama, so now we have forced political drama and that's just not helpful.

Jan. 24 2011 10:40 AM
miguel from manhattan

As usual, some of the best in-depth analysis is by Paul Rosenberg at Open Left:

Jan. 24 2011 10:39 AM
James from Manhattan

At times, Olbermann was too much and could be grating - I prefer Maddow. But his speech on gay marriage touched me deeply and I'll always be grateful for that.

Jan. 24 2011 10:38 AM

how was olbermann incendiary?
does he speak without the facts?

Jan. 24 2011 10:36 AM
Sarah from China

Opinionated or not this is eerily similar to when Phil Donahue was let go leading up to the war in Iraq.

Jan. 24 2011 10:36 AM
Nick from Area 51

Keith was my anti-Faux-news barometer - I worry that actually having Beck, O'Reilly, Hannity, et al on my TV would affect my sanity - and I used his worst person comments to keep me up to speed on the daily Fox lies.

I suspect that they (the right wing ding bats) are the real winners here. They will see his departure as a victory for their loony ideas. A real shame...

I hope Keith lands on his feet and finds an outlet for more of his unfettered commentary.

Jan. 24 2011 10:35 AM
Chris from New Jersey

I think this is bigger than Olbermann. Ever since I heard about Comcast aquiring NBC/Universal, I've been anticipating the dismantling of the liberal/progressive MSNBC. It is the only voice for the liberal point of view on commercial television, and I have always feared that a change in ownership of NBC might put it in peril. GE left it alone. I don't think new owners Comcast will. Olbermann was the keystone--and he is the first to go. I am sure that over the next few months as Comcast solidifies its hold, the rest of this lone liberal voice on commercial TV will be slowly dismantled as well.

Jan. 24 2011 10:35 AM
Zahara from Hoboken

I love countdown. I watch Keith religiously. I was watching on Friday night when he said those awful words. I thought it was a joke. I look forward to countdown every weekday evening. I am so sad about this I can’t put it in words.

Jan. 24 2011 10:35 AM
geo from astoria

We need someone on the left to fight the rightwing media propoganda machine. The left actually needs to get more aggressive with there partisan rhetoric. They need to stop bringing a knife to a gun fight.

Jan. 24 2011 10:32 AM
Martin Chuzzlewit from Manhattan

A typical self-righteous Left Wing blowhard. Why can divisive polarizers be "OK" as long as they are hypocritical Liberals? Oh, gee, another right wing hit job on a "progressive", correct? LOL.

Jan. 24 2011 10:31 AM
mc from Brooklyn

I am not shedding any tears and not thanking Keith Olbermann. Though I probably fall into his camp politically more often than not, I found his coverage to be ugly and sexist too much of the time. He seems to think it's OK to make sexist jokes as long as he didn't like the person. Also, he, along with many of his MSNBC colleagues did half the right's work for them three years ago. While he and his cronies were busy bashing Hillary Clinton, the right was able to focus full time on Barack Obama. Brilliant. Good riddance, don't let the door hit you on the way out.

Jan. 24 2011 10:30 AM

I started out as a big Olbermann fan, but right now I have very mixed feelings about his legacy. He gave voice to a viewpoint that was routinely drowned out in cable news, but he also dumbed down discourse with his Oddball and Worst Person in the World segments. His childish impersonations of Bill O'Reilly, Lou Dobbs, etc were nauseating and disgraceful. Olbermann simultaneously aspired to be Edward R. Murrow and Jon Stewart. Olbermann and all of MSNBC's other hosts are as much entertainers and performers as they are commentators and that's terrible for broadcast journalism.

Jan. 24 2011 10:22 AM

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