Keith Olbermann keeps proving that not all reclamation attempts have satisfying endings
I’ve heard lots of firearm and blunt-object references to describe Keith Olbermann’s broadcasting style.
For those comparisons to be accurate, the person being described must have the requisite power and strength. That’s not the case here.
If Olbermann is a sledgehammer, he’s a Nerf sledgehammer.
If he’s a battering ram, he’s hollow and made of plastic.
If he’s a revolver, he fires blanks - thunderously loud, yet harmless blanks.
His reputation doesn’t jive with who he really is.
Not the part about turning into an intolerable malcontent at nearly every stop he’s made in his professional life. That’s true.
Not the part about his bosses inevitably tiring of his anti-authority attitude to the point they’re left with no choice but to fire him or force him to quit. That’s true, too.
Not the part about having undeniable broadcasting skill and a work ethic that, when turned all the way up, can translate into a television piece that makes grown men weep and convinces groups of impressionable people to parrot his words when they’re ready to climb atop their own soapboxes. Admittedly, that’s also true.
No, the part of his reputation that doesn’t jive is the notion of him being a fearless leader. That isn’t true of someone who relies too much on squaring up to a camera to read long opinion statements and who only invites comfort guests to his show.
In his own head, Olbermann probably thinks he can wield influence - which he did at MSNBC, in terms of driving ratings and changing the culture there.
Nowadays he wants nothing to do with MSNBC and the person who now wears the star tag, Rachel Maddow, has shown a capacity to exceed even Olbermann’s talent. That, more than anything else, is probably the reason he doesn’t have a relationship with any of his former NBC News colleagues.
A year ago, ESPN decided to give Olbermann another chance. I’ve lost precise count, but I’d say it was probably the fifth or sixth time Olbermann was rescued by a network after losing out on a previous job for being a such a menace - to the point someone once famously used napalm as a metaphor to describe his messy exit.
Olbermann’s returns to television are never unexpected. Following his embarrassing employment termination in March 2012 from Current TV, David Carr of the New York Times wrote, “It seems as if his next stop will be a puppet show shot from a basement somewhere. He’ll never work in this town, or any other, again, right? Wrong … the fact of the matter is that somewhere, sometime, after some kind of cooling-off period, Mr. Olbermann will be coming to a television near you.”
It took 16 months, but it happened. The length of the cooling-off period was the only part that was surprising.
ESPN’s rehire of Olbermann in the summer of 2013 was also the third time a network gave him another chance after he failed to behave himself or perform reliably during his prior stops.
Talent matters. It apparently causes memory loss, too.
Olbermann was up to some old, now tired tricks last week when he called upon NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to resign during a broadcast of Olbermann’s self-entitled show on ESPN2. Olbermann didn’t think Goodell answered his critics effectively enough when he explained his reasoning behind the lighter-than-expected penalty he imposed against Ray Rice, the Baltimore Ravens running back who admitted to knocking his wife unconscious last year during a fight in a casino elevator in New Jersey.
Rice isn’t allowed to play the first two games of the season. People everywhere understandably agreed it was too lenient.
On Friday night, hours after Goodell addressed the media for the first time, Olbermann belted out a diatribe he knew was going to make headlines - and make a few network executives squirm. Maybe he even thought he could put a scare into Goodell or perhaps spark a #fireGoodell movement via Twitter. Or maybe he thinks he has rehabbed his reputation enough so that enough people will like the song no matter the notoriety of the singer.
“This is enough,” Olbermann said, as if he’s the one who gets to set limits on a CEO’s perceived public missteps. “If there had been some recognition today, some form of acknowledgement for the women fans of the NFL, that this two-game suspension is a virtual attack on them perhaps these following words would not be necessary, but for the sake of the NFL - and more importantly for the sake of those women and all others (and) all of us in a country in which this is so much more than a mere sports league - it is necessary, Mr. Goodell, for you to now resign as its commissioner.”
With that earnest expression of his, Olbermann took an extra second or so to stare longer into the camera. Sans the Edward R. Murrow catch phrase, it’s a look millions have seen many times over - one me and countless others have grown tired of seeing, but it’s sure to still elicit a warm feeling among others who can’t see through the overconfidence.
It was another example, to me, of Olbermann’s lack of courage. How gutsy is it to write a script and read it (with a heavy use of inflections) into a camera? More on that later.
On the topic of the Rice suspension and Olbermann’s self-indulgent rant, how does a more severe suspension fix the domestic violence epidemic in this country? Yes, Rice's suspension was too light, but even after conceding that, how can Olbermann let his anger, if genuine, become so misguided? It's actually weird in this case how he aims almost all of his venom at a man who had nothing to do with the criminal act itself. Additionally, not once did he mention Ravens ownership, which also could have issued a punishment. Olbermann’s fury isn’t real to me. It comes off choreographed.
[And for the record, didn't Goodell's predecessor allow a player to continue to play football not only after he was convicted of DUI manslaughter, but also after he was investigated for continued criminal behavior (including a second incident of DUI)? Didn't one player accused of sexually battering a 17-year-old girl in a hot tub only get a ONE-GAME suspension under the Tagliabue regime? Goodell actually has been better and more consistent compared to other league commissioners. That's abundantly clear to most people. He's also been the opposite of arbitrary whenever he's decided to dole out punishment. He aimed too low with the Rice suspension, but Rice's public humiliation should not go overlooked - and neither should the fact that Rice, his wife, the couple's attorneys, the arresting police officer and assistant state attorney are possibly the only ones who have more information about the crime than Goodell. It was a calculated decision to suspend Rice for two games. Less than it should have been? Absolutely, but there was reasoning behind it. It’s definitely not something that should generate such an explosive reaction. It should also be noted that Goodell is the son of a Republican U.S. senator.]
It’s upsetting how Olbermann still has a stage. Furthermore, it’s positively infuriating that so many sports bloggers and viewers/readers feel the need to hold him to such high esteem. Nothing positive comes out of these “special comments.” He's not railing against an unjust war on a primetime opinion news show anymore. He’s just being an obnoxious talking head on a sports channel. We already have too many of those.
While on the topic of Olbermann’s history with news networks …
Not long after Olbermann began a routine of giving special comments at the end of his MSNBC show “Countdown,” he would start off by saying, “As promised, a special comment about …” and proceed to lambaste someone for 10 minutes. It was often about President Bush, or someone prominent in that administration, or Bill O’Reilly, or Sarah Palin or someone who oftentimes warranted criticism (but probably a little less than what Olbermann was spitting at them). Sometimes, however, indifference works best against right-wing celebrity provocateurs, a concept Olbermann clearly doesn’t understand.
Perhaps the best example of Olbermann’s penchant for ultra-sensitivity was during the 2008 Democratic primary season when he loudly criticized then-Sen. Hillary Clinton’s reason for staying in the race at least through July. She mentioned the assassination of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy during the 1968 primary following a victory speech in Los Angeles.
Olbermann’s temper boiled over because he felt it was inappropriate for Clinton to utter the word “assassination” at a time when a black man was on the verge of being elected president.
“Those words, Senator? You actually invoked the nightmare of political assassination? …”
“You, Senator … cannot say this!”
He called it an “insensitive and heartless thing” to say two weeks shy of the 40th anniversary of Kennedy’s slaying.
He said it opened the door to Clinton’s soul and revealed that whatever was inside was “not only troubling, but frightening.”
It gets even worse, much worse. Even for those rooting for an Obama victory and even for those who agreed that it was puzzlingly careless for Clinton to choose the words she used, it had to have been uncomfortable to watch.
(View it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DLNFsl130_Y)
Olbermann’s frequent special comments stirred a lot of feelings and generated a new batch of viewers. The network’s ratings spiked. Olbermann didn’t just speak into a camera, as he explained to Carr when he interviewed him for a magazine article years ago, he looked through the box and into the lens and saw the inner workings of it. It’s as though staring deeply into the camera made the viewer feel as though he was doing more than just pontificating. He was channeling. He was feeding. He felt a certain way and he was going to make sure his 1 million-plus viewers felt the same way.
He was at the height of his narcissism. He was plump and ripe then. It didn’t take long for the rot to set in.
His on-air sarcasm and off-air tension with management meant he couldn’t cover the 2008 election. David Gregory took over and he and Chris Matthews were relegated to the sidelines. He departed the network nearly six months later.
Olbermann told the Hollywood Reporter in June 2011, as he prepared for his new gig at Current, that everything changed for him at MSNBC after Tim Russert died. Olbermann always crowed about Russert. He wanted everyone to know how chummy they were. He lost his closest ally at the network, he said.
There was nothing not to like about the former host of “Meet the Press.” I recall seeing Russert getting angry or combative on the air twice. The first time was during an interview with then-Secretary of State Colin Powell because someone pulled the camera away while Powell was answering questions about Iraq (Russert voiced his displeasure and Powell promptly ordered the camera to be moved back and continued with the interview).
The other time was while he interviewed former Klansman David Duke, a man who once ran for governor of Louisiana as a Republican.
Of course, when it came time for Olbermann to eulogize Russert on air, he showed the Duke interview. I’m sure he showed the Powell interview, too.
No one remembers or wishes to remember Russert as someone who flashed anger or aggression to get his questions answered or his point across. He was brilliant at doing the opposite. He was strong and confident, but genteel. He used kindness to cut through zealotry. Olbermann chose to show Russert being out of character.
It’s almost like Olbermann exploited his deceased friend to prove something to his audience - that Republicans are evil racists and that it’s essential to belittle and ridicule them.
Olbermann kissed up to Tom Brokaw when they first shared the camera. Once Olbermann caught wind of Brokaw disapproval of Olbermann’s frankness (and open liberal bias), that love affair ended. Reports were that Brokaw, who was retired as anchor of “NBC Nightly News,” but still providing analysis for NBC News, had his airtime reduced on the cable network at the behest of a petulant Olbermann.
I don’t know whether it’s true, but I hope it isn’t. It’s appalling to think network executives kowtowed to Olbermann while stiff-arming Brokaw.
Let’s assume it was true. Olbermann didn’t repay that loyalty. His hatred of authority figures ultimately led to his acrimonious exit from MSNBC. The Hollywood Reporter published a quote from a network executive who said, “He’s the kind of person that the higher the rank of the person who asks him to stop doing something, the less likely he is to comply. He has a pretty serious authority issue.”
Olbermann said in the same article that he makes management uncomfortable because nobody else questions it, only him.
“I stand up to people,” he said.
Current expectations weren’t met - by anyone
Olbermann only worked one year of his five year, $50 million contract at Current. Months before his firing, he was conveying grievances to his executives, including Al Gore, and did so through his attorneys. How does a man claim to stand up to bullies when he doesn’t have the courage to pick up the phone and call - or better yet, barge into a manager’s office and express what he’s feeling?
They had a $50 million investment in him. He had leverage. He could say “fuck you” to any one of his bosses and probably get away with it. Instead, he hid behind his lawyers.
He shirked his responsibilities, too, according to media reports.
The New York Times reported Olbermann refused to do a primary special in January 2012 after his bosses assigned it. He missed several days of work that month and the next month - the heart of the primary season.
He took a vacation day - on the day before Super Tuesday, according to the same Times article.
During his stint at Current, Olbermann was a guest on “Real Time with Bill Maher.” The host of that show, who like Olbermann is a Cornell University alum, is someone who Olbermann admires passionately. Maher was obviously won over by Olbermann, too - probably because they have so much in common politically.
Maher talked about how his current job at HBO was so much better than the old job he had hosting “Politically Incorrect” on ABC. The major network fired him for statements he made six days after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and while he still maintains some bitterness, he acknowledged on that show, to Olbermann, he was much happier in “the lily fields of HBO.” He asked Olbermann whether he felt the same about his shift from MSNBC to Current.
Olbermann didn’t do well with that question.
“Well, yeah, there’s a balance to it, which is unfortunately (sic) ‘cause now I’m in, I’m in charge of the operation so my life is a living hell. I mean, just by … by being in charge of it.”
“Really?” Maher asked.
“Yeah, you have to do ..
“You have to know the names of the people of the staff now…”
“Oh no,” Maher said sarcastically.
“I mean come on,” answered Olbermann, who then realized how badly he was coming off. He tried to save himself.
“That was a joke,” he told the audience. No one on the panel looked convinced.
It was a bad look. Olbermann was being paid $50 million to launch a network and yet he didn’t even care to know the names of the people in charge of making his show run. One can easily picture the young, ambitious people who were eager for an opportunity to hammer out scripts, do research, line up guests or even fetch coffee for their ideological hero, Olbermann. People that young and ambitious can take a lot of abuse - as long as they believe in what they are doing and who they are working for.
Imagine their disappointment when they got to know the real Olbermann.
He wasn’t interested in being a mentor. He wasn’t willing to be patient. He wasn’t willing to give second chances.
If there was a mistake made on the set, he wouldn’t want to take the time to train his staff to get it right or take whatever steps were needed to improve the team performance. If he could eliminate the possibility of a mistake on-air by eliminating tasks, he would go that route.
It reached the point where Olbermann insisted on a solid black backdrop. He wasn’t putting up with hiccups - even if only 50,000 viewers (5 percent of his audience at MSNBC) were watching him.
He maybe could’ve grown that audience, if he had the commitment and the willingness to wade through some choppy waters. He didn’t have either and that’s why he was fired.
And also, according to The Hollywood Reporter article cited above, Olbermann had fellow star liberals appear on his show - Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas and documentary filmmakers Ken Burns and Michael Moore to name a few. Moulitsas took what he called a “token amount” for his appearances. Burns took nothing. Moore appeared in exchange for a donation to a charity of his choice.
Olbermann probably didn’t get all of the $50 million promised to him because he he was fired for breach of contract, but he and Current agreed to a settlement.
The liberal who railed against greedy corporate heads couldn’t have been any less generous with his own wealth.
More talk-show embarrassment
The “Real Time” episode that featured Olbermann exposed more warts.
One of the topics the panel discussed was whether presidential candidates would behave differently if there was no audience.
Another guest on the panel was stand-up comedian Louis CK, who said, “The crowd brings out something in a person.”
Maher then said a crowd can cause someone onstage to suppress his or her ideas. He sees conservative guests turn into liberals when the cameras start rolling.
“The crowd can be very intimidating,” he said.
He then said he admires people who aren’t afraid to stand on a stage and say something that generates boos.
Olbermann wasn’t swayed.
“The Nixon-Kennedy thing worked pretty well without a crowd,” he said.
It was a predictable statement from a person who never likes to be challenged on the air.
The debate culture at ESPN is offensive to a lot of viewers and Jon Stewart single-handedly brought down “Crossfire” on CNN many years ago - so there is evidence that people don’t like seeing people arguing on television. Neither do I. I often avoid it in my life, but there are times when you feel the urge to challenge someone to a debate. Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. The losses are important because they make you more prepared the next time.
There is some benefit to arguing.
Olbermann avoids debating like it’s shingles.
Guests who are invited on the show are only there to discuss their opinion that has to be in agreement with Olbermann’s. He asks long, leading questions and the guest gives long-winded answers.
After the rosy question-and-answer session, Olbermann brown-noses that guest for a few seconds and they exchange pleasant thank yous and goodbyes.
That was the way it was on MSNBC, Current and now ESPN (although Olbermann’s current show also includes highlights drenched with catch phrases and yes, it comes off quaint).
Olbermann didn’t like former MLB manager Bobby Valentine. He criticized him unmercifully following Valentine’s one-year managerial stop in Boston and his public comments about how the New York Mets, while he managed them, were better at rallying New York City following 9/11 than the New York Yankees.
Valentine was rumored to join TBS’ team of broadcasters - until Olbermann was picked to host the post-game show. Valentine never made it to the air. Olbermann wasn’t going to be joined by someone he had publicly mocked. It would’ve been too awkward for him.
Passive-aggressiveness is not a crime. Not at all.
It is outrageous, however, to portray yourself as someone who stands up to bullies and challenges authority and yet do all you can to avoid confrontations on air.
That makes you look weak and hypocritical.
Olbermann obviously lacks confidence in his ability to think on his feet. He needs a script and ample rehearsal.
Days following his Current firing, Olbermann man an appearance on the “Late Show with David Letterman.” He was there to give his version of the story. He knew in his head what he wanted to say.
“I screwed up. I screwed up really big on this,” he told an attentive Letterman.
“I thought we could do this. It’s my fault that it didn’t succeed in the sense that I didn’t think the whole thing through.”
When he uttered the words “It’s my fault,” I thought, maybe this is it. He finally has perspective - but no. He was saying it was his fault that he didn’t foresee the incompetence level at Current so he never should’ve taken the job in the first place.
“I didn’t say, ‘You know, if you buy a $10 million chandelier, you should have a house to put it in.’ Just walking around with a $10 million chandelier isn’t going to do anybody a lot of good and it’s not gonna do any good to the chandelier.”
Then he rambled and stumbled a bit more saying there wasn’t much else to put in the house other than the chandelier and there wasn’t even a building permit for the house.
A chandelier metaphor?
As it turns out, Olbermann picked the perfect metaphor for himself. He’s too expensive and too delicate.