MSNBC’s liberal crusader abruptly resigned on air Friday, ending a provocative eight-year run.
By Howard Kurtz / The Daily Beast / January 22, 2011
Keith Olbermann, the liberal crusader whose combative style put him increasingly at odds with his network bosses, resigned abruptly from MSNBC Friday.
The cable channel confirmed his unexpected departure as Olbermann was rather calmly announcing the demise of Countdown after an eight-year run that included a bitter feud with Bill O’Reilly, fiery denunciations of Republicans and occasional acknowledgements that he had gone too far.
Olbermann said he had been “told that this is the last edition of your show” and thanked his audience, saying: “My gratitude to you is boundless.” He also thanked a list of people who have worked with him, notably excluding MSNBC President Phil Griffin, whom he has known for three decades.
A knowledgeable official said the move had nothing to do with Comcast taking control of NBC next week, although the cable giant was informed when it received final federal approval for the purchase that Olbermann would be leaving the cable channel. This official described the dramatic divorce—Olbermann was about halfway through a four-year, $30 million contract—as mutual.
Olbermann, who quit MSNBC once before—in 1998, ripping his bosses in the process—almost single-handedly revived the network by leading it on a leftward march and aggressively attacking the rival operation he called Fox Noise. But his relations with top NBC and MSNBC executives sharply deteriorated when he was suspended for making donations to Democratic candidates, and they began to talk about how the channel was now on solid enough footing to survive without him.
At one point, Griffin told Olbermann’s chief negotiator, “We are at war.”
Officially, the network offered little guidance, saying in a bland statement: “MSNBC thanks Keith for his integral role in MSNBC’s success and we wish him well in his future endeavors.” A new host, former Democratic Senate staffer Lawrence O’Donnell, will move his program from 10 p.m. eastern to Olbermann’s 8 p.m. slot, with Ed Schultz moving from 6 p.m. to O’Donnell’s time period.
From Jon Stewart’s rally for sanity to the recent calls for civility after the shootings in Tucson, Olbermann has been on the defensive about his intense and sometimes incendiary style. He temporarily ended his “Worst Person in the World” segment and said that commentators, including him, should refrain from inflammatory language—even as he denounced his chief antagonists:
“If Sarah Palin, whose website put and today scrubbed bullseye targets on 20 representatives including Gabby Giffords, does not repudiate her own part in amplifying violence and violent imagery in politics, she must be dismissed from politics—she must be repudiated by the members of her own party, and if they fail to do so, each one of them must be judged to have silently defended this tactic that today proved so awfully foretelling, and they must in turn be dismissed by the responsible members of their own party…
“If Glenn Beck, who obsesses nearly as strangely as Mr. Loughner did about gold and debt and who wistfully joked about killing Michael Moore, and Bill O’Reilly, who blithely repeated ‘Tiller the Killer’ until the phrase was burned into the minds of his viewers, do not begin their next broadcasts with solemn apologies for ever turning to the death-fantasies and the dreams of bloodlust, for ever having provided just the oxygen to those deep in madness to whom violence is an acceptable solution, then those commentators and the others must be repudiated by their viewers, and by all politicians, and by sponsors, and by the networks that employ them.”
Olbermann has also gotten involved in several flame wars with little-known critics on Twitter, blocking them from his account.
Olbermann almost single-handedly revived the network by leading it on a leftward march.
But Olbermann’s departure is certain to disappoint legions of fans who viewed him as standing up to the conservative establishment. He long resisted the liberal label, saying he was radicalized by the abuses of the Bush administration and the Iraq War. “I find myself currently aligned, not in the sense of having membership, but being in the same part of the ballpark as a lot of liberals,” he told me in 2006.
Whatever his excesses, he led third-place MSNBC out of the cable wilderness to the point where it overtook CNN in prime time, boosted not only by his numbers but by those of his protégé, Rachel Maddow.
Without question, he was a polarizing presence, and several NBC veterans, including Tom Brokaw, complained to network management that he was damaging MSNBC’s reputation for independence.
At a meeting with Olbermann’s representatives last September, NBC Chief Executive Jeff Zucker and NBC News President Steve Capus said that some of their client’s behavior was unacceptable and had to stop. Griffin said that Olbermann’s personal problems were affecting his work and he looked angrier on the air, eclipsing the smart and ironic anchor they had once loved.
In November, when Griffin suspended Olbermann indefinitely over the political donations, the two sides engaged in blistering negotiations over how long it would last. Olbermann’s manager, Price, warned Griffin that if the matter wasn’t resolved quickly, Olbermann would take his complaints public by accepting invitations from Good Morning America, David Letterman, and Larry King.
“If you go on GMA, I will fire Keith,” Griffin shot back.
The suspension wound up lasting just two days, and Olbermann said he was sorry for the “unnecessary drama” and “for having mistakenly violated an inconsistently applied rule” in making the $7,200 in contributions. But after years of internal warfare, Olbermann had no major allies left at 30 Rock.
There were similar backstage struggles in 2008 and 2009 when top executives tried to get Olbermann and O’Reilly to tone down their personal attacks. O’Reilly, who never mentions Olbermann by name, was assailing NBC’s parent company, General Electric, while Olbermann once imagined the fate of “a poor kid” born to a transgendered man who became pregnant, adding: “Kind of like life at home for Bill’s kids.”
The high-level talks came to include Jeffrey Immelt, chief executive of GE; Zucker; Rupert Murdoch, owner of Fox’s parent company, and Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes. But every attempt at hammering out a truce broke down.
Olbermann could be his own worst enemy. After Scott Brown won the Senate race in Massachusetts last January, Olbermann called him “an irresponsible, homophobic, racist, reactionary, ex-nude model, tea-bagging supporter of violence against women and against politicians with whom he disagrees.” After Stewart criticized that rant, Olbermann said: “I have been a little over the top lately. Point taken. Sorry.”
Even during our 2006 conversation, the former sportscaster was envisioning an exit strategy: “If it gets too hot and I have to get out of the kitchen, I’ll go do sports.”
Numerous staffers at MSBNC believed it was only a matter of time before the prime-time host, who once quit ESPN, would either bolt or be pushed out. If Olbermann concluded that he would no longer have the independence he craved in the more buttoned-down Comcast era, it is unlikely that anyone in the NBC executive suites tried to talk him out of it.
Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast’s Washington bureau chief. He also hosts CNN’s weekly media program Reliable Sources on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.