The real reasons Keith Olbermann quit MSNBC

by on January 22, 2011 · 24 comments

in American Empire, Civil Disobedience, Civil Rights, Culture, Media

Keth Olbermann’s last toss of his papers at the camera on “Count Down.”

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.

{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Dee January 22, 2011 at 10:14 am

KO was an awesome journalist. I appreciated reading your article. Olbermann is the reason I began watching cable news. For a long time, I considered myself Republican/conservative, but KO really opened my eyes. He changed me to an Independent Liberal. He made me more actively involved in politics and changing the social status quo. I really owe my sociopolitical development to him. I did not think I would be this sad to see him go, but I am really quite depressed. But, I will cope and I hope that KO will grace the TV air waves once more.

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avatar mary lee johns January 22, 2011 at 10:18 am

I very seldom missed a show. Keith was a person who gave voice to so many of us who are both liberal and progressive. I grew up in the 60’s and had to live to see many of my hero’s assinated because of their beliefs. The one that broke my heart was Robert Kennedy. It was the first time I voted and went to bed knowing that America stood a chance to make the changes in the lives of many of us. When I woke the next day I was devastated. I went from this young person who believed in the opportunity of America to an individual who knew that things would not change. I lived through the Great Society that actually prepared me for the leadership roles I would take over the years. I lived through the Nixon years, the Regan years, Clinton, Bushes and finally in my older years now to Obama.
Of all these many years of my adult life I have very, very seldom ever heard anyone speak in the progressive manner Keith Obermann has. It brought back a small spark that things may be able to change as the result of his voice urging the people of America to become better. Why is it that Russ Limbaugh, Beck and that sort can poison the airwaves and the few sane voices of MSNBC are held to a different standard. I believe the leadership of MSNBC has did a major disservice to those of us who believe in the voice and message of “Count Down With Keith O…”
Why is it that our voice has to be quieted when the rest of the crazies can say and do what they want? We once more have young vibrant leaders once more being shot down for their beliefs. Why do we fear those who would destroy the chances of young people of color shoving them into the compounds of poverty? I heard one of the Tea Party Leaders who stated if they can’t be of use then let them Starve. In the history of this country another person made a similar statement and that was “if their hungry let them eat grass.” Keith voiced his opposition to this type of thinking. He helped my relatives on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation in their hour of need; he helped those who needed health care in poor areas of the country; he was giving voice to families who will die without needed transplants. Shame on you MSNBC for allowing a hero of the people disappear into the night and stop a program who allowed a small flicker of hope to shine in the darkness of this hateful time in the U.S.

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avatar Pat Herron January 27, 2011 at 10:16 pm

I also remember the sixties. I ran all the way home to tell my Mom about Pres. Kennedy but she already knew. I was a sophomore in high school when they killed Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Just starting to get into what was going on back then. Now I look back and see all the others, especially the Black leaders whose names people don’t even know anymore. Oddly it was only Black and Progressive leaders that they killed. So I really appreciate having a voice speaking out for the poor and middle class, for labor and the environment, even for sanity since the world seems to have gone nuts.

Keith’s voice was there when things were darkest. When Pres. Cheney and his side kick were at their worst. I can’t tell you how glad I was to hear a voice challenging all that hate filled so-called “patriotism”. Keith has to come back. We need him. There are
too few voices speaking the truth and too few leaders to unite us and get this country back from the corporate interests and hate mongers that have temporarily taken it over.

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avatar Frank Gormlie January 27, 2011 at 10:41 pm

Bump ^

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avatar Martin January 22, 2011 at 10:50 am

I began watching COUNTDOWN about two yeas ago and became a die hard fan. I consider myself an Independent Democrat able to see to the folly of both the left and the right. He was able to show the hypocrisy that many politicians have and not worry about any backlash. He could pick apart their tainted flaws and expose them for all to see. I especially liked it when he showed how the Tea Party was just a bunch of fools who had found a political platform. I hope they will be like the Whig Party of the last century and disappear soon. His recent segement on the Tragedy in Tucson calling for end of the hateful rhetoric filling the airways was very fitting. It is unfortunate that MSNBC would not allow him to continue his show. America needs someone on the left to tell the other side of the story. I will miss Kieth Olbermann. Vaya Con Dios Keith.

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avatar dan huanh January 22, 2011 at 11:03 am

I am in my 60’s too, I remebered the year 1963 when I wasa college student in Taiwan, I cried quietly when I heard President Kennedy was assainated in Texas where his advisors told him not to go. I was heart broken when Robert K was killed by a Middle east guy.

Over the years, My dream of living in a Democratic country kind of fade away as extreme right turn the country to river of no return. American in decline because of going too extrem right, the supremacy will destroy us eventually, As a citizen I pray that we should steer back to right track, cut defense spending, educate young people with disciplines, .

No Pain , no gain, I also hatte to see the extreme left wasting so much welfare $ feeding many lazy people. Stay in the middle, I hope Gabby recover well and take us to a new horizon.

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avatar libhomo January 22, 2011 at 2:10 pm

KO didn’t quit. He was the target of a Stalinesque purge by Comcast. I wonder who they will go after next.

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avatar Alex January 22, 2011 at 2:32 pm

He was my favor journalist . good lock to you KO.

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avatar donna davis January 22, 2011 at 2:37 pm

I was very sadden to hear that Keith Oblerman would no long be on MSNBC. Why
would you take him off? Keith Oblerman help bring clarity to the daily spin of the day,
Keith will be missed. I Pray, bring Keith back on the air his voice which, is my voice should not be silent. Keep the Faith Keith, when one door close another door always
opens. Your biggest Fan DD

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avatar Richard Akel January 22, 2011 at 6:33 pm

Keith – For the sake of the millions of us out here who loved to hear the naked truth from a bullshit-free master of communication, and for our democracy, please don’t quit politics – you are a Churchillian voice in an increasingly right wing, media circus – a fascist jingoistic circus at times. The suits at NBC are just a bunch of gutless flacks and bean counters, and Brokaw’s so concerned about NBC’s “image” he seems to have forgotten about the First Amendment. Go ahead and set up your own independent Internet newspaper, or show, or whatever. Just do it , pal, and we’ll be there to support you – build it and we/they will come.

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avatar Goatskull January 22, 2011 at 6:50 pm

I’ll miss him. It was always fun watching him and Bill O’Reilly go at it. Maybe he’ll come back on another network.

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avatar Jim Hamill January 24, 2011 at 10:41 am

I will really miss Keith .I watched him all the time.
He really told it the way I see it.
I hope Comcast did not have anything to do with it.
Sure hope he is back on the air soon with a different network.
He was making a lot of money but I think he was worth every penny.
Maybe he will go back to sports as he was also very good at that.
Come back sooooon Keith.

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avatar Tina CdeBaca January 25, 2011 at 1:48 pm

I really miss Keith. I left CNN because of him and now I have left MSNBC. I tune in on Rachael now and then, but I’ll just wait for Keith to pop up somewhere else.

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avatar Allthink January 25, 2011 at 2:42 pm

he should join the Comedy Network team…

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avatar Andy Cohen January 25, 2011 at 3:59 pm

I LOVE Keith. The cable TV box will never be the same without him!

We all owe Keith Olbermann a debt of gratitude, as expressed by both of his protoge’s Lawrence O’Donnel and Rachel Maddow: Without Keith, not only would neither of them be where they are today, but we would be completely lacking for any authoritative voice for the progressive movement; totally bereft of a counterbalance to the media arm of the Republican Party, Faux Noise. There would be no one to fact check and call out the nonsense of the Republicans and Faux Noise.

Thank you Keith for lifting the Dems out of their own ineptitude.

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avatar geniezuc January 26, 2011 at 12:50 pm

I see a movement out there to get him to run for the Senate! You go Kieth! I loved his commentaries.

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avatar JT January 28, 2011 at 11:36 pm

I miss you I watch you everynight
keep the fath
JT

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avatar IL February 7, 2011 at 6:21 am

I missed your show because it was a show I would watched everyday and it was refreshing after a day of dealing with three of my children who have cancer. I would really like to know if you get on with another network.

IL

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avatar Whitneymuse February 13, 2011 at 11:53 am

I’m in my 60s, too; It was time for KO to find another spot for his commentary. Rachel has very well researched and pithy remarks to keep the folks over at Fox walking the narrow line of their ratings. I read that he’s on Al Gore’s network that I don’t get on my channel lineup; imagine that his low-key style will get on someone’s blog so fans will be able to follow his thoughts, soon.

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avatar Lewis Montrose February 15, 2011 at 4:09 pm

Keith Oberman was by far the best of MSNBC. He was the best counterpoint against the lying fanatics of the right who are the most serious destroyers of democracy in our country’s history. Most, if not all, of his criticism of the speakers of right was correct.
They lie, he countered.
Maybe you should evaluate you own egos.

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avatar nick February 20, 2011 at 12:23 pm

I enjoyed his show. Keith was a person who gave voice to so many of us that are not heard. As one blogger said here the 60?s assinated many heros because of their beliefs. I agree another one that broke all of our hearts was Robert Kennedy. I watched Regan punish mental health institutions in name of “big government” and Obama trying to give all of us some form of basic health care.
Seldom did anyone speak in the progressive manner Keith Obermann. It may have even helped us bring back change as the result of his voice urging the people of America to become better.
I agree with the previous blogger “Why is it that Russ Limbaugh, Beck and that sort can poison the airwaves and the few sane voices of MSNBC are held to a different standard. I believe the leadership of MSNBC has did a major disservice to those of us who believe in the voice and message of “Count Down With Keith O…”
Why is it that our voice has to be quieted when the rest of the crazies can say and do what they want? We once more have young vibrant leaders once more being shot down for their beliefs. Why do we fear those who would destroy the chances of young people of color shoving them into the compounds of poverty? I heard one of the Tea Party Leaders who stated if they can’t be of use then let them Starve. In the history of this country another person made a similar statement and that was “if their hungry let them eat grass.” Keith voiced his opposition to this type of thinking. He helped my relatives on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation in their hour of need; he helped those who needed health care in poor areas of the country; he was giving voice to families who will die without needed transplants.”

Dear MSNBC please bring back Keith! and Keith if they do not bring you back! Then please begin your voice again in another venue. God bless.

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avatar Olivia February 23, 2011 at 8:07 pm

Keith was the voice of everyday Americans! Maybe that was the reason the big shots at MSNBC decided he had to go. After all, they are not like us. They are not middle-class, hard-working everyday Americans. Keith spoke out for us!!! Hopefully Keith will be back on the air soon. We need him to speak out for us, unite us, encourage us and give us hope that we still might have a chance to succeed in this land of opportunity. By the way, I also am 60 and lived through both Kennedy assassinations and MLK’s assassination and felt the heartbreak and the loss of the dreams we all had for our country. Now, it feels as though our democracy is slipping away from us and we everyday Americans are helplessly watching it slip away. We need people like Keith to keep people honest and investigated.

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avatar Frank Gormlie February 23, 2011 at 8:58 pm

Olivia, thanks for sharing those thoughts that many of us feel. Actually, Keith works for Al Gore’s Current TV. The democracy is slipping away but it seems that ordinary Americans are beginning to awaken from their long slumber. We need people like you to stand up for the folks in Wisconsin wherever you live.

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