Adam Ash

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Monday, February 26, 2007

How come Keith Olbermann got so mad?

The Most Honest Man in News
Keith Olbermann is mad as hell -- and unlike Rush Limbaugh, he's not faking it
By MARK BINELLI / Rolling Stone

An unfamiliar viewer tuning in to Keith Olbermann's prime-time news program on MSNBC, Countdown , might, at first glance, assume he was watching a highly traditional broadcaster. Olbermann has a long, sober face and trim hair that's going gray. With his glasses, he looks like a Fifties newsman -- Clark Kent behind an anchor's desk -- while his stentorian delivery can sound almost self-consciously retro, the sort of voice (of God or your high school principal) mocked nightly by Stephen Colbert.

But there's a sharp contrast between the way Olbermann looks and sounds and what he's actually saying. After President Bush recently called for a troop escalation in Iraq, for example, Olbermann described the strategy as "absurd" and "childish," then added, "Mr. Bush, the question is no longer 'What are you thinking?' but rather 'Are you thinking at all?' " He has described Fox News anchor Chris Wallace as "a monkey posing as a newscaster" and begged Rush Limbaugh to "Please, go back on the drugs." His nightly "Worst Person in the World" feature has honored, among others, Dennis Miller, John McCain and former first lady Barbara Bush. Then there is Olbermann's favorite target, Bill O'Reilly, known on Countdown as Bill-O, "the Sisyphus of morons" and "the Big Giant Head." The persistent needling has so irked O'Reilly (who refuses to mention Olbermann by name on his own show) that the Fox host regularly rants about the "liberal bias" at NBC and started a Web campaign to have Olbermann replaced with Phil Donahue.

"I'm not declaring victory in that war," Olbermann tells me, "but I think the point that Jonathan Alter of Newsweek made on the air the other day was pretty solid -- that if my goal was to make O'Reilly go nuts, I have succeeded."

All of this has turned Olbermann, previously best known as the wisecracking host of an ESPN sports-highlights show, into an unlikely hero of the left. While O'Reilly's puffed-up sense of outrage quite often plays like a performance -- you could easily imagine him leaving his persona at the office and spending his evenings as a happy rich guy -- Olbermann comes off as someone speaking out of genuine anger. His ability to tap into a very dark place has inspired a number of comparisons to the 1976 film Network , in which a television news anchor goes insane on the air and, to the shock of management, becomes extremely popular, largely because he is seen as telling the truth. Olbermann has hosted Countdown since 2003; he spent the six years before that bouncing around various networks, in danger of becoming a second-tier cable-news fixture like Tucker Carlson. His mad-as-hell Network moment came last August, when he was stuck in a plane on a runway and happened to read that Donald Rumsfeld had compared war critics to Nazi appeasers. That night he ended Countdown with a furious six-and-a-half-minute attack that began, "The man who sees absolutes where all other men see nuances and shades of meaning is either a prophet or a quack. Donald H. Rumsfeld is not a prophet."

Audience response was positive, so Olbermann began hitting the Bush administration even harder. Scathing commentaries, directly inspired by broadcast legend Edward R. Murrow, became a regular feature on Countdown . As in Network , momentarily losing it seems to have paid off. Since August, the show's nightly audience has increased by sixty-three percent, with Olbermann proving especially popular in the key demographic of twenty-five-to-fifty-four-year-olds. The long-struggling MSNBC, meanwhile, became the only one of the four cable-news networks to post an increase in viewership last year. (Fox News, by comparison, saw its prime-time viewership decline by twenty percent, though it remains far and away the ratings leader in cable news.)

"That scene from Network where Howard Beale is walking down the street in his pajamas, mumbling to himself -- that's not me," Olbermann insists. "I'm not in a state of perpetual outrage. But I don't think I've ever taken a position on the air that I didn't feel strongly about. What I do is not some kind of performance designed to create an image for myself, or to create false anger in people. The difference between me and O'Reilly is, I will shout 'Fire!' in a crowded theater if there's a fire. I think Bill would shout 'Fire!' in a crowded theater to hear the sound of his own voice."

On a recent weekday, Olbermann meets me for lunch at the Parker Meridien Hotel in midtown Manhattan. He's tall (nearly six-four) and already dressed for the evening's broadcast (in a blue pinstriped suit). "I'm going to sit with my back to the wall, like we're in The Godfather ," he says. He's only half-kidding, having just received his second death-threat letter since September. (The first contained a white powder that turned out to be soap.) In a more absurd vein, Geraldo Rivera recently challenged Olbermann to a fight, calling him a "midget." (In 2003, Olbermann reported on how Rivera gave away U.S. troop positions while covering the war in Iraq.) Olbermann responded by pointing out that he is seven inches taller than Rivera. "Geraldo, you should not give me a hard time," he added. "I can still remember when you were a big deal . . . when I was a kid ."

I bring up the general impression people have of Olbermann -- that he will say anything, that he does not give a fuck. "Yeah, but I've always gotten that," he says. "Twenty years ago, when I was doing four minutes of sports on local television in Los Angeles, someone wrote an article in which the premise was how at least fifty percent of what I did was a satire of television. Like, 'Look how ridiculous this is, me sitting here. And you sitting on the other end, watching me -- what are you doing that for?' I think that's always been my attitude."

After joking about how the menu contains a number of desserts disguised as entrees, Olbermann orders a Belgian waffle with cream and berries. "The first time I came in here," he says, "I was looking for granola." When I laugh, he says, "I'm not kidding." When the waffle arrives, he cuts it in half, then cuts the halves into a number of roughly equal-size smaller pieces, which he then individually daubs with cream. He speaks with a similar fastidiousness, never dropping his precise broadcasting-school enunciation.

Now forty-eight, Olbermann grew up in Westchester, a wealthy suburb of New York. His father was an architect who designed malls and stores. "There was a time when all but four or five of the Baskin-Robbins stores in the United States were his," Olbermann notes. As a kid, Olbermann was an obsessive baseball fan who listened to games in his bedroom on the radio after his parents ordered the TV off and the lights out. "That was a mistake," he says, "because it would just heighten your sense of being there, as someone described these faraway places like Kansas City. Fifty percent of baseball fans over the age of forty became fans exactly that way." By age eight, he had decided on a career: announcer for the Yankees.

He entered Cornell at sixteen, majoring in communications and working at the college radio station. "I was always counter-counterculture," Olbermann says. "I was the last kid with short hair. I went to a private high school, and a month after I got there, they eliminated jackets and ties. I was the kid that said, 'I kind of liked the jacket.' So I kept wearing it for the next four years. I've since controlled it, being so contrarian. But for a while it was really strong: 'I'm not listening to rock & roll, because everyone else is.' I listened to comedy, news. The Beatles were always sacrosanct, but after that, it was always like, 'Well, that's a bad impression of the Beatles' or 'That's the name of the band? Oh, I don't think so.' " (He's since come around to rock: He and his girlfriend of nine months, Katy Tur, a 2005 graduate of the University of California at Santa Barbara, recently caught Patti Smith's sixtieth-birthday show in New York.)

One of Olbermann's first jobs out of college was as a sportscaster at a startup radio network attempting to appeal to listeners under twenty-five. Management encouraged Olbermann to indulge in wacky on-air bits, like having a competition to see which athlete said "you know" most frequently during interviews. "Micheal Ray Richardson, the basketball player, won that one," Olbermann recalls. "But there was a controversy, because it turned out he was a stutterer, and instead of stuttering he'd taught himself to say 'you know'; so he got eighteen of them out in, like, seventeen seconds."

CNN eventually took notice and hired Olbermann. In 1992, he moved to ESPN's SportsCenter , which became a cultural phenomenon: Sports fans ate up Olbermann and co-host Dan Patrick's funny, quick-witted reinvention of the musty end-of-the-day highlight reel. Five years later, Olbermann left ESPN under a cloud of stories about how he'd become a nightmare to work with. Much of the acrimony was documented by sportswriter Mike Freeman in ESPN: The Uncensored History ; one of Olbermann's co-hosts, Suzy Kolber, recalled locking herself in the bathroom and weeping because of the way Olbermann treated her. Upon the release of Freeman's book, Olbermann wrote a long apology to his former co-workers, chalking up his tantrums to a deep-seated insecurity. "I have lived much of my life assuming much of the responsibility around me and developing a dread of being blamed for things going wrong," he wrote. "Deep down inside I've always believed that everybody around me was qualified and competent, and I wasn't, and that some day I'd be found out."

"Keith had this knack for pissing people off," admits Patrick, who has known Olbermann for twenty-three years and who still co-hosts an afternoon sports-radio program with him. "He pissed me off a lot. But at the end of the day, he'd make great TV. He could be upset about the littlest thing, or fighting management about something, but I think he worked better if he had a pebble in his shoe. I don't know if he sought out controversy or things that might bother him for that reason. But if he was agitated or uncomfortable, I always knew he'd be great.

"It makes me wonder," Patrick continues with a chuckle, "what he'll do if there's a Democrat in the White House."

After lunch, Olbermann takes the A train downtown to a radio station above Madison Square Garden, where he broadcasts his portion of Patrick's show. "When I started doing the radio show, I started taking the train again," he says, swiping his MetroCard through the turnstile. "It makes me feel like a human being. Someone from the New York Daily News called the office and said, 'Is it true you took Olbermann's car service away? Someone saw him riding the subway!' "

We make it to the station ten minutes before airtime. Olbermann, who has done no preparation for the show, slips off his jacket, revealing a pair of blue suspenders, and sits in front of the microphone. A hardcover edition of Clay Aiken's memoir, Learning to Sing , is propped on a ledge across the room. There's also a pile of LPs on the floor (on top: Bruce Willis' The Return of Bruno ) and a box labeled "box of crap we'll never use," with a large stuffed-animal monkey sticking out.

The station manager pokes his head in the door. "Geraldo's on line two," he jokes.

"Answering phones now, is he?" Olbermann asks.

Patrick, who is broadcasting from Arizona, comes on the line. He greets Olbermann by his on-air nickname, "KO" -- pun, presumably, intended -- and says, "I saw Geraldo talking about you the other night."

"Where'd you see him -- playing banjo on the street?" Olbermann says. "They canceled his show."

Patrick chuckles and says, "I saw him on O'Reilly . I thought he was saying he'd found his niche."

"No," Olbermann says, "it was 'itch.' Turns out it was in his mustache."

Olbermann clearly relishes his feuds and doesn't seem to worry much about sparking new ones. When I ask him why he thinks Katie Couric's stint as CBS anchor isn't working, he shoots back, "It's simple. She's not good at it." (Asked if he'd take the gig himself, he says, "Of course. But I don't think they'd ask me." A few weeks later, MSNBC extended his contract for another four years and announced that he will contribute reports to NBC Nightly News .)

Last June, the Daily News printed e-mail exchanges between Olbermann and hostile viewers. The host advised one correspondent to "go fuck your mother" and another to "kill yourself." He also told a fan that fellow MSNBC host Rita Cosby was "nice but dumber than a suitcase of rocks." Though the e-mails were meant to embarrass Olbermann, they only served to underline what people already know and like about him. It's hard to imagine Tom Brokaw even bothering to respond to an e-mail critic, let alone writing "you couldn't be stupider, wronger or dumber," but Olbermann's status as a loose cannon is a large part of his appeal, and the sizable ego he brings to the table makes him the perfect foil for the likes of O'Reilly.

"Keith's importance, to me, is as a truth teller," says Huffington Post founder and frequent Countdown guest Arianna Huffington. "I think the way he's been represented -- as leaning to the left or catering to the anti-Bush crowd -- minimizes what he has done, which is to ignore the traditional journalistic view of the anchor as referee and stop pretending there are two sides to every issue. That's not how it is. Sometimes the truth is on one side."

Now, when Olbermann takes the subway to work, strangers approach and thank him for doing a good job. President Clinton recently sent him a handwritten note of congratulations. "There was a blowback at first," Olbermann says, "but at a certain point the genius -- the unintentional genius -- of the American broadcasting system kicks in, which is, if you make them money, they don't care what you say."


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