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Olbermann: The view from the grassy knoll

Put on your hiking boots, because we're headed for a long, twisting walk up the grassy knoll. Conspiracy Olbermannweird theorists are going to flock leftwing firebrand Keith Olbermann's abrupt departure from MSNBC like paparazzi to a naked Kardashian.

Olbermann, his voice not quite wavering but also not quite steady, announced at the end of his show Friday night that he was leaving the MSNBC host chair he's occupied for eight years. He offered no explanation for his departure -- merely thanked a few colleagues (notably excluding MSNBC President Phil Griffith), then attempted to cloak himself in the mantle of mythic CBS broadcaster Ed Murrow by using Murrow's trademark signoff, "Good night and good luck."

But his confession that he was tempted to leave the air like the madman anchor in the film Network, screaming I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore! -- "I think the same fantasy has popped into the head of everybody in my business who has ever been told what I have been told, that this is going to be the last edition of your show," Olbermann said -- strongly suggested he didn't leave under his own steam.

Any hint that a network fired or pused out its signature host (Olbermann's show had the best ratings, by far, of anything on MSNBC) is bound to raise searching questions. And the odd timing of the announcement will only multiply them.

Conspiracy theorists are going to note that Olbermann's ouster (if that's what it was) came during a perfect window of corporate opportunity: right after the long-delayed acquisition of MSNBC's parent NBC Universal by cable giant Comcast was approved by the FCC last week, and just before the deal formally closes this week.

The timing means that the Democrat-dominated FCC had no chance to ask any questions about whether Comcast is influencing news policy at the network. It also means that Comcast can forestall any future questions on Olbermann's departure by saying, dunno anything about it, didn't happen on our watch.

Comcast has already sensed the impending firestorm. Olbermann was barely off the air Friday night when the company issued an emphatic denial that it was involved. "Comcast has not closed the transaction for NBC Universal and has no operational control at any of its properties including MSNBC," a corporate spokesman said. "We pledged from the day the deal was announced that we would not interfere with NBC Universal’s news operations. We have not and we will not."

You'll see new versions of that denial again and again over the coming weeks as critics bring up the case of Barry Nolan, a Comcast talk-show host fired in 2008 after he got in a public tussle with conservative Fox News host Bill O'Reilly. Nolan, whose show aired on a Comcast regional channel in New England, sued the company, accusing it of sacking him because he protested a decision by the local Emmy chapter to give O'Reilly an award.

Though Nolan lost the suit (the judge ruled that the terms of his contract allowed the company to fire him for any reason at all), Comcast didn't deny that the O'Reilly protest was part of the motivation. It filed documents in the case saying that Nolan's squabble with O'Reilly "jeopardized and harmed the business and economic interests” of the company because Comcast and Fox News were "actively engaged in contract renewal negotiations at the time."

Add that incident to the peculiar manner and timing of Olbermann's dismissal and it's easy to see why a lot of people are going to be skeptical of Comcast's claim that it wasn't involved. But I'm not one of them.

For one thing, getting rid of Olbermann hardly means the death of liberalism at MSNBC. All its nighttime hosts -- Rachel Maddow, Lawrence O'Donnell, Ed Schultz -- are considerably to the left of center.

And for another, Comcast is a liberal-Democrat-friendly company. Built on a foundation of monopolies granted by local governments, Comcast has long been adept at pacifying activist groups (the vast majority of them politically liberal) with cash and public-access channels to grind their axes. That's why, even with the Democrats in control of the White House and both houses of congress the past two years, there's been so little public static about the Comcast-NBC megamerger, which surely would have been labeled a corporate power grab if any other cable conglomerate had been involved.

The fact is that Olbermann, whatever you think of his politics, is a human-relations time bomb who had already lasted at MSNBC several ticks longer than anybody expected. He has fought murderously with bosses and co-workers at every job he's ever held, even back in his non-ideological sports days. Cracked an ESPN executive when Olbermann left in 1997: ‘‘He didn't burn bridges here. He napalmed them." At MSNBC, colleagues were not even permitted to speak to Olbermann, merely to leave notes outside his office door.

MSNBC put up with Olbermann's prickly personality for years because he single-handedly raised the network from Nielsen brain death. When Olbermann arrived in 2003, neither a political agenda nor an audience was discernible at the network. He led it on a bombastic leftward march that has made it the No. 2 cable news network, albeit still far behind No. 1 Fox News.

But MSNBC's success, and the popularity of new stars like Maddow and O'Donnell, made it less inclined to put up with Olbermann's imperious tantrums. Olbermann was nearly fired in November after it was discovered that he was making campaign contributions to some of the Democrats who appeared on his show, a violation of NBC News policy. The webzine The Daily Beast, in a gruesome account of the shouted threats, leaked documents and Olbermann suspension that followed, noted: "Management doesn’t want to turn him into a martyr, but no one will be shocked if he winds up leaving." On Friday, he left. You can bet that martyrdom is next.



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a reader

Wanna make a bet Mr. O'Rielly takes credit for the "CHAOS at MSNBC" in his talking points memo.

Also, Comcast will be exonerated when Keith admits that he actually quit in shame after finding out that Glen Garvin really wasn't the Worst Person in the World afterall.

Pepe le Moko

Good bloody riddance.

your name here

Any money that MSNBC has made is thanks to him, they should be kissing the ground he walks on, just on the economic merits of it all. Aside from that, the plain truth is that he simply said the truth, while O'Reilly and company constantly have to lie and insult to make their points.

Alex Garcia

Keith is too smart to be out of the game for long. Maybe Oprah has a spot for him on her new network.


Olberman, like all Liberals today, is a Communist. Goodbye and good riddance.


good riddance


Your column was more persuasive when explaining the alleged conspiracy, than when you sought to refute it. Funny.


I guess for all you ultra right-wingers, your version of the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution only applies to right wingers. or perhaps your version of the U.S. Constitution starts with the second amendment and skips the first.


The First Amendment says "Congress shall make no law... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press...." So, did Congress buy MSNBC? Because last I checked, it was MSNBC/NBC who fired Olbermann, not Congress.

Voice of Sanity

Thank God for Keith and everyone else who stands up against the rightwing insanity taking over our country.

Sinclair Lewis said, when Fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.

Are we there yet?

Richard Allbritton

Keith Olbermann will be missed. I occasionally watched his show. Drawn by reasoned commentary supported by thoughtful nuance, I’m generally more into print than cable. However, it is my perception that Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, Ed Shultz, and Lawrence O’Donnell are excellent counterpoint to the likes of Sarah Palin, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, and Rush Limbaugh.

I am not suggesting an equivalency: Palin, Hannity, Beck, and Limbaugh are essentially propagandists; Olbermann, Maddow, Shultz, and O’Donnell are not! I experience Maddow as particularly careful and compelling in her arguments.

Unfortunately, too many Americans are not "critical thinkers' and are fertile ground for the sowing of the Right's propaganda. How else can one explain the existence of Sarah Palin, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, etc? How else can one explain vast numbers of Americans voting for Republicans whose policies and governance are hostile to actual small businesses (not a Boeing or Bechtel subsidiary, or a mega law firm), job growth (in America), and sound governance?

Good luck Keith Olbermann. Although at times you were given to hype, I believe your commentary and analysis was heartfelt and useful. America needs your voice!

~ richard allbritton, Miami, http://rallbritton.blogspot.com


It appears Mr. Olberman has been outFOXED. Please check out the metal detectors on the front door of MSNBC so they are working when he comes to clean out his desk.


one boorish blowhard down, two more (Beck and O'Reilly) to go.


Could it be because no one watches the show? The guy has the worst ratings ever. He might as well be broadcasting in a black hole. I also love the comments about the "success" of other MSNBC shows, which translated means that four people are watching instead of three! Get real people, even the socialist bunch at MSNBC know its a business.


Shouldn't Glenn Garvin disclose his spat with Keith Olbermann?


Richard Nibbler

This is why Fox is head and shoulders above the rest. Fox has loyalty. MSNBC has no loyalty whatsoever. All the analysts should have walked out. MSNBC was basically put on the map by KEITH. And they threw the man away like garbage.

If not for Keith, Maddow would still be an unknown lesbian.

Richard Nibbler

Analysts should unionize. Some things are just too much for all analysts. My concern NOW is what the format will be for MSNBC now. I guess Keith was too edgy for them. But Fox is off the hook with edginess.

They don't care who they offend. And there is something to be said about that.

minority majority

Let's keep it simple: Olbermann had a good run and decided to pull the plug - for whatever reason. He still has a pulse and can settle all this intrigue. I'll miss him because when he's at the top of his game, he makes all the talent(?) at fox look like the junior varsity..


I don't like Olbermann. But if he had the most popular program on MSNBC, he must have been on a mission to get there, even though he "rubbed a lot of people the wrong way." Maybe he wants to be in the same category as JFK, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. That will never happen.

Chris Taus

Keith Olbermann is brilliant and brave. He stood up to all the lies from the right wing. He was a celebration every night that we saw and heard this amazing man. He will be so missed until he appears again. Maybe with the press for the current President Obama?


Who cares? I used to watch MSNBC all the time. I took MSNBC off my "Favorites" channels when they fired Imus. I haven't watched them since.


He was a waste of airtime.....


Uh, Glenn, wait a second...

"All its nighttime hosts -- Rachel Maddow, Lawrence O'Donnell, Ed Schultz -- are considerably to the left of center."

Considerably left of center? Have you ever listened to Ed Schultz? This guy is so far to the left, he's almost back on the right. Maddow at least tries to be reasonable. O'Donnell is rapidly morphing Olbermann. Please...this people *define* leftst, and none of them have seen the center of anything in decades.


Kieth Olbermann was all about "pre.ten.sion".So before we start to invoke the U.S.Constitution.We should remember,it allows private business contracts.Maybe it was a very simple.No ratings,no show....

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