Thank You, Keith Olbermann

By Michael Kaufman

Something has been gnawing at my brain ever since I read about Keith Olbermann being fired by the Current television network. I was struck by the smug tone of many of the articles, even from news sources generally regarded as progressive or left-leaning. Few voices have been raised on Olbermann’s behalf, perhaps because one of Current’s founders and co-owners is Al Gore, who has done a meritorious job of raising public awareness of the challenges posed by environmental pollution and climate change.

Coverage of the firing, Olbermann’s lawsuit and the countersuit filed by the network, tends to hone on Olbermann’s “stormy” relationships with previous employers, ESPN and MSNBC. One article contained an anecdote about Olbermann yelling impatiently at a limo driver who possessed limited English language skills. The same article said he yelled at staff members.

Some folks don’t like Olbermann because he has a big head, which is true of both his hat size and his ego. (His fight with Current is often described as a “clash of egos,” Olbermann versus Gore and his partner Joel Hyatt.) Yes, his style can sometimes be grating and abrasive. And as much as I agree with him, it isn’t necessary to conclude every report of Sara Palin’s latest antics with, “That woman is an idiot.”

But something else needs to be said here. When no other commentator on national television dared speak out against the U.S.invasion of Iraq, Olbermann did so, boldly and eloquently. That is how I first became aware of him as anything other than a clever sports commentator. Someone forwarded me a link to one of his commentaries on MSNBC….and then another…until I started watching “Countdown” every night for myself. I had stopped watching MSNBC in 2003 after they fired Phil Donahue, host of the highest rated show on the network at the time because he allowed some guests on his program to express antiwar sentiments.

A study commissioned by parent company NBC had described Donahue as “a tired, left-wing liberal out of touch with the current marketplace” who would be a “difficult public face for NBC in a time of war.” The report warned that the Donahue show could be “a home for the liberal antiwar agenda at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity.”

In an email leaked at the time, one executive suggested that MSNBC could take advantage of the “anticipated larger audience who will tune in during a time of war” to “reinvent itself” and “cross-pollinate our programming” by linking pundits to war coverage. “It’s unlikely that we can use Phil in this way, particularly given his public stance on the advisability of the war effort,” the email said.

This was a time of unprecedented censorship, of embedded reporters (no David Halberstams or Pete Hamills covering this war). Instead we were given deceitful propaganda about “weapons of mass destruction,” fed by unnamed government sources to Judith Miller and dutifully printed by The New York Times. Retired generals who questioned the policy were silenced and smeared. There would be no photos of body bags or coffins bringing home our dead. You couldn’t even hear the Dixie Chicks singing on the radio: One of them had spoken out against the war. And if you wanted to see the day-to-day devastation and ruin caused by “Shock and Awe” you had to watch the news fromFrance with English subtitles on WNYC.

It took guts for Olbermann to speak out then…..maybe not quite on the order of Ed Murrow taking on Joe McCarthy, but close enough in my book. And when “Countdown” became the highest-rated show on MSNBC the network bosses decided it was good business to identify the station with the “liberal antiwar agenda.”  Thanks to Keith we can now tune in to the likes of  Rachel Maddow, Ed Schultz, Lawrence O’Donnell, Melissa Harris-Perry, and Chris Hayes….at least until the next time the marketplace requires cheerleading for war.

Michael can be reached at










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3 Responses to “Thank You, Keith Olbermann”

  1. Jeffrey Page Says:

    Mike, I’ve heard left leaning reporters and editors refer to Olbermann as a one-trick pony. Same schtick, different day, they say. I think these critics are short-sighted. Olbermann was, after all, not exactly straight news reporting, but a daily magazine told in magazine format by someone with an attitude. So? Doesn’t sound like legitimate criticism to me. Do O’Reilly and Hannity get such criticism from any shades of the right? I don’t think so.

  2. Michael Kaufman Says:

    Believe it or not, O’Reilly, Hannity and the guy Olbermann refers to as “comedian Rush Limbaugh” are often the target of barbs from Michael Savage. He does not, however, refer to them as “vermin” or say they “belong in jail” as he frequently says of the liberals. I probably should have mentioned in the post that one of the first things MSNBC did after firing Phil Donahue was to hire Savage….in the name of “free speech.” I agree the “one-trick pony” accusation is unfair: Olbermann put his money where his mouth is, initiating and donating a large sum to provide free healthcare screenings for people who could not afford to pay for health insurance, first in New Orleans and later in other cities with large underserved populations. His “special comments” on racism were brilliant too.

  3. Gordon Engelhardt Says:

    I agree with Mike. Keith (or K.O. as Dan Patrick calls him) was a liberal pioneer at a time when most of America was waving the flag without even bothering to question what the war was about. Isn’t that what our country was founded on, having the ability to question authority without being thrown in jail?
    Hopefully, Keith will land on his feet. I know he’s a TV guy, but I’d love to hear him on America Left radio.

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