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American Journalism Review
Endgame for Olbermann  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   December/January 2011

Endgame for Olbermann   

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An inevitable conclusion to a turbulent, influential run. Posted: Sat, Jan. 22 2011

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder ( is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      

At some point Keith Olbermann jumped the shark.

Which is too bad. Because the guy is an extremely talented broadcaster. He's smart, clever, eloquent and passionate. That's a lot of pluses.

At his best he has done excellent TV. His incarnation on ESPN's "SportsCenter" with sidekick Dan Patrick was terrific. And for quite awhile, "Countdown with Keith Olbermann," the MSNBC show that launched in 2003 and that he left abruptly Friday night, was first-rate.

It mixed incisive political analysis from a liberal perspective with wry bursts of whimsy. And it worked.

It also rescued an entire cable network. For years MSNBC had been a sad also-ran trailing CNN and Fox News Channel. It had no real personality, no identity.

As Olbermann caught on, his ratings grew. Soon Rachel Maddow, a frequent Olbermann guest, had her own show. Ultimately, the network positioned itself as the left-leaning alternative, with an audience that was often larger than cable news pioneer CNN's.

But Olbermann did not wear success well. For one thing, he became angrier and angrier, enraged by the policies of President George W. Bush. But there was more: The deep-voiced host, never lacking in ego, also bought in too deeply to his own myth.

The emerging Olbermann was captured in devastating fashion in Ben Affleck's brilliant impersonation on "Saturday Night Live" on November 2, 2008. It was all there: the extreme self-righteousness, the stentorian pomposity, the hyperbole, the sheer over-the-topness. Outraged by his condo board's decision not to allow his cat to live in his building, "Olbermann" fumes, "Up with which we dare no longer put."

There's been no definitive word on whether Olbermann jumped or was pushed. But most signs point to the latter. Olbermann had clashed repeatedly with management. And it's likely that his reaction to his "indefinite suspension" (read: two days) in November for making donations to Democratic candidates was a catalyst in the endgame. I found it hard to get very worked up over a clearly partisan host on a clearly partisan channel giving money to like-minded candidates. But his unapologetic, truculent posture was not the thing that keeps the bosses happy.

Olbermann's nearly eight-year stint at "Countdown" was the longest of his career. He left "SportsCenter" abruptly. He had a short run at Fox Sports. He left his first stint at MSNBC because he felt justifiably that he was being forced to concentrate too heavily on the Clinton/Lewinsky saga.

It will be interesting to see what the next act brings. It's likely Olbermann's departure package requires him to stay off the air for awhile. But one thing's for sure: Whatever comes next for Olbermann, it will be noticed.

And let's not minimize his impact. I'm not a big fan of partisan broadcasting. But I'm also not crazy about unilateral disarmament. Before Olbermann, the right not only had Fox but a total domination of talk radio. The left had nothing.

Olbermann changed all that.



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