NEW YORK — Now here’s something you don’t see every day. Actually, you don’t see it any day: a cable-news host shredding his own employer for aiding and abetting a national “charade.”
“NBC has created a monster and it is called Donald Trump,” began Lawrence O’Donnell on his MSNBC show, “The Last Word,” last month. For nearly 15 minutes, O’Donnell hammered away, calling Trump “the most deranged egomaniac in the history of the NBC Entertainment division” and denouncing his would-be presidential run and “birther” allegations against President Obama as a “sleazy” publicity stunt for his NBC show, “The Celebrity Apprentice.” O’Donnell demanded that NBC executives disclose — “tonight, before you leave your offices” — whether Trump had already committed to another season of “Apprentice,” a disclosure that would have exposed his campaign as a sham.
Trump, of course, dropped out of the presidential race May 16, announcing his departure at an event during which NBC also announced that he would return for another season of his reality show.
And O’Donnell? After his very public broadside against his employer, he waited for a reaction. And waited. But there were no angry calls from NBC executives, no take-him-to-the-woodshed meetings at 30 Rock, MSNBC’s home. “We didn’t get a single call” from the brass, O’Donnell says, a sly smile breaking across his lips.
The non-reaction bespeaks either the network’s tolerance for self-embarrassment or O’Donnell’s critical importance to MSNBC. A frequent commentator and former fill-in host for MSNBC star Keith Olbermann, O’Donnell was awarded his own prime-time program at 10 p.m. on MSNBC only last September. Just four months later, after Olbermann’s stormy relationship with the network finally blew apart, MSNBC hustled O’Donnell into Olbermann’s plum 8 p.m. spot.
And just like that, O’Donnell became the leadoff man for MSNBC’s prime-time lineup of reliable libs and a key part — maybe the key part — of the network. Olbermann proved that the right host (and the right issue: opposition to the Iraq war) could draw in like-minded viewers and have a halo effect on the whole channel. Cable-news rival CNN has shown exactly the opposite: A weak program at 8 p.m. can be quicksand for the entire nightly slate.
Since his battlefield promotion, the 59-year-old O’Donnell has settled in. Though he can’t quite match Olbermann’s verbal pyrotechnics, he has connected with Olbermann’s audience. In the head-to-head battle between cable talkers, Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly out-draws O’Donnell by roughly 3 to 1 each night (just as he regularly trounced Olbermann). Nevertheless, O’Donnell has largely retained Olbermann’s million-plus nightly viewers, a tactical victory for MSNBC.
O’Donnell sounds almost as surprised as anyone by this turn of events. “I’m here for one simple reason,” he says after doing his show one night, his makeup still in place. “I subbed for Keith and the ratings did not go down. No one can explain to me how the ratings stayed the same.” He adds, knowingly: “This is entirely a luck business. William Goldman [the eminent screenwriter] said it best: ‘No one knows anything.’ ”