A Gadfly With Buzz
MSNBC's Olbermann, Exercising the Right

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 3, 2006

Night after night, President Bush is being kicked, punched, slapped, poked, stomped and otherwise disrespected in one small corner of the cable television world.

And Keith Olbermann doesn't deny it has been good for ratings.

"I find myself currently aligned, not in the sense of having membership, but being in the same part of the ballpark as a lot of liberals," says the host of MSNBC's "Countdown."

Is Olbermann catering to the anti-Bush crowd? Since Hurricane Katrina, he says, a growing number of people have "had their eyes opened" to the administration's failings and do not see their points of view reflected in television news. "We have to be responsive to an audience's perception of the world or they will ignore us."

The former sportscaster denies that he's pushing an ideological agenda, noting that he relentlessly covered the uproar over Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky in his first incarnation as an MSNBC anchor in 1998. Of course, he was so sickened by the spectacle that he quit, complaining about the media's role in the tawdry process, though he now gives every indication of enjoying his anti-Bush program.

Since the most prominent opinion-mongers in cable -- Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, Joe Scarborough, Tucker Carlson -- are unabashed conservatives, Olbermann stands out as an acerbic administration critic. While his main guests are journalists, he sometimes interviews Democratic lawmakers but almost never brings on Republicans or conservatives, except for MSNBC contributor Pat Buchanan. "There are not a lot of conservative guests who are happy to be on the show," Olbermann admits.

In recent weeks he has begun the program this way:

"Black-bag jobs and the Bush administration. In the past, previous jobs have been run against the likes of Martin Luther King, and Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist, and the Democratic Party."

"Wheeling, West Virginia, where Joe McCarthy started his string of the most memorable speeches, today's stop on the George W. Bush I-Am-Nothing-If-Not-Deeply-Misunderstood Express."

"President versus media, again. Any credibility left, anyone?"

"Any similarity to President Lyndon Johnson, circa 1967, is purely coincidental."

"Pollster says, which one word best describes President Bush? . . . The correct answer starts with 'in -- ,' has 'compe -- ' in the middle and ' -- tent' at the end."

And that's not counting his "Worst Person in the World" award to former first lady Barbara Bush for making a Katrina donation earmarked for software programs sold to Houston schools by her son, Neil.

In 2003, when Olbermann questioned whether the Pentagon had hyped the Jessica Lynch rescue, "management was flooded with complaints to the point that I had to put on a clarification the next day," he says. "Three years ago you had to apologize for being at all critical of anything."

These days, he recently told C-SPAN, there are executives at NBC and parent company General Electric "who do not like to see the current presidential administration criticized at all." But Olbermann says he's gotten no interference: "If my reading Marx every night got them great ratings, they'd be happy with that."

"Countdown" is still in third place among the cable news networks -- Fox's "O'Reilly Factor" dominated the first quarter, with 2.26 million viewers, followed by CNN's Paula Zahn with 632,000 and Olbermann with 404,000. But the MSNBC show boasts of a 41 percent jump over last year among viewers age 25 to 54, edging CNN in that category.

"Keith's show is the best show on television, period -- interesting, edgy and really well written," says MSNBC President Rick Kaplan. He says Olbermann is "incredibly aggressive" toward anyone in power: "In the same way that people who think the president needs to be supported more have turned to Fox, a lot of people who think the president needs to be taken on more have found a friendly voice in 'Countdown.' "

NBC News President Steve Capus says "there's no question he's stepped up his opinionated discussions, but the audience is smart enough to know what is straight news reporting and what is opinion-driven talk."

Olbermann, who moonlights on ESPN radio, also fills his program with skits like "Puppet Theater" and tabloidy "Oddball" items. Last week he interviewed Michael Schiavo, whose late wife's coma triggered a media frenzy.

Olbermann loves to pick fights. He has repeatedly baited O'Reilly, then gleefully replayed O'Reilly's responses. O'Reilly has put a petition on his Web site, urging NBC to fire Olbermann and replace him with Phil Donahue, who previously occupied the time slot. O'Reilly has also said, without naming him, that Olbermann "cheap shots Fox News on a regular basis" and that "something's very wrong at NBC."

Seizing on any excuse to keep the feud going, Olbermann even interviewed a man who mentioned his name on O'Reilly's radio show, prompting the host to say his phone number would be turned over to Fox security. MSNBC has been running ads about the spat.

"It's like winning the lottery," Olbermann says. "It's such an overreaction. . . . He has made me look like a victim."

Liberal bloggers have been praising Olbermann, but one online critic, Robert Cox, recently launched a new site, Olbermann Watch, where a contributor said: "Hello! Earth to Krazy Keith! When was the last time anybody who disagreed with your spin was permitted to sit for an interview with your almightyness?"

Olbermann seems to thrive on controversy. But just in case, he has an exit strategy: "If it gets too hot and I have to get out of the kitchen, I'll go do sports."

Mystery Dismissal

Vermont's governor is ticked off. So is the state's congressional delegation. And so are the leaders of the state's top newspapers.

The object of their ire is the Associated Press for firing the chief of its Vermont office, Chris Graff, a 27-year veteran, with no public explanation.

"Chris Graff is undoubtedly the most respected journalist in the state of Vermont," says Emerson Lynn, publisher of the St. Albans Messenger, who says he is considering dropping the AP over the dismissal.

Graff was canned because, as part of the industry's Sunshine Week -- in which the AP was a partner -- he put on the wire a package of stories that included a column by Sen. Patrick Leahy. The column was removed within an hour -- no readers saw it -- on grounds that the AP should not provide a forum for a politician. Graff had moved a similar Leahy column a year earlier without protest, and the Rutland Herald has called the rationale a "sorry excuse."

In their letter, Sens. Leahy (D) and Jim Jeffords (I), Rep. Bernie Sanders (I) and Gov. Jim Douglas (R) say they are "stunned, outraged and saddened" by the dismissal of a journalist they call "fair, objective, public-spirited [and] courageous."

In response, AP President Thomas Curley wrote that he cannot discuss "confidential personnel decisions," but that the politicians' suggestion "that AP might be bowing to political pressure" was "just nuts." (Fox's Bill O'Reilly recently criticized Graff's coverage of a Vermont judge who gave a child rapist a 60-day sentence.)

In a small state, Graff, who also hosts the public television show "Vermont This Week," provides the daily coverage that many papers cannot afford. The irony of the AP marking Sunshine Week by refusing to discuss his firing has been rather obvious. "I understand our inability to talk about it has made some people angry, but that doesn't change the facts," says AP spokeswoman Kathleen Carroll.

Graff, who cannot discuss the case because of a nondisclosure agreement, says he was "absolutely shocked" by the firing but "overwhelmed" by the show of support. "If I can bring together a Republican, Democrat, independent and socialist, it's for the good," he says.

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