MSNBC's Olbermann Seeks Delicate Balance
Sunday, May 6, 2007; 1:38 PM
NEW YORK -- In an angry commentary on April 25, MSNBC's Keith Olbermann accused Rudolph Giuliani of using the language of Osama bin Laden with "the same chilling nonchalance of the madman" to argue that Republicans would keep Americans safer than Democrats from terror.
Eight days later, Olbermann hosted MSNBC's coverage of the first debate among Republican candidates for president.
Olbermann's popularity and evolving image as an idealogue has led NBC News to stretch traditional notions of journalistic objectivity. The danger for MSNBC is provoking the same anger among Republicans that Democrats feel toward Fox News Channel.
The Giuliani campaign privately expressed its concern to NBC News about Olbermann's role in the days leading up to last Thursday's debate.
MSNBC's use of Olbermann as a host for major events predated his "special comments," which began appearing late last summer at the end of "Countdown," his irreverent prime-time newscast. The periodic commentaries often seethe with anger toward the Bush administration and against the war. Spread quickly over the Internet, they've made him a liberal icon and raised his show's ratings.
Olbermann knows to leave his opinions at home when he anchors events, said Phil Griffin, NBC News senior vice president.
"Keith's an adult," Griffin said. "He can tell when it's appropriate to express himself in a commentary and when to be a journalist. That's one of his strengths. He knows exactly the tone and his role when he's doing anything."
He served Thursday both before and after the debate in exactly the position Griffin intended, as the quarterback for coverage. For the most part, he introduced interviews and questioned MSNBC analysts on their own opinions of how the debate went.
In asking about Giuliani's response to a question on Roe vs. Wade, Olbermann asked, "Do you think that's consistent with _ let's use the kind word _ an evolving position on abortion?"
Similarly, he noted that Giuliani early in the debate appeared to offer an olive branch to Democrats but slipped back into harsher language, including the argument that a Republican president would keep the country safer than a Democrat.
"Did Mr. Giuliani correct course in the middle of the debate?" he asked. "Did someone slip him a note under the door and say, `don't be nice to Democrats under any circumstances?'"
For many years, the rule for journalists was simple: maintain strict objectivity. Even for television hosts unafraid to say what they think _ Chris Matthews, for instance _ there's still a little mystery about what they'll do inside a voting booth.