By Howard Kurtz
Keith Olbermann, anchor of MSNBC's "White House in Crisis," isn't above poking fun at himself. He once described his program as "The White House Isn't in Crisis but We'll Keep Calling It That Because There's a Graphic."
Another time, after turning the wrong way, he muttered: "Doing this 15 years, can't tell which camera is on."
With one heck of a boost from Monica Lewinsky, the 39-year-old former sportscaster has quickly established himself as perhaps the most thoughtful of the cable guys chewing over the sex scandal night after night (and he's a twice-nightly man, beginning with "The Big Show").
Major stories have a way of making media careers. Watergate gave us Woodward and Bernstein. The Iran hostage crisis boosted Ted Koppel. The Persian Gulf War was Peter Arnett's moment in the sun. The O.J. case unleashed a legion of made-for-TV lawyers. Plenty of loudmouths are vying for the mantle of America's Monica Maven, but Olbermann (who labels each show "Day 196" or "Day 233," as if we're being held hostage) avoids the shrill partisanship of many of his compatriots.
Yet his wisecracking ways also contain the seeds of contradiction. Olbermann sometimes insults people and then apologizes. He has journalists on every night but, lately, refuses to be interviewed by journalists. He gave an eloquent speech at Cornell University on how his conscience would no longer permit him to endlessly exploit the Monica melodrama then kept on exploiting.
"Somewhere along the way he began to self-flagellate," says one MSNBC staffer. "He's done so well with this vehicle, yet he kind of wants to crash the vehicle."
Still, for a scandal that has become a tawdry soap opera, Olbermann's irreverence often strikes the right note. When Newsweek's Howard Fineman talked about the Clinton investigation turning into "pure, naked politics," Olbermann shot back: "Pure, naked politics is what got us into this mess in the first place."
When President Clinton was busy apologizing to one audience after another, Olbermann intoned: "If you want one, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to the White House."
And when Olbermann was about to ask historian Doris Kearns Goodwin whether Clinton was hanging on until Jan. 20 so Al Gore could run for two full terms, he said: "Forgive me for lapsing into cynicism that's been created by 225 days at this desk."
Olbermann's ironic asides are delivered from an ironic distance; he sits peering owlishly into a camera in Secaucus, N.J., while nearly all his guests are in Washington.
Says Democratic strategist Peter Fenn, a frequent guest: "I love his historical references, I love his irreverence, I love his sports analogies. He's kind of like a Cajun cook he puts all kinds of spices in his show."
"He's always holding the media's feet to the fire instead of talking about those evil politicians," says conservative pundit Laura Ingraham. "Keith is terrific at using wit and humor to ensure that we guests don't take ourselves too seriously."
Erik Sorenson, MSNBC's vice president, raves about his star: "I love Keith. I love 'White House in Crisis.' We love 'White House in Crisis' so much that the entire NBC television network is now named 'White House in Crisis.'"
Sorenson hired Olbermann back in 1985 as a KCBS-TV sportscaster in Los Angeles. "You can't spend 30 seconds with him without being blown away by his intellect," Sorenson says. "Of all his skills, he's best at having fun with highlights and jocks. But he's always been thoughtful and resourceful."
Viewers have noticed. Ratings for the year-old "Big Show" have jumped 87 percent, from 105,000 to 196,000 households minuscule numbers by broadcast standards but a comfortable franchise in the cable universe.
Those who work with Olbermann say the nightly grind is taking its toll. "For someone with a quick, facile mind, it's not easy to cover the same thing over and over again," says Fenn. "I think there's a good deal of frustration."
Whatever his foibles, the former ESPN anchor is a master at reinventing himself. Once nominated for a local Emmy for "Kareem the Skyhook/Kareem the Joker," he now has a center-court seat for the possible impeachment of a president.
Olbermann may be a tad eccentric he doesn't drive a car but he's becoming a cottage industry. He does a daily commentary for the SportsFan Radio Network. (On urging Clinton to seek forgiveness: "Ask, Mr. President, or resign.") He writes a weekly column for Sports Illustrated's Inside Baseball. His often-contrarian opinions span the range of human endeavor. He recently complained on "The Big Show" that Mark McGwire's 62nd home run wasn't that big a deal because homers were so infrequent in Babe Ruth's day.
The anchor has a penchant for controversy he once served as a pitchman in a Boston Market commercial and he has ticked off his corporate bosses before. When he was at ESPN, he waved a copy of his new book on the air. He wrote for other publications without asking first, and was briefly suspended from ESPN's popular "SportsCenter" last year for appearing without permission on a Comedy Central show. Olbermann left "SportsCenter" soon afterward, before his contract expired.
Sometimes Olbermann's mouth outraces his brain. He lambasted cyber-gossip Matt Drudge and his Fox News show, saying Drudge "has gone from being an idiot with a modem to an idiot with a modem and a television show on the most irresponsible network in America. . . . Worse than Magic Johnson, worse than Chris Matthews, worse than Geraldo Rivera, worse than 'The Big Show.'" Olbermann wrote a letter of apology to Fox News President Roger Ailes.
But his greatest moral eruption came during the address at Cornell, his alma mater, when he said MSNBC was overcovering the Lewinsky story: "I'm having the dry heaves in the bathroom because my moral sensor is going off, but I can't even hear it, I'm so seduced by these ratings that I go along with them when they say do this not just one hour a night but two. . . . I awakened from my stupor on this subject and told my employers that I simply could not continue doing this show about the endless investigation. . . . I had to choose what I felt in my heart was right over what I felt in my wallet was smart. . . . I await their answer."
That was three months ago. He hasn't addressed the question since.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company