Keith Olbermann on Why He Left MSNBC - and How He Plans to Get Even

A candid interview with the host of 'Countdown'

Photograph by Ken Schles
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Keith Olbermann hobbles into an expensive seafood restaurant in Manhattan on a recent afternoon with the assistance of a long, retractable cane. Maneuvering past startled diners, the former Countdown host mutters over his shoulder, "The joke is, it's apparently not as easy to leave NBC as it looks."

Wincing, Olbermann lowers himself into a round booth. He explains that he injured one of his feet exercising: a stress fracture, brought on by his use of special five-toed running shoes. Olbermann being Olbermann, he'd decided to use his lameness as a teachable moment—not for himself, of course, but for rude New Yorkers. He had taken to planting himself in front of subway passengers who fail to vacate seats meant for the disabled and just glowering. Recounting the tale, Olbermann's delight grows, as if he can't believe the luck of having been given permission to yell at people in public and not seem insane.

Read outtakes from Rolling Stone's interview with Olbermann - on Obama, Tim Russert, and more.

That said, by any number of conventional indicators, the past six months have not been stellar ones for Olbermann, whose cane might well have been a prop assigned by a scriptwriter fond of heavy-handed symbolism. In January, the anchor abruptly parted ways with MSNBC, the cable network he spent eight years rebranding as a progressive alternative to Fox News. The previous November, he'd been suspended for donating money to three Democratic candidates for Congress. Despite an official statement describing a joint parting of the ways, no one ever really buys a breakup's depiction as "mutual," and many speculated that Olbermann had been fired.

This article appears in the June 23, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone. The issue is available now on newsstands and in the digital archive.

Whatever happened—both sides signed a nondisclosure agreement as part of the severance—the fact that a major corporation allowed such a marquee name to walk away from a contract only fed long-standing rumors of Olbermann's difficulty as both an employee and boss. These rumors gained further credence with the recent release of an oral history of ESPN, another network Olbermann played a crucial role in giving a unique identity, through his hosting of SportsCenter. In the book, many of Olbermann's former colleagues describe him as brilliant but insufferable. Admits one anchor, "We felt not so much relief when Keith left as unrestrained fucking joy."

Watch Keith Olbermann's Top Ten 'Special Comments'

Olbermann has had to keep his foot elevated for several hours every day, and he's used part of the time to read the ESPN book. His review? "I wish them well with it," he says, "but it's a bad sign when someone who worked at the network falls asleep while reading the part about himself."

At the moment, he's mostly consumed with his return to cable television on June 20th, on Al Gore's Current TV. Once again, a struggling network is pinning its hopes at reinvention on Olbermann. Will the third time be yet another charm? If the title of Olbermann's new show, Countdown With Keith Olbermann, is any indication, it won't be a radical departure from his old show. So far, he's announced contributors ranging from the expected (Michael Moore, Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi) to the surprising (comedian Richard Lewis, PBS documentarian Ken Burns). Still, Olbermann will have his work cut out for him at Current. The channel averages only 23,000 viewers in prime time, and he'll be programmed alongside reality shows like What Did I Do Last Night? ("A party girl is horrified by footage of her drunken antics from the night before... from table-dancing to flashing her breasts.")

Long-term, though, Olbermann has big plans for the place. His mandate is nothing less than to build an entire network around his show, one populated with righteous liberal voices like his own and perhaps, once contracts expire, former colleagues like Rachel Maddow—a network, in fact, that sounds remarkably like MSNBC. "They thought I was going to go away for so long that nobody would bring me back," Olbermann says, sounding surprised by the stupidity of his enemies.

Let's start with the new show. Are you going to be able to do things you've always been dying to do but couldn't?
I interviewed everybody who's going to work for the show. I selected the interns. I'm not saying I interviewed 350 people, but I got the finalists for every position. Everybody on this staff is equally invested in the risks involved. I don't know that there's going to be anything hugely different that's visible to the viewer. It's not going to be like, "I'm going to do the last half of the show topless." But the freedom from the wear and tear of having to get past a bunch of people mumbling, "Oh, I don't know..." It's the key to the operation, it really is.

Will that continue once the show starts?
People say, "What happens if we get the call?" [from Current headquarters in San Francisco]. I say, "I've talked to them about this. If they're going to call, the likelihood is they're going to call and say, 'How come you weren't louder about this? How come you didn't yell more?' " I said to Al, "You know, every time people have trusted me to know what I'm talking about, I actually get small-c conservative." He said, "Let's not overdo that."

At Current, television is all we do—that's our business. We don't have amusement parks I have to worry about, we don't have environmental cases against us, we don't have a series of outdoor-advertising companies. If there's a decision between making money versus offending somebody, it will be a clean either/or—there won't be 19 other divisions that have some sort of say in the process. I'm not being critical of NBC. I just think people can trust what we do to be entirely based on the news merits. It will be that simple kind of old-fashioned television news operation of the Sixties and Seventies that had the proverbial Chinese wall around them to keep them away from concerns about advertisers. What we won't have is any concern that I have to somehow game a system to make sure I can continue to do what I want to do.

Were you ever censored by MSNBC?
No. What were they going to do about it? It was live. I will say this. Nobody ever said, "If you say this, you're going to be fired."

It's not about "NBC is evil." It's about that media structure—CBS, ABC, CNN, even some of the smaller operations are now multinationals, with these extraordinarily diverse holdings. The corporation is one of the great unheralded human inventions of destruction. It is a way to absolve from any personal liability a bunch of people. They form together in a massive id and they do whatever they want. In a corporate setting, there's nothing to stop Rupert Murdoch or Disney from doing whatever the hell they want with the news. They could turn it into propaganda for the Chinese government or the socialist party of America, and who's going to stop them?

When did things start to change for you at MSNBC?
It was three years ago, when Tim Russert died. One of the reasons I got as far as I got was that Tim was there to run interference for me. He never made a big deal out of the fact that he probably was my biggest supporter within the network. He used to go to them and say, "Leave him alone, we can handle the blowback, I'll take care of it." After he died, Maureen, his wife, told me that she used to have to wrest the channel-changer away from him every night, because he loved to watch the show. She said, "You deal with this all day and you have to watch it again?" He said, "I have to see what he's saying about it, it's the best." I teared up and said, "I didn't know that." She said, "He thought you already had a big enough head."

During the 2008 election, Tom Brokaw publicly criticized you for "going too far" in injecting commentary into your campaign coverage. Do you think there's something to the idea of keeping a division between opinion and news? Or is the notion of the impartial journalist essentially bullshit?
[Taking a piece of paper from his wallet] You saw I reached before you said the name. Let me read this to you. You can see how old it is—it already came apart. March 5th, 2008, Wednesday morning, 9:45 a.m. "Keith, game ball goes to you for last night. I've been at this for 40 years and have a full appreciation for how tricky it is to go from commentator to anchor, get the news out, manage the many egos, make sure lots of different points of view are represented, maintain your own place in the proceedings, you did it all splendidly." You can see the name of who sent that [Tom Brokaw].

So there you have it. I've never shared that with anybody before. Now you have a private comment that he didn't seem to remember when he made his public comment five months later.

Why do you carry that around?
Originally I carried it around because it was confirmation from somebody I had great respect for. What he said there was that you can be a commentator and an anchor, you can get your points across and yet be neutral when you're supposed to be neutral. From one of the best in the business, it meant a great deal to me. Then what it meant to me is, "Wow, things change fast after people like Russert die."

Why did you give money to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and two other Democrats when you knew there was a rule against it? People say, "Why did you think you could get away with donating to Democrats?" Nobody ever asks me why I donated to those three Democrats. I discovered from a friend of mine who knows Arizona politics really well that all three had spent a lot of money, and I mean a lot of money, protecting themselves from assassination threats. To me, as a small-d democrat, as a member of a democracy, it pissed me off. I thought, "I'm going to help defray their expenses." That's all it was.

Does it bother you that your departure from MSNBC came the same month as the shooting in Tucson? It seemed like the network felt they needed to tone things down.
Number one, I was the first guy to go on the air and say we should all tone things down. If the network felt that pressure, they were feeling it from me. Number two, I had begun to remove things from my office, the valuable stuff, and take them home in October.

Really? Were you worried they were going to lock you out?
No. There are just some things you don't want to have misplaced. They throw out a box by mistake, and suddenly a photo of Shoeless Joe Jackson at the 1919 World Series taken by a fan is gone forever. So I'd pick it up and put it in my bag and take it home. Members of my staff would go, "What happened to Shoeless Joe?" I'd say, "I'm just using him at home now."

So that far back...
Right, 2008 was the first time I thought, "Maybe I should take some of this stuff home."

Were you out looking for another gig?
No. As late as December, I could still see a path by which if we re-established certain boundaries, that I could stay longer. So when I took those things home, I didn't nail them to the wall—they were ready to go back into the office if need be.

It came across like an abrupt firing—there was no announcement ahead of time.
You can imagine the atmosphere between me and NBC in the months of November into December. The last hope that we could work something out vanished just before New Year's. I called them the day Gaby was shot and said, "Do you want me to come in?" and they said, "Yes." They were kind of surprised. I said, "I want to comment on this—I think we need to tone down the dialogue."

It seems you were doing your own soul-searching about that sort of tonal stuff for months. Did the Jon Stewart critique about the noise from both sides bother you, coming from someone I presume you respect?
I really don't know. I always analyze that sort of stuff internally. I always say, "Is this too much, is this too little, am I wrong about this?" All the things that people like me supposedly don't do, I do. I come from a world where there's a final score; if it's 6-3, it means the guys who scored six won the game. In politics, you can have an opinion as to who won and who's really in charge. So for me, that environment requires constant re-examination. I sweat every time I've ever done a "Special Comment." Trust me, there are comments I've started to write and said, "Nope, you're wrong."

Any moments you regret?
Scott Brown. I did two commentaries right around the election in which I described him as a homophobe, a racist. I was a little distracted—it was at the worst point of my father's decline, and I thought I was doing everybody a favor to continue to work through that. When I got criticized for the first comment, I did it again out of defiance—"I'll show you." It wasn't until Stewart took off on me that I said, "You're right, I've been over-the-top."

Did you ever intentionally make a defiant gesture toward the network, just because you knew it would bother them?
No, no, not at all. My conduct on the air, never. You don't screw with the product. I can't think of an instance at MSNBC where anything I said on the air was influenced by what was going on behind the scenes. Maybe a couple of times, where they didn't want to put Rachel on, and I was saying to them, "This is the next great host, I recognize her as one circus freak could recognize another."

Are you still close with her?
[Pause] Yes and no. We had a very brotherly/sisterly relationship. I was normally in her office or she in mine, four out of five days, just to throw the crap around. Several times I talked her out of storming out of the place, and several times she talked me out of storming out. But since I left, I've kept my distance from all my friends I couldn't bring with me. I hope I'm employing all of them someday, but at the moment there is a somewhat chilled view of me at NBC. I don't think they expected this would be the outcome. They expected "OK, he's going to go away now, probably for so long that nobody will be interested in bringing him back."

You think they thought that?
They definitely had no idea that I'd be back on the air June 20th, I promise you that—and against my replacement.

Did you ever worry you wouldn't find another outlet for what you want to do?
No. My manager and I had long discussed the prospects of going somewhere else. We thought there's got to be another network that is looking for a new identity and sees the same opportunity we do. We figured it might take some time—but then, "Ring ring. Keith, this is Al Gore."

How soon was it that he contacted you?
Saturday, the day after my last show.

You broke the news of your departure on the show that Friday. At what point did you know that would be your last day?
I'm trying to think what I can tell you about this legally. I was pretty sure that was the last day at the start of that day. I had hoped everything would be finalized and we'd have a meeting in the afternoon with the staff so that I could brace them for it. My primary regret, the one that will not change in dimension or sting, is the fact that most of the people involved in the show found out when I said, "This will be the last edition of Countdown. I'll explain after this break." The reason it happened that way was because it was only finalized during the preceding commercial break.

So you're staring out at the camera people, watching the looks on their faces when you said this?
The people on that show felt like they'd been hit by a storm out of nowhere. Many of them sensed there were going to be changes, but they certainly didn't think it would be announced like that. It didn't have to be that way. It wasn't because of faults on my end of the deal, but I still feel as if I did that to those people. There was a lot of emotion and a lot of regret.

What were your initial discussions with Al Gore like when he called?
"Would you like to do Countdown on Current?" and I said, "Yes. Can you afford to do it?" He said, "Yes." I said, "Who's going to be in charge of it?" He said, "You are." Then our people just went in and built the damn thing in two weeks. It was that quick.

You didn't have time to grow a beard or be depressed.
No, and I didn't have time to sit around going, "Gee, I wonder if there's a better environment for me." No, Al Gore's going to be my boss! I slept on it overnight, and we started going with it on Sunday. Everything since then has been like that. "What do you need?" We're not doing this new show to find a place for me to have a home—we're going to do this right. We're going to take MSNBC's business away from them—that's the idea, to do it better.

Let's talk about politics. Do you think the Republican push for cutting the budget is going to blow up in their faces?
This is about the nature of the authoritarian mind. Once the Republicans get rolling, they assume they're going to win everything. They are zealots, and zealots assume the last five percent of whatever their plan is will be taken care of by their own greatness or momentum or divinity. They never sit and think, "We got 95 percent of what we want, let's quit and solidify what we have." They always overreach. Do you really think Barack Obama would have been elected president of the United States if George Bush had been a moderate?

What's been your biggest disappointment with Obama so far?
The night before the inauguration, I wrote a "Special Comment" criticizing him—it was obvious that he was not going to hold the Bush administration accountable. He said, "We don't want to waste this administration playing politics." I said to myself, "OK, that's you—but the Republicans want to waste your administration playing politics."

We had laws broken in this country that involved the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in another country, and more than 4,000 people from our country. Not acting against Dick Cheney or John Yoo or Alberto Gonzales indemnifies the next president, Republican or Democrat. It lets them know exactly what they can get away with. To me, that remains a cloud over Obama's entire administration.

Everything else, particularly on health care reform, he was right and I was wrong. I thought he needed to be in there with a mallet, pounding away from Day One. Instead, he came in at the end and saved it. His health care reform wasn't sufficient by any stretch of the imagination, but he was right—it's a start, and it will grow as years go by.

He's good at the rope-a-dope.
He's very good. Two years ago I attended an off-the-record lunch he held for columnists. It was two hours, unplugged, no restrictions on what he couldn't say. It was like watching a great play—just masterful. I was thinking, "Bottom line is, this is one of the 1,000 smartest guys in the country." And how many of those have we ever elected president?

On your new show, will you continue to do the nonpolitical elements you've done, like reading stories by James Thurber?
Al is a big fan of that.

It was a risky thing to do.
The way it came about is a great story. I read to my father in the hospital, and the thing he enjoyed most was Thurber. He said, "You should do that on the show." I said, "But it's a newscast," and he said, "How often have I ever suggested you do anything?"

He wasn't someone who would do that?
No. He was my public-relations agent and my biggest fan. One time, he said I should color my hair. My dad had a comb-over. I said, "Some of the hair in your comb-over dates to the Eisenhower administration. The last person on earth I want to listen to about fucking hair is you." He laughed. That was the only other time, and I've had a lot of conversations with him about my career and about television.

Were your politics close?
He was much more cynical than I am. The first thing I remember politically is having a baby sitter, because my folks were going next door to eat with the neighbors. And before I went to bed, they were already back in the house, and my dad was in a rage. They had been talking politics, and the neighbors called my father a communist. He said, "That's not communism. We are in America—that's called 'do unto others.'" My father could dismember your argument faster than anybody in the world.

After he went into the last deep sleep—he had no strength left at all and he fell asleep, huge white-cell count, huge infection, 30,000 or something like that—I read Thurber's "The Peacelike Mongoose," which he loved. It's a fable, and it drips with political import. The next day, I got an e-mail from the Thurber Literary Estate, and I went, "Oh, boy..." I figured it was about copyrights. But it turned out that Thurber's daughter Rosie, 85 years old now, watches Countdown every night. Not only that—and this is where you start to believe in forces larger than yourself—she had been approached the week before by a publisher who wanted to include "The Peacelike Mongoose" in an anthology for high school students, on one condition: They wanted to cut the line where someone accuses the peacelike mongoose of being a "mongoose-sexual." Rosie and her daughter went back and forth about it, and then Rosie sits down to watch Countdown, and I read "The Peacelike Mongoose" without any interruption or editing whatsoever. The phone rings, it's her daughter: "I think you just got your answer, Mom."

You and Glenn Beck are both leaving your networks at the same time. What do you think of him as a broadcaster?
Glenn Beck and me, we're in the same boat now. We're both off the Fox reservation. People who think his leaving Fox News was some kind of change in tone caused by the Giffords thing are as wrong about that as they are when they apply it to me. I'm sure that he viewed this entirely as a great business proposition for himself. In Beck's point of view—nobody's gotten this yet, but I know exactly where he's coming from—Beck looked at this and said, "Why am I letting these Fox people take some of my money? I don't need them."

Beck's skill is to listen to a guy like Roger Ailes and then turn his message into a national anthem. It's a skill like juggling chain saws. "All right, great. And when you miss, what happens—you cut yourself in half, don't you?" "Oh, yeah, hadn't thought of that." Bzzz.

Any broadcasters you admire these days?
Within news, no. Most of them can't be themselves because they're terrified of losing their jobs. But David Letterman never gets the credit he deserves. He's not afraid to ask any question. If he turned that into a sit-down format with politicians on Current, he'd be terrific at it—tremendously smart, very responsive, easily catches people in contradictions, and relentless. The other one who is tremendously relevant in terms of his grasp of reality and America is Craig Ferguson. His openings are marvelous, and often brilliantly insightful.

Comedians are the only ones paid to tell the truth in public discourse. Everybody else—politicians, news broadcasters, religious figures—we're all paid to be oracles, when in fact we are like a good public-relations man. A good public-relations man keeps you away from the public, and if you have relations, he keeps that hidden.

So you aspire to the honesty of a comedian?
Now you see why I wanted a venue like the one I'm being given. It's not an exact match. I can't say anything I want; there will be some things I'm sure I'll have to temper. But I can't think of any of them off the top of my head, and when I encounter them, it will be like, "Crap, that was the first one in eight months." That's why I view this as the biggest step-up of my career. The instantaneous reaction to this was, "He's going into the far wilderness." No, it's virgin forest, and I own it, and I'm bringing a house with me. I have the opportunity to rebuild it better and start looking for people to do the next hour and the next hour, the whole operation. We'll make mistakes, but it will be such a great relief to not have to spend all day executive-icizing, and just go out and do what I'm really good at. This is as close as I'll get to a comedian's freedom.

 

From The Archives Issue 1133: June 23, 2011