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NBC News President Capus: Olbermann 'Speaks Truth to Power'

By Media Research Center
June 25, 2008

Peter Boyer's profile of Keith Olbermann in the June 23 New Yorker magazine, "One Angry Man," contained a bunch of noteworthy revelations, such as:

     # Olbermann wanted to be more vulgar in his "shut the hell up" insult of President Bush than TV allows. Boyer on Olbermann's May 14 "Special Comment" rant: "Phil Griffin, the senior vice-president in charge of MSNBC raised the matter of tone. Why did Olbermann need to end his commentary by telling the President of the United States to 'shut the hell up'?" Answer: "Because I can't say, 'Shut the f**k up.'"

     # A focus group for CNN found "audiences didn't like him." Shortly after Olbermann returned to CNN in 2003, "Griffin ran into an old colleague at CNN, who told him that that network had considered hiring Olbermann, but focus-group tests showed that audiences didn't like him." (In fact, Olbermann did fill-in work for CNN in late 2001 through 2002. See screen shot, in posted CyberAlert, from January 24, 2002.)

     # After Olbermann delivered his first Special Comment in August of 2006 denigrating Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld as a "quack" pushing "fascism," Boyer learned: "His bosses loved it. 'I think we're onto something,' the President of NBC News, Steve Capus, told me. 'That's what we keep hearing from the audience, more and more, is that they appreciate that we have people who are actually speaking truth to power...'" Olbermann wrote his diatribe after "downing 'a couple of screwdrivers'" while waiting for a plane at LAX.

     # Concern MSNBC's opinionated coverage could taint NBC News: "'Listen, it's a strain,' says Tom Brokaw, the longtime anchor of Nightly News, who remains an active and revered figure at NBC. 'And it's under constant examination. There's dialogue going on behind the scenes all the time. It's not perfectly sorted out.'"

     # The chief of CBS and two successive Presidents of CBS News met with Olbermann about taking the CBS Evening News anchor chair.

     [This item, by the MRC's Brent Baker, was posted Wednesday morning on the MRC's blog, NewsBusters.org: newsbusters.org ]

     Matching excerpts from Boyer's piece, (plus a flashback to Olbermann on CNN back in 2002 when he, in a preview of what was to come on MSNBC, suggested America faces a "greater danger" from the "backlash" against lawyers for al Qaeda operatives than from the terrorists themselves and analogized the attitude toward those being held in Guantanamo Bay to the "blacklist" against the left in the 1950s.)

     From Boyer:

# He sat down at his computer and began to write. After an hour, he had the first draft of a lacerating indictment of Bush, a twelve-minute-long (eighteen pages in teleprompter script) j 'accuse, addressed personally to the President.

"Mr. Bush, at long last, has it not dawned on you that the America you have now created includes ‘cold-blooded killers who will kill people to achieve their political objectives'?" Olbermann wrote. "They are those in -- or formerly in -- your employ, who may yet be charged some day with war crimes."

The denunciation hit the high notes of the most fevered antiwar rhetoric, accusing Bush (he of the "addled brain"), his alleged puppet master ("the American snake-oil salesman Dick Cheney"), and the "tragically know-it-all minions," "sycophants," and "mental dwarves" who serve them in the Administration of perpetrating a "panoramic and murderous deceit" on America and the world. Intelligence was faked, W.M.D.s were imagined, Iraq was laid waste, and American freedoms were trashed....

At MSNBC, the feedback was slightly more cautious. Olbermann's original script identified the "cold-blooded killers" as everyone at the Pentagon and in the Bush Cabinet; when a colleague noted that that would include such relative moderates as Colin Powell and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Olbermann modified the line. Phil Griffin, the senior vice-president in charge of MSNBC ("Phil thinks he's my boss," Olbermann says), raised the matter of tone. Why did Olbermann need to end his commentary by telling the President of the United States to "shut the hell up"?

"Because I can't say, ‘Shut the fuck up,' that's why, frankly," Olbermann responded. The line stayed in....

     Full rundown of Olbermann's May 14 ranting, see "Olbermann Accuses Bush of 'Murderous Deceit,' 'Shut the Hell Up,'" online at: www.mrc.org


# Olbermann was glad enough to be leaving the grind of full-time sportscasting behind. His new job brought him out of the toy department and into the news side of broadcasting, with a show on NBC's new cable-news channel, MSNBC. The producer of the broadcast, called "The Big Show," was Phil Griffin, who was delighted to be working with Olbermann again. But in 1998, when the news cycle was hijacked by the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Olbermann found himself the anchor of a nightly newscast called "White House in Crisis." He grew so weary of the story that getting him on the air every day became a battle. "Keith just didn't want to go there," Griffin recalls. "He didn't want to do the story, and it evolved into the hottest story of the time. It made my life miserable. It was bad. And it did not end pretty."

Once again, Olbermann left a job unhappily, returning to sportscasting at Fox Sports. He was subsequently fired, and the remainder of his contract was paid off. ("I fired him," Rupert Murdoch said recently. "He's crazy.")

But Phil Griffin continued to admire Olbermann's on-air talents, and helped to bring him back to MSNBC in 2003, to do a new show called "Countdown." Shortly afterward, Griffin ran into an old colleague at CNN, who told him that that network had considered hiring Olbermann, but focus-group tests showed that audiences didn't like him. "I can honestly tell you it shook me up a little bit," Griffin recalls. "But we knew what we were getting."...


# It was a short leap from denigrating Bill-O to Olbermann's first "Special Comment," aimed at then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, in August, 2006. While waiting out a flight delay in Los Angeles, Olbermann read the highlights of a speech that Rumsfeld had just delivered to the American Legion, in which he charged that some critics of the Administration's war plan suffered "moral or intellectual confusion about what is right or wrong." Downing "a couple of screwdrivers," Olbermann says, he wrote a rebuke of the Defense Secretary, which he read on the air the next day. "The man who sees absolutes where all other men see nuances and shades of meaning is either a prophet or a quack," he began. "Donald H. Rumsfeld is not a prophet." Olbermann went on to lecture Rumsfeld about the workings of a democracy and the nature of fascism, and concluded by quoting from Edward R. Murrow's 1954 denunciation of Joseph McCarthy and McCarthyism. He says that he didn't know how the commentary would play, with the NBC brass or with the audience. "I really did think, Well, if this is the end of my career, I will have gone down for a good cause."

His bosses loved it. "I think we're onto something," the president of NBC News, Steve Capus, told me. "That's what we keep hearing from the audience, more and more, is that they appreciate that we have people who are actually speaking truth to power, or being transparent in their own personal viewpoints." That's another way of saying that liberals, after many failed attempts, seem finally to have found their own Bill O'Reilly. Fox News still dominates the cable competition, and MSNBC over all continues to lag behind second-place CNN. O'Reilly's audience is more than twice as big as Olbermann's, which airs in the same prime-time period. But Olbermann's ratings grew by nearly seventy-five per cent the year he began doing Special Comments, and the show is making money, a rare hit in MSNBC's twelve-year run. "All of a sudden, he took off," Griffin says. "In ways that MSNBC never had a show take off."...

     For the CyberAlert post on that August 30, 2006 invective: "Olbermann Blasts Rumsfeld as a 'Quack' Pushing 'Fascism,'" see: www.mrc.org


# Some might find Olbermann's frequent invocation of Murrow, and, especially, his appropriation of Murrow's sign-off, wildly presumptuous. But when, in 2005, CBS was looking for a permanent replacement for Dan Rather network executives met with Olbermann twice about the prospect of his becoming the anchor of the "CBS Evening News."

After Rather's unhappy departure from CBS, the network's president, Leslie Moonves, said that he wanted to blow up the "Evening News"â€"by which he meant, he later explained, that he wanted to do away with the program's outmoded "broadcast of record" posture, and its accompanying burden of summarizing the world in twenty-two minutes each night. Moonves and Andrew Heyward, then the president of CBS News, held a secret meeting with Olbermann at his apartment, and asked how he would approach the "Evening News" job. Olbermann, who was nearing the end of his contract at MSNBC, said he thought that it was a waste for networks to spend so much money on their anchors, when they shared so much airtime with field correspondents. Olbermann said that he would, of course, be less freewheeling than he had been at "Countdown," and that he would redirect the broadcast incrementally, beginning with a three-minute block at the end of each newscast to which he would apply his personal touch. "Maybe in a year's time, after you've given me those three minutes to sort of reprogram, maybe I'll get four or five," Olbermann says now. "You don't go in for the full revolution. You do not come on and do 'Naked News.' "

The meeting ended, and Heyward was not convinced that Olbermann was the right choice for an institution where even the use of music in a news report, let alone voice impersonations by the anchor, is strictly forbidden. But soon afterward Heyward was replaced as news-division president by the head of CBS Sports, Sean McManus, who agreed to a second meeting with Olbermann, at CBS News headquarters on West Fifty-seventh Street....


# MSNBC's election coverage is, by default, the political coverage of NBC News. Throughout the protracted Democratic-primary season, after the twenty-two-minute "Nightly News" broadcast went off the air on a big night, NBC's coverageâ€"and its news starsâ€"moved across the studio to MSNBC, where coverage was co-anchored by a broadcaster who makes his personal perspective plainly known. The risk for NBC News is that this commingling has colored the NBC News brand, so carefully burnished over the generations, with the attitudes and predilections of the cable arm.

"Listen, it's a strain," says Tom Brokaw, the longtime anchor of "Nightly News," who remains an active and revered figure at NBC. "And it's under constant examination. There's dialogue going on behind the scenes all the time. It's not perfectly sorted out."...

     END of Excerpt

     For the piece in the June 23 issue of the New Yorker magazine: www.newyorker.com


     Bonus: Flashback to the Friday, January 25, 2002 MRC CyberAlert:

Keith Olbermann is back in fine form at CNN, suggesting America faces a "greater danger" from the "backlash" against lawyers for al Qaeda operatives than from the terrorists themselves and analogizing the attitude toward those being held in Guantanamo Bay to the "blacklist" against the left in the 1950s.

Olbermann, who on MSNBC in 1998 suggested Ken Starr was acting like a "persecutor" and reminded him "facially" of Heinrich Himmler, is filling in this week as host of CNN's The Point aired at 8:30pm EST. Stanley Cohen, Gerry Spence and Robert Shapiro, lawyers who have defended unpopular criminals, were Olbermann's guests in his first segment on Thursday night, January 24.

After Cohen said he would represent John Walker Lindh, Shapiro insisted he would not and Spence explained he only would if he believed he could give his client his best effort, Olbermann presented this convoluted premise to Spence:

"Mr. Spence, let me bring this to the question of representation. There was a column in what we might call a New York newspaper that today trashed the former Attorney General Ramsey Clark for getting involved in that issue of how the detainees in Guantanamo Bay are being treated. Are we in greater danger from the John Walker Lindhs of this world or from the backlash against them and towards those who would serve as their attorneys?"

Olbermann's logic bewildered Spence: "Well, I don't understand quite the question. You're, you ought to, could you give it a little more simple so, simpler so that both this poor country lawyer and your audience could understand what you want me the talk about?"

Olbermann tried again with the same liberal premise about intolerance of lawyers being more dangerous than mass murdering terrorists: "Are we in more danger from Americans who have fought with the Taliban or allegedly have done so, or from people who criticize attorneys for defending them?"

Next, Olbermann delivered a tribute to the "courage" of lawyers who take on unpopular clients: "Mr. Shapiro, based on your own experience in the controversy that surrounded your handling of the O.J. Simpson case and your representation of Mr. Simpson, does it take a courage above and beyond to step into a situation like this where the client has so much stacked against him going in just from the media and from the supposed public perception?"

Returning to his theme of high-profile lawyers as the victims, Olbermann inquired, as taken down by MRC analyst Brad Wilmouth: "Mr. Cohen, I guess same, similar kind of question as I just asked Mr. Shapiro, recalling your time with the Hamas leader, is it going to be personally scary for those who represent John Walker Lindh at this point because of the potential for public vilification of them, let alone him?"

Olbermann soon served up this compact compilation of liberal hysteria: "Mr. Shapiro, in the ‘50s we had a blacklist against many on the left politically. In the ‘40s, we had Americans of Japanese descent interned at race tracks in California. In the ‘20s, we had the Palmer Raids. You can go all the way back to the Alien and Sedition Act in 1800. Are you worried that we might be entering that kind of period of time again in the case of Walker Lindh and the case of the detainees in Guantanamo Bay, even the ones in American jails of Arab descent, at this moment?"

Yes, the United States has been a dangerous place in which to live since 1800. Wonder if it was okay with Olbermann in the 1790s?

In 1999 Olbermann was a finalist in the "I'm a Compassionate Liberal But I Wish You Were All Dead Award (for media hatred of conservatives)" category of the MRC's "Dishonor Awards: The Decade's Most Outrageous Liberal Media Bias," for this question to then-Chicago Tribune Washington Bureau Chief James Warren on the August 18, 1998 Big Show with Keith Olbermann on MSNBC:

"Can Ken Starr ignore the apparent breadth of the sympathetic response to the President's speech? Facially, it finally dawned on me that the person Ken Starr has reminded me of facially all this time was Heinrich Himmler, including the glasses. If he now pursues the President of the United States, who, however flawed his apology was, came out and invoked God, family, his daughter, a political conspiracy and everything but the kitchen sink, would not there be some sort of comparison to a persecutor as opposed to a prosecutor for Mr. Starr?"

     END of Reprint

     Video of Olbermann on Starr as Himmler: www.mrc.org

     January 25, 2002 CyberAlert: www.mediaresearch.org



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