Born in January 1959 in New York City, Keith Olbermann was raised in upscale Westchester County, New York. His father was an architect, his mother a teacher. A sports enthusiast from an early age, at fourteen Olbermann published his first book, The Major League Coaches.
Olbermann attended Cornell University‘s affiliated College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, where he studied history and communications and managed the campus radio station. After graduating in 1979, he found work at UPI Radio Network and then RKO Radio in New York City.
In 1981 the fledgling Cable News Network (CNN) hired Olbermann as a sports anchor and reporter. In 1984 Olbermann quit CNN and spent the next eight years as a sports reporter at local television stations in Boston and Los Angeles.
In 1992 Olbermann was hired by the cable sports network ESPN, where he performed both on television and radio and was soon teamed with Dan Patrick as co-anchor of its flagship highlight show Sports Center. In 1995 Olbermann won a CableACE Award, and in 1997 he and Patrick co-authored the book The Big Show: Inside ESPN’s “Sports Center.” While promoting this book, Olbermann appeared without ESPN’s permission on the rival cable network Comedy Central and was suspended for two weeks as punishment. As Michael Freeman’s book ESPN: The Uncensored History recounts, Olbermann also testified on behalf of several women who had charged the network with sexual harassment.
In 1997 Olbermann left ESPN for a $650,000 contract at NBC/MSNBC, where he worked as a substitute anchor for the NBC Nightly News, as an anchor of NBC Sports, and as host of the news and interview-oriented The Big Show With Keith Olbermann on MSNBC. Olbermann’s political views began to surface on his MSNBC program. On one occasion, he described Ken Starr, the special prosecutor investigating various charges against then-President Bill Clinton, as a “persecutor” whose face reminded him “of [Nazi] Heinrich Himmler, including the glasses.”
As the sex scandals involving President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky saturated the headines in early 1998, Olbermann grew weary of the news business. Later that year, when Fox Sports News offered to buy out his NBC contract and pay him $1 million annually to be its main anchor, Olbermann agreed.
Olbermann in the new millenium also began writing for the leftwing online magazine Salon.com, where his articles criticized conservatives ranging from former Education Secretary Bill Bennett to the owner of the Fox News Channel and Fox Sports News, Rupert Murdoch.
In 2003 Olbermann left Fox Sports News and returned to MSNBC, where his show Countdown With Keith Olbermann was launched that April. Olbermann described Countdown as a centrist production that sniped and laughed at both Republicans and Democrats, both conservatives and liberals. But the broadcaster’s criticisms aimed at those on the right were far more frequent and ferocious. A Media Research Center study that examined Olbermann’s programming during the period of June 2005 through June 2006, found that his criticisms were aimed at conservative targets or ideas 88 percent of the time, and at liberal or leftist targets 12 percent of the time.
For example, during the 2004 presidential campaign, when a book by Democratic candidate John Kerry‘s fellow Vietnam Swiftboat veterans raised doubts about Kerry’s honesty and claims of military heroism, Olbermann told his audience that a right-wing billionaire had bankrolled the book’s publisher.
When former President Richard Nixon’s onetime White House lawyer John Dean published his 2004 screed, Worse Than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush, Olbermann passionately promoted the book on his show. He likened it to George Orwell’s novel 1984 and told his audience that Bush’s policies were a first step “towards this totalitarian state that Orwell wrote about….”
In January 2006, Olbermann interviewed author William Blum shortly after Osama bin Laden had praised Blum’s Rogue State as a “useful” book. Blum attributed bin Laden’s approval of his work to the al Qaeda leader’s conviction that “anti-American terrorism arises from the behavior of U.S. foreign policy.” Olbermann lauded Blum for explaining the “logic behind the behavior behind Osama bin Laden.”
In October 2006, Olbermann accused President Bush and Republicans of committing the “dictionary definition” of terrorism in trying to frighten Americans into voting for them. “[T]he leading terrorist group in this country right now is the Republican Party,” Olbermann said.
In February 2008, Olbermann described President Bush as “a fascist” who “believe[s] in the seamless mutuality of government and big business.” “You, sir, have no place in a government of the people, by the people, for the people,” Olbermann continued, in a message directed to Bush himself. “The lot of you [Republicans in the White House] are the symbolic descendants of the despotic middle managers of some banana republic to whom ‘freedom’ is an ironic brand name, a word you reach for when you want to get away with its opposite.”
In May 2008, Olbermann accused President Bush of practicing “murderous deceit” in his prosecution of the Iraq War. This charge was consistent with Olbermann’s previous characterizations of Bush as “a president who lied us into a war“; a man with an “addled brain”; a president guilty of “an impeachable offense“; an “unhinged, irrational Chicken Little of a president,”; “a bald-faced liar”; and either a “pathological presidential liar, or an idiot-in-chief.” Olbermann further accused Bush of “laying waste to Iraq to achieve [his] political objectives” in an “insurance-scam, profiteering, morally bankrupting war.”
In June 2008, a “high-level source inside MSNBC” told the TVNewser blog that network stars like Chris Matthews and Tim Russert were “upset” and “pissed” that Olbermann was eroding MSNBC’s credibility with his “activism,” which included blogging for the hard-left Daily Kos website. TVNewser’s Steve Krakauer quoted the source as having said: “What’s it going to be like in the general election now that everyone knows we’re the in-house network of [Democratic presidential candidate] Barack Obama?”
When Obama won the U.S. presidency on Election Night 2008, Olbermann proclaimed: “You’ve seen those videotapes of Walter Cronkite, the night that man landed on the moon for the first time, when Neil Armstrong stepped out, and he could just barely get out monosyllables. Politically, that’s what this is. This is man on the moon.”
In January 2009, Olbermann commented on reports that Said Ali al-Shihri, a former Guantanamo Bay detainee who had been released in 2007, later went on to become an al Qaeda leader in Yemen and was believed to be responsible for a September 2008 embassy bombing in Yemen. Suggesting that Bush administration policies may have turned a previously peaceful Shihri — who was initially captured near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in December 2001 — into a terrorist, Olbermann said:
“Since we never tried him, never found him guilty, and the Bush administration set him free, what if he wasn’t a terrorist in the first place but we turned him into one by sending him to Gitmo?… Shihri said he had gone to Afghanistan to do relief work, and his trip to Iran, that was to buy carpets for his family’s furniture store in Riyad…. [I]f Shihri was once just a guy trying to get a deal on some carpets, which is suggested by the fact that Bush’s people let him go, did his detention at Gitmo in fact turn him into a terrorist? Did we perhaps create in Said al-Shihri his reason for hating us?”
In April 2009, Olbermann read a quote from Warren County, Ohio commissioner Mike Kilburn proclaiming his intention not to accept any money from President Obama’s recently signed stimulus bill, and citing Ronald Reagan’s famous assertion that “government is the problem.” Olbermann then quipped: “Uh, Commissioner Kilburn, Reagan’s dead and he was a lousy president.”
In July 2009, Olbermann cited conservatives’ “pervasive immorality and holier-than-thou hypocrisy” as the wellsprings of “the reeking pile of manure that is the right-wing media and right-wing commentary.”
In October 2009, Olbermann described conservative columnist Michelle Malkin as someone consumed by “total[ly] mindless, morally bankrupt, knee-jerk, fascistic hatred.” Without those qualities, added Olbermann, Malkin “would just be a big mashed-up bag of meat with lipstick on it.”
In January 2010, Olbermann characterized conservatives who opposed President Obama’s healthcare reform effort as “terrorists” who preferred “the current healthcare system [and] the insurance companies” which, the broadcaster alleged, were responsible for some 45,000 needless deaths in the U.S. each year.
On January 18, 2010, Olbermann excoriated Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown, a candidate in a special election (slated for the following day) to determine who would fill the vacant U.S. Senate seat of the recently deceased Ted Kennedy. Olbermann described Brown, who opposed the Democratic healthcare-reform proposals which were being hotly debated at that time, as “an irresponsible, homophobic, racist, reactionary, ex-nude model, teabagging supporter of violence against women and against politicians with whom he disagrees.”
Olbermann commonly claims that the United States continues to be plagued by high levels of white racism. For example, in a February 2010 “Special Comment” aimed at Tea Party activists, to whom he had commonly referred as the “Tea Klux Klan” and “tea baggers,” he encouraged those activists to admit that their distaste for President Obama was rooted in racism. Asserting that white males were particularly inclined toward being racists, Olbermann said: “And I think, having now been one for 51 years, I am permitted to say I believe prejudice and discrimination still sit defeated, dormant, or virulent somewhere in the soul of each white man in this country.”
“What was the more likely cause of the Oklahoma City bombing: talk radio or Bill Clinton and Janet Reno’s hands-on management of Waco, the Branch Davidian compound?…Obviously, the answer is talk radio. Specifically Rush Limbaugh’s hate radio….Frankly, Rush, you have that blood on your hands now and you have had it for 15 years.”
In May 2010 — six months before the Republican Party’s most sweeping mid-term election victory since the 1930s — Olbermann pondered the GOP’s imminent extinction: “You are rapidly moving from ‘The Party of No,’ past ‘The Party of No Conscience,’ towards ‘The Party of No Relevancy.’ You are behind the wheel of a political Toyota. And before the mid-terms, you will have been reduced to only being this generation’s home for the nuts.”
In October 2010, Olbermann characterized Republican political candidates and their Tea Party backers as “a group of unqualified, unstable individuals who will do what they are told, in exchange for money and power, and march this nation as far backward as they can get, backward to Jim Crow, or backward to the breadlines of the ’30s … [in an effort] to end this democracy.” On another occasion, Olbermann referred to Republicans as a party of “treacherous and ultimately traitorous” individuals.
On November 5, 2010, it was announced that Olbermann was being suspended indefinitely, without pay, by MSNBC for having violated the ethics policies of his employer when he donated money to three Democratic political candidates seeking federal office. Olbermann had given $2,400 – the maximum contribution allowed for individuals – to each of three campaigns: those of Kentucky Senate candidate Jack Conway, and Arizona Reps. Raul Grijalva and Gabrielle Giffords. Olbermann returned to the airwaves on November 9.
On January 21, 2011, Olbermann announced that his broadcast that evening would be his final one with MSNBC. The station issued a statement saying that it had ended its contract with Olbermann, with no further explanation.
In February 2011, Olbermann launched an “official not-for-profit” blog called FOKNewsChannel.com, “FOK” being an acronym for “Friends Of Keith.” The blog would feature Olbermann’s political commentaries and video segments.
Also in February 2011, it was announced that Olbermann would next work for Current TV, a public-affairs channel co-founded by Al Gore. Olbermann made his Current TV debut on June 20, 2011. His program there — like his previous show at MSNBC — was called _Countdown With Keith Olbermann.
_In the fall of 2011, Olbermann was among the high-profile personalities who made personal appearances in support of anti-capitalism rallies which were staged in New York City by Occupy Wall Street and other activist groups. To view a list of additional noteworthy organizations and individuals who lent their support of the movement, click here.
Near the end of March 2012, Current TV terminated its increasingly acrimonious relationship with Olbermann and replaced his program with Viewpoint with Eliot Spitzer. In response to the firing, Olbermann promptly filed a lawsuit against Current TV, seeking somewhere between $50 million and $70 million.
In July 2013, Olbermann was hired to host a one-hour nightly sports program (debuting August 26) on ESPN-2.
On February 24, 2015, ESPN suspended Olbermann for controversial remarks he made on Twitter, where he derided students who were participating in Penn State University’s annual dance marathon — called “Thon” — which raised money for pediatric cancer research and care. In his various tweets, Olbermann referred to PSU students as “pitiful,” mocked one of his critics as a “goober,” and called another man “stupid.” Olbermann later issued an apology on Twitter, but ESPN decided to suspend him for one week.
In July 2015, ESPN elected not to extend Olbermann’s contract — which was scheduled to expire at the end of that month — after he refused to move his program from its Times Square studio to the network’s headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut.