Commentary: What's behind Keith Olbermann's MSNBC departure?

Miami HeraldJanuary 22, 2011 

Put on your hiking boots, because we're headed for a long, twisting walk up the grassy knoll. Conspiracy theorists are going to flock leftwing firebrand Keith Olbermann's abrupt departure from MSNBC like paparazzi to a naked Kardashian.

Olbermann, his voice not quite wavering but also not quite steady, announced at the end of his show Friday night that he was leaving the MSNBC host chair he's occupied for eight years. He offered no explanation for his departure -- merely thanked a few colleagues (notably excluding MSNBC President Phil Griffith), then attempted to cloak himself in the mantle of mythic CBS broadcaster Ed Murrow by using Murrow's trademark signoff, "Good night and good luck."

But his confession that he was tempted to leave the air like the madman anchor in the film Network, screaming I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore! -- "I think the same fantasy has popped into the head of everybody in my business who has ever been told what I have been told, that this is going to be the last edition of your show," Olbermann said -- strongly suggested he didn't leave under his own steam.

Any hint that a network fired or pushed out its signature host (Olbermann's show had the best ratings, by far, of anything on MSNBC) is bound to raise searching questions. And the odd timing of the announcement will only multiply them.

Conspiracy theorists are going to note that Olbermann's ouster (if that's what it was) came during a perfect window of corporate opportunity: right after the long-delayed acquisition of MSNBC's parent NBC Universal by cable giant Comcast was approved by the FCC last week, and just before the deal formally closes this week.

The timing means that the Democrat-dominated FCC had no chance to ask any questions about whether Comcast is influencing news policy at the network. It also means that Comcast can forestall any future questions on Olbermann's departure by saying, dunno anything about it, didn't happen on our watch.

Comcast has already sensed the impending firestorm. Olbermann was barely off the air Friday night when the company issued an emphatic denial that it was involved. "Comcast has not closed the transaction for NBC Universal and has no operational control at any of its properties including MSNBC," a corporate spokesman said. "We pledged from the day the deal was announced that we would not interfere with NBC Universal’s news operations. We have not and we will not."

You'll see new versions of that denial again and again over the coming weeks as critics bring up the case of Barry Nolan, a Comcast talk-show host fired in 2008 after he got in a public tussle with conservative Fox News host Bill O'Reilly. Nolan, whose show aired on a Comcast regional channel in New England, sued the company, accusing it of sacking him because he protested a decision by the local Emmy chapter to give O'Reilly an award.

Though Nolan lost the suit (the judge ruled that the terms of his contract allowed the company to fire him for any reason at all), Comcast didn't deny that the O'Reilly protest was part of the motivation. It filed documents in the case saying that Nolan's squabble with O'Reilly "jeopardized and harmed the business and economic interests” of the company because Comcast and Fox News were "actively engaged in contract renewal negotiations at the time."

Add that incident to the peculiar manner and timing of Olbermann's dismissal and it's easy to see why a lot of people are going to be skeptical of Comcast's claim that it wasn't involved. But I'm not one of them.

For one thing, getting rid of Olbermann hardly means the death of liberalism at MSNBC. All its nighttime hosts -- Rachel Maddow, Lawrence O'Donnell, Ed Schultz -- are considerably to the left of center.

And for another, Comcast is a liberal-Democrat-friendly company. Built on a foundation of monopolies granted by local governments, Comcast has long been adept at pacifying activist groups (the vast majority of them politically liberal) with cash and public-access channels to grind their axes. That's why, even with the Democrats in control of the White House and both houses of congress the past two years, there's been so little public static about the Comcast-NBC megamerger, which surely would have been labeled a corporate power grab if any other cable conglomerate had been involved.

The fact is that Olbermann, whatever you think of his politics, is a human-relations time bomb who had already lasted at MSNBC several ticks longer than anybody expected. He has fought murderously with bosses and co-workers at every job he's ever held, even back in his non-ideological sports days. Cracked an ESPN executive when Olbermann left in 1997: ‘‘He didn't burn bridges here. He napalmed them." At MSNBC, colleagues were not even permitted to speak to Olbermann, merely to leave notes outside his office door.

MSNBC put up with Olbermann's prickly personality for years because he single-handedly raised the network from Nielsen brain death. When Olbermann arrived in 2003, neither a political agenda nor an audience was discernible at the network. He led it on a bombastic leftward march that has made it the No. 2 cable news network, albeit still far behind No. 1 Fox News.

But MSNBC's success, and the popularity of new stars like Maddow and O'Donnell, made it less inclined to put up with Olbermann's imperious tantrums. Olbermann was nearly fired in November after it was discovered that he was making campaign contributions to some of the Democrats who appeared on his show, a violation of NBC News policy. The webzine The Daily Beast, in a gruesome account of the shouted threats, leaked documents and Olbermann suspension that followed, noted: "Management doesn’t want to turn him into a martyr, but no one will be shocked if he winds up leaving." On Friday, he left. You can bet that martyrdom is next.

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