Mar 1 2011

Olbermann’s Countdown Reaches Zero

MSNBC and the limits of corporate media liberalism

Keith Olbermann--Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/afagen

Keith Olbermann–Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/afagen

Whether the abrupt termination of MSNBC host Keith Olbermann’s contract on January 21 was connected to Olbermann’s left-of-center politics or the recent purchase of NBC by Comcast from General Electric, the host’s departure provides an opportunity to reflect on the bigger picture.

MSNBC’s current ‘liberal’ identity is generally attributed to Olbermann, whose success offered compelling evidence that a left-of-center TV host could find a sizable audience. Olbermann’s willingness to criticize prominent Republican leaders and right-wing commentators like Fox’s Bill O’Reilly was virtually unknown in corporate television. And the show did more than that for progressive causes; for instance, as the Nation’s Jeremy Scahill noted on Twitter (1/21/11), Olbermann’s program regularly reported on the scandals associated with the Blackwater mercenary company.

Olbermann was not, however, the first avowedly liberal cable host. He was preceded at MSNBC by Phil Donahue, whose program was canceled in the run-up to the Iraq War for explicitly political reasons: His firing followed an internal NBC memo that called him “a tired, left-wing liberal” who would be a “difficult public face for NBC in a time of war” (FAIR Action Alert, 3/7/03).

It’s reasonable to wonder whether politics were involved in Olbermann’s departure as well. Olbermann had several clashes with NBC management, most recently over donations he made to Democratic political candidates (FAIR Action Alert, 11/5/10).

Olbermann revealed in 2005 that MSNBC management had two years earlier pushed back against the leftward direction of his show, calling him onto the carpet when he had Al Franken and Janeane Garofalo on as guests in close succession (FAIR Media Advisory, 10/27/05):

I got called into a vice president’s office here and told, “Hey, we don’t mind you interviewing these guys, but should you really have put liberals on on consecutive nights?”

The formal approval of the Comcast/NBC merger—just a week before Olbermann’s departure—raised questions about whether the new company had any role in the termination of Olbermann’s contract. Howard Kurtz of the Daily Beast (1/21/11), citing a “knowledgeable official,” reported that it didn’t, while the Washington Post’s Paul Farhi (1/23/11) reported that one source “intimate with MSNBC’s management” believed that the removal of Olbermann was related to the Comcast takeover.

Comcast’s record suggests concern is warranted. In 2008, Comcast fired one of its own reporters, CN8 TV host Barry Nolan, for speaking out against a local Emmy being awarded to Fox’s O’Reilly. Nolan had distributed materials critical of O’Reilly to other reporters—or, as Nolan explained it (Think Progress, 5/27/08), “I got fired from my job on a news and information network for reporting demonstrably true things in a room full of news people.”

There’s some truth to the notion that Comcast is a conservative company; Stephen Burke, Comcast COO and the man picked to head up NBC after the merger, raised at least $200,000 for George W. Bush’s 2004 campaign (Think Progress, 11/5/10). But GE, a major military contractor, has also long had a Republican orientation—going back to its launching of Ronald Reagan’s political career (Extra!, 11-12/94). And no media conglomerate is likely to be comfortable owning an outlet with an explicitly progressive slant, given the critique of corporate power that’s at the heart of the progressive philosophy.

But is that the angle MSNBC was taking anyway? Discussions of cable news often treat Fox and MSNBC as mirror images—MSNBC doing for the left what Fox provides for the right. But this is wildly misleading. Fox, from its inception, has sought to deliver a right-wing product. MSNBC, by contrast, tried and failed to succeed as a competitor to Fox on the right (Extra! Update, 2/05): “We have to be more conservative then they are,” NBC CEO Robert Wright reportedly told NBC News chief Neal Shapiro after September 11 (New York, 10/3/10).

NBC only reluctantly accepted a progressive tilt for its cable channel after Olbermann, moving to the left after being hired, proved that counter-programming against Fox was the only way MSNBC could win an audience. Even then, NBC executives (and even on-air reporters) seemed uncomfortable with the political leanings of its most prominent host (Daily Beast, 1/21/11).

Fired Comcast reporter Nolan (, 8/16/10) anticipated much more discomfort if MSNBC were purchased by his former bosses. Comcast “aspires to run a major network news operation. What happens when Keith Olbermann goes after O’Reilly? I think that’s scary.” With Olbermann gone, how committed the network will be to “going after” anyone is very much up in the air.

As for Olbermann himself, he announced on February 8 that he will return to the airwaves on the much smaller cable channel Current TV, where he promised “news produced independently of corporate interference.” It sounds like he learned some important lessons at MSNBC.