The best line from the New York Times' reporting on Keith Olbermann's sudden but not entirely surprising departure from MSNBC comes at the end.
By AARON BARNHART
The Kansas City Star
Give us a bit of credit for getting eight years out of him," an NBC News exec told the Times. "Thats the longest hes been anywhere.
True enough. And yet, count me as one of those people who believes NBC could have had KO a lot longer had it managed him, and its cable news outlet, more coherently.
As informative as the Times' story is, it is clearly told from the viewpoint of network management. And this is the same management that has always dithered over its cable-news properties, saying one thing and doing another. To refresh your memory...
1. In the early 1990s, Roger Ailes turned around CNBC's prime-time ratings with a mix of peculiar and riveting figures: Tom Snyder, Geraldo Rivera, sex guy Bob Berkowitz. NBC was happy enough with that, but when Ailes (controversial then as now) proposed his next move an all-talk cable channel heavily focused on talk-radio topics the network said no thanks. Ailes went off to start the Fox News Channel.
2. In the late 1990s, Rivera caught fire. With his terrier-like devotion to stories like Jon-Benet and Monica, he became CNBC's biggest star and was signed to a new deal that included airtime on the NBC network. It was a story I covered for the New York Observer, and the wonderful headline that accompanied my story "CNBC Dances in the Muck as Andy Lack Cleans Up," Lack being at the time the head of NBC News perfectly captured the anxiety felt inside the NBC newsroom. The "real" journalists inside NBC hated Geraldo. Sure enough, he soon found his way to the door ... and the Fox News Channel.
3. And now, the squandering of Keith. (Hey, do you think he'll go to F... nahhhhh ... well, probably not.)
I can name the moment when the relationship between NBC and Olbermann started to unravel. It was the summer of 2008. MSNBC thought it would be a great idea to have KO and Chris Matthews co-anchor MSNBC's convention coverage. But as I wrote on Aug. 28, 2008, once the live cameras started to roll two things became clear: One, it was hard to adjust to KO sitting in the Tom Brokaw chair, trying to be objective and all; and two, Olbermann and Matthews should never, ever, EVER work that closely together again.
The arrangement came under attack from the Bush White House and the McCain-Palin campaign. Not long after that, management changed its mind and announced that, on election night, Olbermann and Matthews would be shunted to the side and David Gregory put in the middle.
Olbermann gave an interview to the Times complaining that Fox News had Brit Hume at the center of its panel coverage, despite his conservative biases; why was MSNBC being singled out? The argument fell on deaf ears, including mine. I wrote on Sept. 8:
"Ive been of at least two minds on the Olbermann phenomenon ... Ive always loved 'Countdown,' but back in 2006, I did ask (along with other critics) if KO was the future face of news, and if we were all good with that. As it turns out, we are NOT all good with that. I thought the big jobs should go to the big men (and women). But the people have spoken, loudly and angrily, and so the big job will now go to MSNBCs least MSNBC-like talent" i.e., Gregory.
A few days later, I received this email from Olbermann:
"Thank you for the support about Election Night," he wrote sarcastically. "The entire Municipal Bus System has been over my head since last week. How nice it is to get crushed for doing what management told you to do."
Now, you can argue that KO was being overly dramatic here and typically unreasonable and creating all kinds of needless tension. But Olbermann was telling the truth. Perhaps he had let ego overrule commonsense, but he had believed his bosses when they told him he would be their Brit Hume as well as their Bill O'Reilly. (As it turns out, Olbermann wound up doing much of the anchoring on election night anyway, because he's a tremendous talent and neither Gregory nor Matthews could do live coverage the way he could.)
Clearly, though, the earlier humiliation marked the turning point in his relationship with network management. In his farewell remarks last Friday, Olbermann did not thank his boss and erstwhile defender, MSNBC president Phil Griffin.
I'm only sorry I didn't catch this at the time. In hindsight I was guilty of mirroring the incoherence going on inside NBC. And now I realize that Glenn Greenwald and others were absolutely right to call NBC on its dithering.
To this day, NBC still does not know what to do with MSNBC. On the one hand, it enjoys making money with a prime-time lineup of liberals and progressives. On the other hand, it likes the corporate synergy of having CNBC's Dylan Ratigan and NBC White House reporters Chuck Todd and Savannah Guthrie and diplomacy queen Andrea Mitchell all anchoring daytime shows on MSNBC.
Had NBC management simply said to MSNBC, "After 6 o'clock at night, we don't care what you do. We're going home. Clean up when you're done," I doubt KO would be gone today. But the network was too nervous about tarnishing the NBC brand, and as a result it has lost its biggest cable star.