Keith Olbermann: The PBJ Interview

OK, so now you’re back at MSNBC, hosting the Countdown show, after a rather famous break-up in ’98. What’s the story behind that? I have to admit I didn’t think I’d see you back there.

Me neither. Obviously, I left NBC in ’98 a lot more cordially than most of the media believed. As Dick Ebersol said when he asked me last October to host the Olympics, certainly I left NBC Sports with nothing but friends. So, Dick’s decision is where this started. As management at MSNBC began to learn that I would be on its network ten or twelve hours a day next August, my agent read that Jerry Nachman had taken ill and wouldn’t be doing his program for awhile. She emailed Erik Sorenson, the President, and wrote that it seemed like a win-win for both MSNBC and me if I did some fill-ins — unless there were too many bad memories. Erik talked to Phil Griffin, now a Vice President but formerly the producer of The Big Show on MSNBC, and they answered “no bad memories here.”

So when Ebersol announced the Olympics, we also announced I’d be doing three fill-ins for Nachman. And they went well. So I did five more. Then three more. Then Erik and Phil and I sat down and basically said “we like this.” And Neal Shapiro, who is the President of NBC News, said he liked it. And Neal called me in and explained the Countdown concept and offered me the show. And all the big executives in the company who wanted me to stay in 1998 looked at this not from a “he didn’t do what I wanted” point of view, but rather the way good people and good business people do: What Counts Now? And they all welcomed back, and I’m very grateful and feel very fortunate because there are some other places I’d talked about going back to where they just couldn’t put the business — the “What Counts Now?” part — ahead of personal feelings.

The whole thing, from my agent’s email to a contract to host the network’s nightly newscast, took exactly 46 days. Never seen anything in TV happen so fast in my life.

There are a lot of news shows on the air, many with a “title” and “theme.” What do you bring to the table, what do you try to do differently, than they do at CNN or FOX?
 
Well, we intend to be both interesting and journalistically honest, a balance no newscast on CNN or Fox News has ever achieved.

And as to bringing something different to the table, I was growing up, television news re-invented itself every five years: Color. Live. An Hour of news. Two hours. The minicam. Cable News. And that’s where it all stopped. Other than the “news crawl” — which was stolen from the financial and sports channels — there hasn’t been anything genuinely new since about 1985. So we have to make a 21st Century newscast that is at once an interesting television program, and a newscast that adheres to the values of journalism: being fair and balanced, not just using it as a slogan nobody knows the real meaning of but they use it anyway just to sound smart — like people who say “all intensive purposes” without knowing its “all intents and purposes.”

The other thing the show brings to the table is me. I write it. Very few newscasters write any more. I try for 100% of the script every night. I’m kind of eclectic. I don’t think it’s a good show unless I’ve tied today’s news to something that happened in 444 BC, and something that happened on television last week.

I liked your FOX Sports show, especially that 40s private eye-ish office set you had. Why did you leave, and what happened?
 
If you find out, let me know. All my agent and I were ever told was, early in May, 2001, that I was being replaced as the host of Fox Saturday Baseball, but the cable show would continue. 24 hours later came a second phone call saying the cable show was being discontinued. They didn’t fire me (they kept paying me through the end of 2001) and I didn’t quit.

What my agent and I have since inferred is that in a conversation she’d had with an executive a few weeks earlier on behalf of another client, some reference was made to my long-term commitment to Fox Sports and Fox Sports Net. With eight months to go on our contract, and the network in a shambles, my agent quite correctly said ‘we don’t even know what shows you’ll have on the air next year, so how can we talk about that so early?’ Whether they were somehow offended by my disinclination to agree to a new contract without talking money or what kind of job I’d have, or whether they simply saw an opportunity to get out from under the obligation, I don’t know.

I do know this. At one point, my salary constituted ten percent of the entire Fox Sports Net “news” budget. They were bleeding cash. They may very well have expected that I would’ve quit — relieving them of having to pay me — once they took me off baseball. Or they may have thought I’d have blown up and gone to the newspapers and said what idiots they were. If so, they miscalculated. At my nuttiest or angriest or whatever-iest, I would never have been stupid to give up the $800,000 they still owed me just so I could trash them.

They did do some nasty stuff. They implied I had quit, and when Sports Illustrated asked the Fox PR office to make me available for comment, the PR office said the writer should e-mail me and if I wanted to talk, I’d get back to them. By that time, of course, my e-mail account had been closed by Fox so I never even got the message. SI then did a story about how I’d quit, and “chosen” not to be interviewed. Very clever. Very Fox. Fortunately for the Free World, NewsCorp is very aggressive but ultimately not very bright. I got their money, I was ordered off their sinking ship, and my career was — as this new job suggests — not negatively affected in the slightest.

Obviously the war in Iraq is dominating all of the 24 hour news channels. How will Countdown be changed at all when the amount of war coverage subsides, or will the format stay the same?
 
Obviously we didn’t think it seemly to roll out many of the format elements for Countdown during a war. The goal for the first three weeks: Stay Out Of The Way Of The News. Now, however, we’ll be introducing new ones, like the overall concept of a “countdown” in which we will intersperse the staff’s selections for the top four or five news stories of the day throughout the hour. The fifth will be mentioned first, the fourth, second, etc. The top story — and why we think it’s the top story — will be examined, in depth, in the last quarter of the show.

There are lots of smaller, quirkier, countdowns, some of which we’re already using. Top Three Newsmaker lists. Top Three “Whatever” lists (the other day it was The Top Three Items Found In Tariq Aziz’s home: 3. A bottle of Obsession perfume; 2. A video of ‘Sleepless In Seattle’; 1. A copy of Cosmopolitan Magazine. All true, but providing a punchline — “No wonder he disappeared”).
Other items, like a very familiar-sounding theme from broadcasting’s past, and commentaries (usually not by me) will be added as the weeks elapse.

Do we really need 24 hour news stations? It seems that so much of it, because it’s live and breaking and very competitive, is filled with guesswork, pundits with opinions, repitition of news, etc.
 
Do we have that many 24-hour news stations? There was a Saturday over the winter in which there were eight college basketball games on my cable system simultaneously. I would also argue that Fox isn’t a news channel: it’s an opinion-predicated channel, as skewed as is the “news” on Pat Robertson’s channel (ironically, Pat’s “newscaster” is Lee Webb, who did the sports on Channel 5 in Boston at 6 O’Clock in 1984 while I was doing it on the same station at 11). There’s nothing wrong with having a Shooting Fish In A Barrel network like Fox does, but since the people running that place don’t for a moment think it’s really news, they should approach the outskirts of honesty and say “Yes, we’re as biased as anything television has ever seen.” I doubt they’d lose any viewers. I keep wondering what the pretext is for. I guess it allows Bill O’Reilly and Geraldo Rivera to feel like they haven’t failed (again) in the news business.

As to the other point — competitive, guesswork, pundits, opinions, repetition. It’s funny, but in newspapers and magazines these seem to be assets. Competitive? New York still has four vigorous newspapers! Guesswork? That’d be the sports department, or your local tv critic. Pundits? Columnists, the more punditry the better. Opinions? Any newspapers without an Editorial page? Repetition? How about sidebars, recaps, and “news analysis,” to say nothing of “beat” reporting.

I recently heard you say on your show, “we report, you decide.” Is that something you have to clear with the higher-ups, or do they let you have freedom on stuff like that?
 
No, not at all. All three cable networks have a healthy, vigorous dislike for each other. I get a round of applause when I do something like that. And God Bless Rupert Murdoch for one thing: his covey of flying monkeys do something journalistically atrocious every hour of the day. They hand us the sword every day and say “smite us right here.” And I’m a good smiter.

You’ve worked at many places over the years, either because of quitting or being let go or whatever. Is this the career-track you’ve always seen for yourself, sort of a temporary anchor/writer who shows up like “MacGyver” here and there, or would you rather work at one place that you really like forever?
 
I’ll have to contest your assumption. As of July, I’ll have been a professional sportscaster and newscaster for 24 years. I’ve had seven television employers — three local stations and four networks. Curt Schilling’s pitched for five different organizations. How many teams has Bill Parcells coached? Since 1990 or so, a man named George W. Bush has been a businessman, the owner of a baseball team, a governor, and president — yeesh, can’t he hold a job? Does that make us all MacGyvers?

I guess I meant that some could see it as hopping around, but it’s really having a career.
 
Every time I’ve changed jobs, I’ve improved my salary, my status in the industry, my personal life, or all three. It doesn’t mean I was dissatisfied everywhere I’ve left — just that something better awaited, or it was time to change. And I was at ESPN for five-and-a-half years, and signed three different contracts with them, at their request. While working in Los Angeles, I was on KNX Radio for seven years. I’ve had the same agent for twenty years. And my last three major jobs, ABC Radio, CNN, and NBC, were all ones in which I was welcomed back by previous employers.

Also, I’ve now signed fourteen contracts in my career. I’ve fulfilled thirteen of them (the only one I left early was at Channel 5, in Boston, in 1984). Even at NBC in 1998, I would’ve continued on the job if we hadn’t mutually decided that the best solution to the situation was for NBC to sell my contract to Fox.

And, yes, I’ve always wanted to work 30 years for one employer. Perhaps I’ll be lucky enough to do that this time.

What would you like to see on the 24 hr news channels that isn’t being done right now?
 
News.

OK, so who wins in a knock-down, drag-out fight, you or Bill O’Reilly?
 
Actually, we already had one, and I won it — in a shutout. Between its debut on October 1, 1997, and my farewell (December 4, 1998, I believe), The Big Show was never beaten nor tied by O’Reilly’s show. Now, to be fair, MSNBC had a considerable advantage in the number of homes that could see either network (it started around 20 or 25 percent), but still, when viewers had a choice between the two of us, half or a little more than half chose me. With the head start I’ve given him — a head start for which I apologize to humanity and my Maker — I’m not expecting to replicate that statistic any time in the immediate future. But emphasizing your term “drag-out,” to quote Churchill at the start of World War II: “We shall have him!”

STAT BOX Birthplace/birthdate: Born in New York City, January 27, 1959, and raised in its suburbs.
Favorite TV Show: Prime Minister’s Question Time (C-SPAN), The Simpsons, The West Wing.
Favorite Movie: Network, tied with The Manchurian Candidate
Favorite Type of Music/Band: To both questions: The Beatles.
Favorite Food: A nice seared tuna.
Favorite Drink: Bottled water. The occasional glass of merlot.
What kind of car do you drive? Don’t. A head injury in 1980 keeps me from having any depth perception while I’m in motion above 15 MPH.
Hobbies: Historical sports memorabilia, reading.
If you weren’t a newsman you’d be…: A sportscaster (duh). Outside the media, I’d either be a psychologist or a teacher.
Best advice you ever received: If you want to be on the air, the now-president of ABC Bob Iger told me in 1979, stay on the air. Don’t become a producer, even if it means moving to Keokuk.
The worst: “Don’t feel that we’re in any rush to get this done in less than five years” — from the Fox executive who hired me to take on SportsCenter in 1998. He quit six months later, and his successor said “We have to get the ratings up by next week.”
Leno or Letterman? Neither, particularly, any more, though they were the comic titans of the 1980’s. Leno, now, out of company loyalty.
And most importantly, paper or plastic? Paper inside plastic. We have the technology.

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