Keith Olbermann: The left wing’s Bill O’Reilly?

   Keith Olbermann (AP Photo)

In an angry commentary on April 25, MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann accused Rudolph Giuliani of using the language of Osama bin Laden with "the same chilling nonchalance of the madman" to argue that Republicans would keep Americans safer than Democrats from terror.

Eight days later, Olbermann hosted MSNBC’s coverage of the first debate among Republican candidates for president.

Olbermann’s popularity and evolving image as an idealogue has led NBC News to stretch traditional notions of journalistic objectivity. The danger for MSNBC is provoking the same anger among Republicans that Democrats feel toward Fox News Channel.

The Giuliani campaign privately expressed its concern to NBC News about Olbermann’s role in the days leading up to last Thursday’s debate.

MSNBC’s use of Olbermann as a host for major events predated his "special comments," which began appearing late last summer at the end of "Countdown," his irreverent prime-time newscast. The periodic commentaries often seethe with anger toward the Bush administration and against the war. Spread quickly over the Internet, they’ve made him a liberal icon and raised his show’s ratings.

Olbermann knows to leave his opinions at home when he anchors events, said Phil Griffin, NBC News senior vice president.

"Keith’s an adult," Griffin said. "He can tell when it’s appropriate to express himself in a commentary and when to be a journalist. That’s one of his strengths. He knows exactly the tone and his role when he’s doing anything."

He served Thursday both before and after the debate in exactly the position Griffin intended, as the quarterback for coverage. For the most part, he introduced interviews and questioned MSNBC analysts on their own opinions of how the debate went.

In asking about Giuliani’s response to a question on Roe vs. Wade, Olbermann asked, "Do you think that’s consistent with — let’s use the kind word — an evolving position on abortion?"

Similarly, he noted that Giuliani early in the debate appeared to offer an olive branch to Democrats but slipped back into harsher language, including the argument that a Republican president would keep the country safer than a Democrat.

"Did Mr. Giuliani correct course in the middle of the debate?" he asked. "Did someone slip him a note under the door and say, `don’t be nice to Democrats under any circumstances?’"

For many years, the rule for journalists was simple: maintain strict objectivity. Even for television hosts unafraid to say what they think — Chris Matthews, for instance — there’s still a little mystery about what they’ll do inside a voting booth.

Some journalists are such purists that they don’t vote at all.

To one critic, Olbermann’s actual performance at the debate and in similar situations was less important than the message sent by his presence.

"It’s sort of like putting a professional wrestler in an anchor chair and saying `he can do this,’" said Tim Graham, director of media analysis at the Media Research Center, a conservative watchdog. "Well, he can do this. But he’s known as a professional wrestler."

Unlike the Democrats who have made a point of standing up to Fox, there’s been little public protest among Republicans about MSNBC’s use of Olbermann at news events. That doesn’t mean it has gone unnoticed. Graham said there’s a real debate among conservatives over how to deal with him: should he be ignored or loudly criticized, knowing how effectively Olbermann has turned Bill O’Reilly’s attacks into a badge of honor?

The Giuliani campaign would not publicly discuss what it thinks about Olbermann, or whether it had made those feelings known to NBC, a spokeswoman said.

But MSNBC spokesman Jeremy Gaines said a Giuliani campaign representative had called NBC News to complain about Olbermann being part of the debate telecast following his commentary. Olbermann was not told about the protest until after he came off the air Thursday, he said.

Other GOP presidential campaigns have expressed concerns about Olbermann to NBC News, according to a New York political strategist who requested anonymity to protect his clients.

Questions about the objectivity of television news personalities have been around as long as there was a TV set to yell back at. Now we’re in an era where anchors blog, they emote, they lift the curtain to expose how their shows operate.

"It’s a different world," Griffin said, "and I think Keith has mastered this world better than anybody."

The popularity of Lou Dobbs and Glenn Beck on CNN alone illustrates how opinion has become more important on cable news. A general public that laughs at Jon Stewart’s take on the news has probably become accustomed to a point of view, said Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

"I wonder, candidly, how many people parse the ethics on this anymore, other than people in the industry," he said.

Clearly there’s a taste in America for both a partisan and nonpartisan press.

The middle ground is where it gets tricky.

Having Olbermann anchor — as he will continue, with Matthews, for big political nights throughout the campaign — is the MSNBC equivalent of Fox News Channel assigning the same duties to O’Reilly.

Fox has never done that, perhaps mindful of the immediate controversy that would result. Fox has tried to differentiate between its news operation and its prime-time opinion shows, even as its critics believe strongly that’s bunk. In this case, MSNBC doesn’t try to separate news and opinion people, even as it tries to separate news and opinion.

"We’re not hiding from it," Griffin said. "We’re saying he can do both."


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David Bauder can be reached at dbauder"at"


  1. Boots

    As long as KO doesn’t call anyone a “nappy haired ho,” he’s golden. Otherwise MSNBC, NBC will sell him out like a cheap toy.

    The smart money say’s Imus will take them to the cleaners. They deserve it.

  2. SEAL

    I see we are like minded. We must elect people at all levels of government that have the nation’s welfare at heart. The problem is that it will take many years to “infiltrate” and gain a majority in congress. However, it goes far beyong congress. The city, county, and state governments must be taken over, too. Plus the federal court system.

    That is exactly what the republican right wing did. It took them almost 40 years to accomplish it and is the reason why we have the problems now. No matter where you look in any of our governments you see the right wingers. It would surely take us a lot longer to do the same thing because we don’t have the collection plate money to promote our people.

    There were several well organized “right thinking” groups involved in raising money and getting their people installed. But the largest cash cow they had was the churches. They funneled their money through the other “front” organizations to avoid losing their 501c3 status. That is how they took over the entire government.

    We don’t have that kind of time even if we had the money and the orgaizations. It would take many years. The situation is already at the critical state. We must take action that is drastic enough to be news and motivate the Sheeple from their comfortable debt building. They are so focused on how to refinance and keep their standard of living, have no idea what has happened. But only the masses can save this nation at this point. Something must be done to get their attention.

  3. anthny

    Bill O’Reilly can’t be compared to the High Class Act of Keith Obermann.
    O’Reilly is a phony when it comes to reading the fake news of Fox.
    The headline of Left Wing’s Bill O’Reilly is totally out of line. Its referance to Obermann is not even close, Obermann is a true journalist. O’Reilly is a reader of propaganda.

  4. SEAL

    I don’t know much about Ron Paul. I’ve had the opportunity to observe him only once and I was not impressed. In fact, my instinct, which I trust, didn’t like him. But assume for the moment he his all you believe he is. If by some miracle you could get him elected, what do you think he could accomplish? We all know he would have a heavy democratic congress. That would be better than a republican one. But do you think any congress is going to support all [or any] of those things he advocates?

    If he is as committed as you seem to think he is, I see veto after veto of the bills sent to him and refusal after refusal to pass any of his proposals. What would we have if congress has the votes to override him? This is why most of us see absolutely no point to his being in the race. However, there isn’t much of a point for any of those seeking the republican nomination. Aside from the fact there is no way any R could win in 2008, they are the sorriest lot I’ve ever seen in my 68 years.

    BTW – Bush’s rating just dropped to 28% today.

  5. Doubtom

    Reading your post it seems there’s no winning no matter what. You make an excellent case for why Paul would prove ineffective (and this can extend to any third party candidate) and then go on to prove that the congress would be the victim of endless vetos by a Libertarian candidate which is what Ron Paul is in disguise as a Republican. It’s a lose lose proposition!

    I agree with you about Paul; he has a lot that he isn’t saying about his Libertarian tendencies.

    But I don’t agree with your implication that any third party candidate would suffer the same fate. If we are ever to wrest control of our government from the clutches of corporate bigwigs, we must make room for the unorthodox; we have to start thinking out of the box in which the two major parties have so effectively stuffed us.
    Beyond third parties, there are some within the established parties who show much promise in returning this nation to what it claims to be. Dennis Kucinich has both the zeal and the message if only people will listen.
    Career politicians like Giuliani,McCain, will definitely get us more of the same.
    We need someone who is willing to step outside that damn box!
    We had such an individual once, a man of courage and conviction and integrity, who spoke truth to the powers that be, who not only pointed to the many ills of our nation but provided the answers as well and if ever there was a candidate who took on the corporations it was Ralph Nader– and we didn’t even let him debate the others. He would have won hands down but the electorate fell in line with the propaganda of the corporate machinery and accused him of throwing the race, insulted him, and ridiculed him beyond anyone’s ability to bear. As I see it, we had our chance to change things and blew it. Now we can meekly accept which ever candidate the major parties decide on and carry on with the illusion that we have any say in the formation of government. Self-delusion, the greatest of sins.

  6. Sandy Price

    I look forward to his commentaries showing the hypocrites in the GOP that many of us are unhappy with their two-faced opinions. Giuliani shocked many of us with his terror threats about voting for a Democrat. That is pure Rove and ridiculous.

    If there were authentic reasons to fight the terrorists, our borders would be closed in 2 minutes. It almost seems as if Bush is allowing the illegals full access to America and if something comes of it he will say “I told you so.”

    MSNBC is lined up with Newsweek that is run pretty much as a Christian-friendly publication. Which means they will be in the corner of the religious right a.k.a the GOP. Most of the commentators are confessed Catholics and of course will side with anyone pro-life.

    I know this and try to overlook their emphasis on pro-life candidates. Olbermann may be the only pro-choice person on the channel but I don’t know that for certain. I find him refreshing until he get into the silly part of his show and then I switch it off.

  7. SEAL

    Giulinai’s statement about the country being in more danger under a democrat only demonstrates his desperation. This is another thing the democrats fail to use against Bush, et. al. If there really is a terrorist threat, why haven’t they done anything about making our borders more secure? It is just as easy today to come into this country illegally as it was in 2000. Nothing has changed. But no one says anything about that.

    So far, Olbermann is the only reporter/journalist/whatever that has come out with the truth about this gang of criminals. I’ve been surprised that he is still on the air. But he is the only one worth watching. The rest are whores, just like congress. Every day it becomes incresingly obvious that the only way to save the nation is for the people to get mad and take to the streets. We need a spark to set them off.

  8. Razor

    Olbermann is smart, not stupid. Time and place mean everything when throwing opinions out for consumption.

    Support the candidate who talks about less government, no foriegn intervention, no national ID card, no patriot acts, constitutional government, Property Rights, etc. Ron Paul has the kind of government in mind that we all want.

    Do we need a change of attitude in government?
    Do we want our country back?
    Is the Constitution more than a go**am piece of paper? Do we want our freedom and our rights?
    Ron Paul is the man who talks about these issues, the others never discuss anything about your future and this nations soviernty.

    Whether he can do it or not is not the issue at this point. It is his attitude and direction that matters. His basic principals are the change we need. With all our support Ron Paul might just be the rally flag to effect a change away from the fascist direction were headed.

  9. anthny

    Olbermann is a solid journlist compared to the O’reilly the big time wrestler.
    The word is vote independent for 2008. Neither repubs or demos are for the people. They are in the back pockets of the corporations.
    As for Bush’s rating @28% is a surprise like everything in is regime. He is most likly at 2% but if the majority of corporations knew the truth even they would call for impeachment.
    What a great opprotunity for true patriots to come to the aid of the country.

  10. Swift2

    What on earth does this drivel mean? Fox doesn’t do that? Brit Hume isn’t a determined ideologue? The man said that Jack Murtha is senile, and that people don’t trust Democrats on national security — when recent polls show quite the opposite. Every single idiotic show on FOX is slanted to the right, and that includes the so-called “news” shows.

    Olbermann does take a position on Countdown, and easily outpaces his MSNBC rivals in the ratings because of it. But point to a single remark Olbemann made during the debate coverage that wasn’t fair. You can’t.

    The fact is, MSNBC, like most corporate media, never met a Democrat they liked. Donohue, their highest-rated show, was cut just before the invasion of Iraq, because he allowed criticism of the “commander-in-chief”. Name, besides Olbermann, a single “progressive” outside of Air America, who appears on our TV.

    The GOP has been playing the refs for the last generation, and this has to stop. Now. The AP obviously has something to be ashmed of. John Solomon is another brown-noser from that organization.

  11. T.M. Williams

    My wife and I largely agree with Olbermann’s opinions, and at his best, his Edgar R. Murrow sign-offs fill a conspicuous void in cable news media: an indignant citizen-journalist speaking truth to power. It’s a good act when it works.

    But Olbermann is far too partisan to have any serious credibility, most noticeably in his interviews. His leading questions are absurd things like: “Following today’s speech, has Mr. Bush finally lost his mind?” “Is Gonzalez the worst Attorney General in U.S. history, or just in the bottom five?” Olbermann often has a point, but it gets buried in his deluge of Pravda-esque hyperbole.

    Further undermining his credibility is his constant rating of Bill O’Reilly as the “Worst Person in the World”. Obviously O’Reilly is a dunce and a shill, but the Worst Person in the World, week after week? Shouldn’t there be a few runners-up for that position, other than petty criminals from the day’s AP roundup? Or does Olbermann really view his pathetic, falafel-fingering rival as the greatest incarnation of evil on the planet?

    Olbermann is so slanted and patronizing that he makes it seem as though the truth is too fragile to survive on its own. If only he could manage an even-handed delivery during the “news” portion of his act, his soapboxing would be much more powerful. As it is, in my household we find his show very difficult to watch to the end.

  12. geyser

    A long time ago Newused to be just that news. Anchors of the news also were just that. Today, it has changed.
    The statement, “Everyone has an opinion” finally got through to News Anchors. They would voice their opinion on a subject at the end of their news show.
    I remember ABC’s Roger Grimsby and Bill Buetell, they would raise eyebrows with their speech at the end of their regular broadcasts. It seemed to work as most times, their comments were never about what was in the news they had just reported on.
    If ther Boss’s didn’t like it, they wouldn’t have had a chance to do it. I can see Mr. Olbermen doing both and keeping it seperate. He is a great speaker and writes hard hitting commentary. There’s no middle ground in what he says, it’s one way or the opposite.
    He did not embarrass MSMBC or himself when doing the Republican debate. I can’t think why anybody has taken issue with it.

    Taking One Day at a Time

  13. Hoggy

    Keith O may rant on in a similar style as Bill O, but the main distinction between them is that KO isn’t a bully and he isn’t lying. KO rails against liars and those profitting from those same lies.
    BO distorts truth or lies his ass off all the while calling it the no spin zone. It pisses me off too.
    KO stands out from the crowd when he calls bullshit on bullshit

    When did those who call others on telling the truth become the bad guy.

    Keith Olbermann: The left wing’s Bill O’Reilly?

    My turn to call bullshit