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New Yorker: Is Keith Olbermann Changing TV News?

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On the heels of last week's Keith Olbermann backlash, the New Yorker's Peter Boyer examines whether "angry" Olbermann is the future of TV news. The article is a must-read for anyone interested in Olbermann or TV news. Selected excerpts and interesting facts belows:

  • On Olbermann's health: "He has been given a diagnosis of Wittmaack-Ekbom's syndrome, also known as 'restless-legs syndrome' (and also 'the kicks,' 'Jimmy legs,' and 'jitters'), a neurological disorder that produces a prickling, itching, or crawling feeling in the legs, profoundly disturbing sleep.
  • Regarding Olbermann's "Mr. President, Shut the hell up!" Special Comment: "Phil Griffin, the senior vice-president in charge of MSNBC ('Phil thinks he's my boss,' Olbermann says), raised the matter of tone. Why did Olbermann need to end his commentary by telling the President of the United States to 'shut the hell up'?

    'Because I can't say, "Shut the fuck up," that's why, frankly,' Olbermann responded. The line stayed in."

  • On Olbermann's childhood: "Growing up in suburban Hastings-on-Hudson, in Westchester County, he was the sort of kid who, when his parents thought psychological testing was in order, responded to the Rorschach test by saying, 'It looks like an inkblot."
  • On difficulties Olbermann faced early in his sportscasting career: "Olbermann, who is six feet three and a half, once bumped his head while leaping into a subway car; it permanently upset his equilibrium, which makes driving a trial. (He says he loses depth perception at speeds greater than fifteen miles per hour.) He also hates flying, and that made it difficult to follow the local teams."
  • On his time at ESPN: "Olbermann's tenure at ESPN was characteristically contentious. One of his co-anchors, Suzy Kolber, has said that Olbermann was sometimes so overbearing that she would lock herself in the bathroom and cry. Another colleague, Mike Soltys, has said that when Olbermann left the network, in 1997, 'he didn't burn bridges here--he napalmed them.'"
  • On his return to MSNBC after leaving for Fox Sports: "But Phil Griffin continued to admire Olbermann's on-air talents, and helped to bring him back to MSNBC in 2003, to do a new show called 'Countdown.' Shortly afterward, Griffin ran into an old colleague at CNN, who told him that that network had considered hiring Olbermann, but focus-group tests showed that audiences didn't like him. 'I can honestly tell you it shook me up a little bit,' Griffin recalls. 'But we knew what we were getting.' He added, 'I've known Keith for twenty-seven years. CNN. First day he was in TV, I knew right away that Keith had something that I'd never seen. He was made for this. I mean, the guy is crazy, but he is made for this.'"
  • On Olbermann's rivalry with Bill O'Reilly: "'Bill O'Reilly made Keith Olbermann,' Phil Griffin says. Olbermann concurs, saying, 'I really do owe him a percentage of my salary.'"
  • On Olbermann's ratings success: "Olbermann's ratings grew by nearly seventy-five per cent the year he began doing Special Comments, and the show is making money, a rare hit in MSNBC's twelve-year run.
  • On Olbermann's other potential career prospects: "In 2005, CBS was looking for a permanent replacement for Dan Rather network executives met with Olbermann twice about the prospect of his becoming the anchor of the 'CBS Evening News.'"
  • On why Olbermann was turned down for the CBS job, and whether he thinks it was a good decision:

    In the end, CBS hired Katie Couric--a decision, Olbermann likes to point out, that has not worked as well as had been hoped. (Couric consistently comes in third in the network ratings.)

    Asked about the prospect of an Olbermann reign at "CBS Evening News," Sandy Socolow, Walter Cronkite's final executive producer, responded emphatically. "Oh, no, no, no, he's not a newsman," Socolow said. "He's not a reporter. I've never seen anything that he's done that was original, in terms of the information. It's all derivative. I like him, I agree with his perspective, and I think he's very, very good on television. But he's not a newsman." Socolow added, "Ten years ago, if he had done at CBS what he does every day on the air at MSNBC, he would have been fired by the end of the day."

    Olbermann himself thinks that he could succeed in the traditional nightly network-news slot. "I think it would not do any worse than the three that are out there now," he says. "It would not get more than double the amount of protest that any of the shows have now."

  • Tim Russert on Olbermann:

    As Russert put it to me shortly before his death, "Keith and I have each carved out our roles in this vast information spectrum." He continued, "What cable emphasizes, more and more, is opinion, or even advocacy. Whether it's Bill O'Reilly or Keith Olbermann or Lou Dobbs, that's what that particular platform or venue does. It's not what I do. What I do is different. I try very, very hard not to come up and say to people, 'This is what I believe,' or 'This is good,' or 'This is bad.' But, rather, 'This is what I'm learning in my reporting,' or 'This is what my analysis shows based on my reporting.' And as long as I can do that I'm very, very comfortable. And nobody has asked me to do anything but that."

  • On Olbermann's unlikely relationship with Laura Ingraham: "Olbermann dated Ingraham briefly a decade ago. 'There were a few problems,' he told me. 'There were a few things that I could see were going to be impediments. Oddly, they were not political things.'"
  • Tom Brokaw On Olbermann (and Chris Matthews):

    Brokaw says he sometimes feels that he has been cast in the role of hall monitor at NBC News; if so, his charges have kept him busy. The day after the New Hampshire primary, Matthews asserted that Hillary Clinton owed her election as senator to public sympathy for her in light of her husband's sexual peccadilloes. "It was completely out of line," Brokaw says. "And Keith took it to another level" with his "shut the hell up" commentary.

  • MSNBC executive on Olbermann's relationship with Clinton supporters:

    "It was, like, you meet a guy and you fall in love with him, and he's funny and he's clever and he's witty, and he's all these great things," Griffin said of the relationship between Olbermann and the Clinton supporters among his viewers. "And then you commit yourself to him, and he turns out to be a jerk and difficult and brutal. And that is how the Hillary viewers see him. It's true. But I do think they're going to come back. There's nowhere else to go."

Read the entire article here.