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Is Olbermann on Thin Ice?

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I fear for Keith Olbermann.

Like so many others who hunger for some journalistic independence on TV news, I often marvel at Olbermann's dogged reporting and unique commentary. In a cable news environment of conformity and conservatism, the MSNBC host takes on the Bush administration for "demonizing dissent," for abusing our Constitutional traditions, for "taking cynical advantage of the unanimity and love [following 9/11], and transmuting it into fraudulent war and needless death."

Only Olbermann talks about Team Bush "monstrously transforming [9/11 unity] into fear and suspicion, and turning that fear into the campaign slogan of three elections." He was virtually alone on TV news in seriously reporting on 2004 election irregularities in Ohio, and in exploring the pre-Iraq war Downing Street Memos indicating White House deception. In recent months, his prime targets seem to have evolved from softer ones like Bill O'Reilly to bigger game: Bush and his minions.

It's worth noting that strong criticism of an extremist presidency hardly makes Olbermann a leftist. I remember him as the whimsical sports guy on ESPN. I remember his first go-round on MSNBC in 1998 when he could have sued his bosses for repetitive stress disorder for having to host scores of Lewinsky episodes on the road to Clinton's impeachment - an impeachment that may well have been impossible if not for the complicity of TV news.

It's obvious his bosses at MSNBC/NBC/GE never envisioned the increasingly bold Olbermann of recent months. It's likely that Olbermann himself could not have foreseen his current role as the lone voice of those who feel assaulted by a cable news business dominated by the O'Reillys and Hannitys.

So why do I fear for Olbermann? Because I know his bosses. In the runup to the Iraq war, I too worked for MSNBC - as an on-air pundit and a senior producer on the primetime Donahue show.

As I detail in my book Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media, the Suits at MSNBC/NBC muzzled us and ultimately terminated us. They feared independent journalism and serious dissent. They smeared Bush critics, with MSNBC's editor-in-chief actually going on air - without evidence - to accuse Iraq WMD skeptic Scott Ritter of being a paid agent of Saddam Hussein.

Olbermann has been gaining in audience ratings. That provides him some security. But perhaps not enough.

When Donahue was terminated three weeks before the Iraq invasion, it was MSNBC's most watched program. Canceling your top-rated show doesn't happen often, but it happened to Donahue. Who knows what will happen to Olbermann?

With Donahue, management cared less about building up audience than tamping down dissent. While independent outlets and blogs were soaring in audience by questioning the rush to war, our bosses imposed straightjackets on us that prevented similar growth.

In the last months of Donahue, management gave us strict orders: if we booked a guest who was antiwar, we needed two who were pro-war. If we booked two guests on the left, we needed three on the right. When a producer proposed booking Michael Moore, she was told she'd need three rightwingers for ideological balance.

Olbermann's increasingly bold dissent has been occurring at a time when Bush's approval ratings are low and Bush's war is in shambles. That gives him some added security.

During Donahue's tenure at MSNBC on the eve of war, Bush's popularity was high. And media conglomerates were particularly concerned about not ruffling the White House at that moment - as they were lobbying hard to get FCC rules changed to allow them to grow still fatter.

The day after Donahue was terminated, an internal NBC memo leaked out; it said that Phil Donahue represents "a difficult public face for NBC in a time of war." Why? Because he insisted on presenting administration critics. The memo worried that Donahue would become a "home for the liberal antiwar agenda at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity."

NBC's solution then? Dump Phil, stifle dissent, brandish the flag.

NBC's solution now? So far, Olbermann appears to be on more solid footing - mostly because the political zeitgeist is much changed from four years ago.

But MSNBC is still owned by GE's conservative bosses, and managed by NBC's ever-timid executives. Olbermann knows this reality as well as anyone; six months ago on C-SPAN, while expressing confidence that good ratings would keep them at bay, he remarked: "There are people I know in the hierarchy of NBC, the company, and GE, the company, who do not like to see the current presidential administration criticized at all."

I'm pulling for Olbermann; I'm one of the multitudes who find his commentaries online (perhaps more see them on the Web than on TV) - and forward them far and wide.

But with each new broadside against the Bush administration, I fear for his future. His best security is us, an active citizenry. It's media activism, organized heavily on the Net. It's media watch groups like FAIR and Media Matters for America. It's the movement that resisted the FCC changes in 2003, challenged Sinclair Broadcast propaganda before the '04 election, and recently exposed the 9/11 "hijacking" of ABC by rightwing Clinton-bashers.

In the epilogue of Cable News Confidential, I laud this movement: "My only regret was that such a potent movement had not coalesced by 2002 - to flex its muscles against MSNBC brass in defense of an unfettered Donahue."

If Olbermann gets muzzled or terminated for political reasons, it will be up to us to fight - not only for him, but for the concept that without serious dissent, democracy is a sham.