Keith Olbermann’s synthesis of in-depth Murrow-esque reporting and hard-hitting opinionated analysis has attracted a growing audience and turned the O’Reilly model on its head. The Nation magazine has a profile of broadcast journalism’s rising star.
Since his first Special Comment ripped into Donald Rumsfeld for attacking Americans who question their government, video clips and transcripts of Olberman’s commentaries have been zipping around the Internet, a favorite on sites like Crooks and Liars, Truthout and YouTube. (The Rumsfeld commentary was watched more than 100,000 times in the month after it appeared on Countdown.) But it’s not just a niche following: Since late August Olbermann’s ratings have shot up 55 percent. In November he was named a GQ Man of the Year. When MSNBC teamed him with Chris Matthews to cover the midterms, the network’s ratings were up 111 percent from the 2002 election in the coveted 25-to-54 demographic. And certain fifteen-minute segments on Olbermann’s show have edged out his nemesis, Bill O’Reilly. (Olbermann deems O’Reilly the “Worst Person in the World” on his popular nightly contest for the newsmaker who’s committed the most despicable act of the day.) Unlike O’Reilly, Olbermann doesn’t shout over his guests, condescend to his opponents or deliver empty diatribes. Instead, his show—which attracts guests ranging from Frank Rich to John Ashcroft—features in-depth interviews with prominent academics, public officials and journalists on serious, often overlooked events of the day.
“Keith is a refreshing change from most of the coverage of civil liberties since 9/11,” says Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor and frequent guest on Olbermann’s show. “Reporters tend to view these fights in purely political terms, so the public gets virtually no substantive analysis. As long as two people disagree, reporters treat it as an even debate. They won’t say that the overwhelming number of constitutional and national security experts say this is an unlawful program—they’ll just say experts disagree. It’s extremely misleading.”
Olbermann, who denies any partisan leanings and whose background doesn’t suggest any, insists his job is to report on what’s really going on—even if the public is loath to believe it. “We are still fundamentally raised in this country to be very confident in the preservation of our freedoms,” he said in a recent interview. “It’s very tough to get yourself around the idea that there could be a mechanism being used or abused to restrict and alter the society in which we live.” Olbermann credits sportscasting for his candid and historical-minded approach. “In sports, if a center-fielder drops the fly ball, you can’t pretend he didn’t,” he says. “There’s also an awareness of patterns, a relationship between what has gone before and what is to come that is so strong in sports coverage that doesn’t seem to be there in news reporting.”
If history lessons in prime time seem an unlikely sell, it helps that Olbermann’s show is also witty, quirky and fast-paced, covering everything from the Iraq War to Madonna’s adoption fiasco to pumpkin-smashing elephants—one of his nightly fifteen-second Oddball segments. With a growing number of TV viewers saying they get their news from Comedy Central’s The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, it’s no wonder Olbermann—who’s sort of a cross between Edward R. Murrow and Jon Stewart—has a growing audience.