If you picked up the New York Times on October 18, you’d have had little reason to think it was a particularly significant day in American history. While the front page featured a photo of George W. Bush signing a new law at the White House the previous day, the story about the Military Commissions Act–which the Times never named–was buried in a 750-word piece on page A20. “It is a rare occasion when a President can sign a bill he knows will save American lives” was the first of several quotes of praise from the President that were high up in the article. Further down, a few Democrats objected to the bill, but from the article’s limited explanation of the law it was hard to understand why.
But if you happened to catch MSNBC the evening before, you’d have heard a different story. It, too, began with a laudatory statement from the President: “These military commissions are lawful. They are fair. And they are necessary.” Cut to MSNBC anchor Keith Olbermann: “And they also permit the detention of any American in jail without trial if the President does not like him.”
What? Did the Times, and most other outlets, just miss that?
Indeed, they did. Olbermann, who decried the new law as a shameful moment in American history, went on to proclaim that the Military Commissions Act–which he did name–will be the American embarrassment of our time, akin to the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 or the 1942 executive order interning Japanese-Americans.
It was a perfect story for the bold and eccentric host of Countdown With Keith Olbermann, which airs weeknights on MSNBC. A former anchor for ESPN’s SportsCenter, Olbermann likes to call the news as he sees it–especially when almost everyone else in the media seems to be ignoring a critical play. As it turns out, that tack on the news is increasingly popular these days, upending the conventional wisdom that incisive analysis and intelligent critiques don’t win viewers on mainstream television.
Olbermann first cast off the traditional reporter’s role in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, delivering a powerful indictment of the government’s handling of the rescue effort. “These are leaders who won re-election last year largely by portraying their opponents as incapable of keeping this country safe,” he said bitterly. The government “has just proved that it cannot save its citizens from a biological weapon called standing water.”
At the time, other newscasters, most famously CNN’s Anderson Cooper, also unleashed their outrage, spawning speculation that the natural disaster might also become a watershed event for broadcast news. But most anchors quickly returned to business as usual, censoring their own criticisms no matter how bad the news continued to be. Not Olbermann. Encouraged by rising ratings, he’s since turned his distinctive take on the government’s incompetence into a regular part of his show.
Last August he took the tone up a notch when he aired the first of his hard-hitting Special Comments. Regularly invoking some of the most shameful examples of American history to frame the Bush Administration in historical perspective, he’s likened the President’s recent acts to John Adams’s jailing of American newspaper editors, Woodrow Wilson’s use of the Espionage Act to prosecute “hyphenated Americans” for “advocating peace in a time of war” and FDR’s internment of 110,000 Americans because of their Japanese descent. Ours is “a government more dangerous to our liberty than is the enemy it claims to protect us from,” declared Olbermann the day after the President signed the Military Commissions Act.
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.
MSNBC seems to be egging him on. “The only issues I’ve had with my employers is to calm them down and say ‘doing this every night won’t work,’ ” says Olbermann, referring to his Special Comments. “I have to do it only when I feel moved to.”
“The rise of Keith’s skeptical or pointed comments are the mood of the country,” says Bill Wolff, MSNBC’s vice president for prime-time programming. “He has given voice to a large part of the country that is frustrated with the Administration’s policies.”
In a pre-election Special Comment about the Republican National Committee’s campaign ads featuring menacing images of Osama bin Laden and associated terrorists, for example, Olbermann declared: “You have adopted bin Laden and Zawahiri as spokesmen for the Republican National Committee.” Invoking FDR for contrast, he added: “Eleven Presidents ago, a chief executive reassured us that we have nothing to fear but fear itself. His distant successor has wasted his Administration insisting that there is nothing we can have but fear itself.”
Not surprisingly, Olbermann has his critics. National Review recently lambasted him for his “angry and increasingly bizarre attacks on the Bush administration,” claiming that he offers nothing in the way of hard news. But the author didn’t cite a single fact that Olbermann had wrong. Meanwhile, as the Review acknowledged, O’Reilly’s numbers are trending downward as Olbermann’s are shooting up.
While his views may seem radical for mainstream television news, they turn out to be a pretty safe bet for him and his network. Which may prove that the American public does have a taste for serious, even high-minded, news–particularly when peppered with a sharp sense of humor. It’s another unexpected Olbermann news flash: Dissent sells.