By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

What’s behind Keith Olbermann’s departure?

Keith Olbermann

The talk of Twitter tonight is Keith Olbermann’s surprise announcement that he is leaving MSNBC. His sign-off was short, reasonably gracious and completely unexpected (video here).

We’ll need to wait for the facts to come in before we know exactly what was behind Olbermann’s departure. But there have been signs for some time that he and MSNBC might part company, starting with the hiring of Lawrence O’Donnell to host what had been a 10 p.m. rebroadcast of Olbermann’s 8 p.m. show. (I hadn’t seen much of Keith since the move.) New York Times reporter Brian Stelter tweets that the O’Donnell hire was a “hedge” against the possibility that Olbermann would leave.

Given Olbermann’s reputation for being volatile and difficult, I thought he might quit after he got suspended last fall for making political donations without permission. He came back, but he seemed diminished after that. In recent months, Rachel Maddow has emerged as the face of MSNBC, hosting a series of public events at the 92nd Street Y*. Her hour-long exchange with Jon Stewart was the most intelligent conversation about the news that I saw in 2010.

Cable giant Comcast, as we all know, just won approval for its acquisition of NBC Universal, which includes MSNBC. Could this be one of those Comcastic moves we all love? Not likely. For Comcast executives to move against Olbermann so quickly would suggest an unimaginable political tone-deafness. And I can’t picture Olbermann signing off without saying anything if that were the case.

MSNBC executives tonight should be thanking their stars that Olbermann came along when he did. It was he who led the way toward transforming the operation into a liberal alternative to Fox News — a profitable network that, though still far behind Fox, kicks CNN’s tail in the ratings.

Maddow, who’s friends with Olbermann, will be live on Bill Maher’s show in a few minutes. I don’t subscribe to HBO, but perhaps she’ll shed some light on what happened.

*Correction: I originally referred to the “92nd Street YMCA.” In fact, it is affiliated with a Jewish organization, the YMHA.

Photo (cc) by Adam Fagen and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

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  1. Alan Grossberg

    I like both Olbermann and the show (and I’m probably left of him politically), but in recent months I’ve found him more surly and sarcastic than usual. Regardless of topic — Republicans, health care, taxes, global warming, etc. — Olbermann adopted a constant air of sarcastic, smug certitude (ditto Rachel Maddow here) which in the end is no better than their Fox News counterparts, and renders them increasingly unwatchable.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Alan: I strongly disagree that Olbermann and Maddow are the liberal equivalent of Fox News. No matter how obnoxious Olbermann became, I don’t think he or Maddow ever lost their regard for facts and the truth. Not that they got everything right, but who does? People make mistakes. But that stands in stark contrast to the deliberate lies Fox foists on us every hour of the day.

  2. Having lived inside the media machine for many a year, I think Dan is exactly on point: Olbermann basically created MSNBC’s image, which is a phenomenal accomplishment. But over time, the network assembled a pretty decent team. That meant he was no longer irreplaceable, and so his negatives outweighed his positives.

    To toot my own horn, you can read my thoughts at greater length on my blog at

  3. Heather Greene

    Concur. It’s not just that FNC hosts are conservative. It’s their poor relationship with the facts and their constant need to phoney up “outrage” over non-issues.

    Curious to read Dave Weigel’s response. When WaPo let him go over JouroList (which I still can’t decide if that or hiring Jennifer Rubin as his replacement was the worst move), Keith Olbermann really was his champion and pretty much single handedly got his that MSNBC analyst contract.

    Having read Josh Marshall’s take, really curious to see what Jonathan Alter writes about this. His twitter account seems to back up Josh Marshall about nobody have any clue about this.

    Quick note: Jonathan Alter wasn’t actually Countdown’s last guest. That “honor” goes to nerosurgeon Jonathan Slotkin. He talked about the road to recovery for U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

    I feel bad for Lawrence O’Donnell. He’s okay in small doses, but being the flagship 8pm slot… I’ll wish him well. Also, he is nowhere near as loved by the “professional left” folks as Keith Olbermann was.

    Nobody seems to be reporting what will happen to the staff aka the little people of Countdown and The Last Word. Who is getting fired and safe bet they didn’t get a million-dollar buyout either. Does O’Donnell keep his TLW staff or does he take Countdown’s staff. Of maybe even Ed Schultz or Rachel Maddow will snap up the more talented members of Countdown’s staff, but does that mean they’ll have to let go of members of their own show’s staff?

    Either way, beyond Keith Olbermann, some some folks at MSNBC are getting the boot.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Heather: As you suggest, MSBNC has a weak bench. Even if Maddow had eclipsed Olbermann, it’s a lot better to have two stars than one. O’Donnell and Schultz both strike me as very nice people but a little dull. And Schultz’s appeal is mainly to FDR fans who still fear that the Republicans will take away their Social Security. (Granted, they might if given the chance.)

  4. Joyce West

    oops Forgot to write the point of my post, which is this
    makes it much more unlikely that I will watch MSNBC in the future. Wonder how many others will go the same route.

  5. Alan Grossberg

    @Dan: I knew I was vague in my post last night, so I’ll try to clarify it. I like all the hosts and shows on MSNBC from 6-11PM, and watch all but Schultz most nights. I agree with 99.9% of their positions (if anything I’m more liberal). And I never meant to say (or imply) that there’s any possible equivalence with Fox News: never in my wildest imagination would I accuse them of being a _news_ organization. But sometimes, especially of late, Maddow and Olbermann present a sarcastic, condescending air of smug certitude on various issues which seems just as “I’m right, you’re wrong, it’s my way or the highway”-ish than their counterparts on the far Right. Bottom line: Sometimes I take issue with their tone, not their positions.

  6. Bill Hanna

    While I agree that there is no comparison between Fox and the commentary on MSNBC, I also see a pretty important difference between Rachel Maddow and the rest of the MSNBC lineup. No question that she’s just as opinionated as the others, but her arguments are consistently well researched and are delivered with both context and perspective. In my opinion, this was not the case with Olbermann. I watched Olbermann to be entertained, but I watch Maddow to be informed.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Bill: Well, that’s just because Maddow is smarter than the rest of them.

  7. B.A. DuBois

    Keith Olbermann, January 18, 2010:

    “In short, in Scott Brown we have an irresponsible, homophobic, racist, reactionary, ex-nude model, teabagging supporter of violence against woman and against politicians with whom he disagrees.”

    Yep, sure sounds like somebody who has a high regard for the facts and the truth.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @B.A.: Fair enough. Although Brown does have a homophobic past, which he’s working on. And he certainly is an ex-nude model.

  8. M.J.Stevenson
    The executives involved in the discussions confirmed that the deal carries limitations for Mr. Olbermann in terms of when he can next work on television…The deal also prohibits the host from commenting publicly on the deal, the executives confirmed.

    I guess Keith won’t be on “Letterman” Monday night (or anywhere else). Comcast involvement –one way or another– seems likely.

  9. C.E. Stead

    Maybe he can land the Alan Colmes slot on ‘Hannity’..

    • Dan Kennedy

      @C.E.: Somehow I don’t think Olbermann would be willing to play for the Washington Generals.

  10. Nial Lynch

    **Keith Olbermann, January 18, 2010:
    “In short, in Scott Brown we have an irresponsible, homophobic, racist, reactionary, ex-nude model, teabagging supporter of violence against woman and against politicians with whom he disagrees.”**

    ***Fair enough. Although Brown does have a homophobic past, which he’s working on. And he certainly is an ex-nude model.***

    One and a half for eight– just under the Mendoza Line.

  11. Dan Kennedy

    @B.A. and @Nial: I should point out that Olbermann apologized for those remarks about Brown. Has O’Reilly ever apologized for calling Dr. George Tiller “Tiller the Baby Killer”?

  12. Aaron Read

    I would dearly love to see Keith Olbermann take a six to 12 month stint as a morning- or afternoon-drive host for an hour each weekday on the Pacifica Radio “Network”.

    It would be positively a riot to see Keith suddenly become the sanest man in the room. And probably very liberating for him.

    Granted, he’d be doing it for no pay since Pacifica is deeply in the red these days…but he’s got a few million he can coast on for a little while. 🙂

    NOTE: I use the “network” term loosely given how decentralized and disorganized Pacifica is, but it’s quite possible all five of the core Pacifica stations would pick him up, and many of the Pacifica affiliates across the country would undoubtedly air him to get the ratings boost for potential fundraising.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Aaron: Now there’s a network where socialism isn’t a dirty word!

  13. g.m.danker

    I could be wrong but after watching Dylan Rattigan yesterday, I feel that msnbc is trying to be more like cnn. I say this because Dylan did a long,boring episode (not sure how long, because I quit watching)on the Mayo Clinic – the kind of stuff cnn has Sanjay Gupta or Anderson Cooper do. This is insipid and basically non-news as far as I’m concerned. This should be special programming for those who are interested but it doesn’t belong on a political broadcast.

    Keith was msnbc’s lifeblood. No one can replace him and while I like O’Donnell well enough, he certainly is no Keith Olbermann. I’m fed with how the left has to be more “nicey-nice” in this so-called new civil environment while it’s business as usual for Limbaugh, Beck, Hannity, Bachmann, Palin, etc., etc. They out and out lie to us, twist facts, and take things out of context. All I have seen from Keith is to call them out on their fabrications and misrepresentations. Yes, he got pissed sometimes and who can blame him?

    Msnbc is not the same without Keith and I won’t be watching except only occasionally, if at all. The problem is that there is no other news outlet for liberal and progressive thinkers. Maybe that’s what msnbc is banking on!

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