A cheap shot from Keith Olbermann

Keith Olbermann issued his declaration of independence last night. But in doing so, he smeared New York Times reporter Brian Stelter (photo), whose account of a peace settlement between Olbermann’s employer, MSNBC, and his nemesis Bill O’Reilly’s employer, Fox News, had created the need for Olbermann to renew his feud with O’Reilly in the first place.

Stelter reported last Friday that executives at both networks had moved to stop the on-air sniping between the two hosts. “Bill-O the Clown,” Olbermann’s pet nickname for O’Reilly, was frequently featured in his “Worst Persons in the World” segment. O’Reilly, for his part, had started taking aim at the corporate agenda of MSNBC’s owner, General Electric.

Although Stelter, not surprisingly, was forced to rely quite a bit on unnamed sources, he had an on-the-record comment from GE spokesman Gary Sheffer, who confirmed that a deal had been cut: “We all recognize that a certain level of civility needed to be introduced into the public discussion. We’re happy that has happened.”

Stelter also included a quote from Olbermann: “I am party to no deal.”

Seems pretty well nailed-down. Yet Olbermann, on last night’s “Countdown,” designated Stelter as his number-three villain in the “Worst Persons” segment, with O’Reilly coming in at number two. Among other things, Olbermann said:

Problem, Mr. Stelter asks me at least twice last week if there was such a deal, and I told him, on and off the record, there was not. And told him I rather obviously would have to be a party to such a deal. And I told him that not only wasn’t I, but I had not even been asked to be by my bosses. And he printed it anyway.

This is intellectually dishonest, as it implies that Stelter deliberately did not use Olbermann’s quote because it didn’t fit with what he wanted to write. In fact, Stelter did use it, and he placed it in context. It’s very clear from Stelter’s story that the deal had been cut by higher-ups, and that Olbermann might or might not go along.

Fox News owner Rupert Murdoch came in at number one for trying to muzzle O’Reilly. Hmmm … doesn’t that confirm that Stelter got it right?

Glenn Greenwald, who’s been blogging away at Salon ever since the Stelter story came out, criticized his ideological soulmate Olbermann last night, writing on Twitter, “Really surprised by the Olbermann denial – there’s lots and lots of evidence that the NYT’s description about what GE did is 100% accurate.”

Stelter himself took it in good humor after seeing his photo plastered on the “Worst Persons” segment. “Tonight: a reminder to take a new head shot,” he wrote on Twitter.

All in all, not a good moment for Olbermann. He may have reclaimed his independence. But he did so at the expense of sliming a journalist who’d broken an important, unflattering story about collusion by media moguls. At the very least, Olbermann ought to award himself the bronze.

Photo from Stelter’s Twitter feed.

The cultural divide that won’t go away

The assassination of Dr. George Tiller, I write in the Guardian, shows once again that abortion is the cultural divide that won’t go away. Which is why Bill O’Reilly’s taunting name-calling — “Tiller the baby killer” — and his comparisons of Tiller to Nazis and Al Qaeda terrorists was so mind-blowingly irresponsible.

MSNBC’s news-opinion dilemma

It looks like the political cross-dressing act at MSNBC has reached its limit. According to Brian Stelter of the New York Times, talk-show hosts Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews will not anchor the cable network’s coverage of the upcoming debates or on election night, which should tone down the battle between NBC’s journalists and MSNBC’s opinionators.

I have quibbles about this, but overall I think it was the right move. Barack Obama has no bigger advocates in the mainstream media than Olbermann and Matthews, and it has looked strange all year to have serious journalists like Tom Brokaw, Brian Williams, Andrea Mitchell and, before his death, Tim Russert seeming to answer to them. Recently, it all boiled over on the air.

Olbermann and Matthews reportedly will continue to appear as analysts, while David Gregory will serve as the anchor. That’s all fine. My larger concern is that in addition to being moved out of the anchor slots, they will also be expected to tone down their opinions, lest they run afoul of the Republicans’ current war against the media. Olbermann was exactly right in his revulsion at Republican efforts to stamp their brand on the terrorist attacks of 9/11, even if it was unseemly for him to do it from the anchor desk.

The problem, of course, is that there are no such scruples about the dividing line between news and opinion at Fox News. Stelter, for instance, does not question the fiction that Bill O’Reilly is not allowed to anchor Fox’s convention coverage, a piece of information that would be a surprise to anyone tuning in between 8 and 9 p.m. the last two weeks. Fox’s signature news personality, Brit Hume, is a good journalist, but he also leans noticeably to the right.

MSNBC this year is experiencing the first semi-success of its benighted existence by loading up on liberal political talk shows. Today Rachel Maddow debuts at 9 p.m., extending that trend. I don’t know how long it can last, since the network is still firmly ensconced in last place. But as long as network executives can find a way to keep the journalists and the talkers from ripping each other’s throats out, MSNBC has become a refreshing alternative to Fox News.

I just hope it’s Williams and Brokaw who are driving the anchor-desk shift — and not Rick Davis and Steve Schmidt.

When Barack O. met Bill-O

O’Reilly let Obama get in a few words, but he didn’t get carried away. After all, if Obama had been allowed to speak a complete sentence, it might look like O’Reilly was losing control of the show.

Bill O’Reilly and “shut up”

In a letter to the Phoenix, Rich Goggin of Peabody says I was wrong to claim, as I did in the recent Muzzle Awards, that Fox News Channel host Bill O’Reilly “loves nothing more than to tell his guests to ‘shut up.'” Goggin instructs me thusly: “Except O’Reilly only did that once, seven years ago.”

Really. Now, I’m going to make an assumption, but I’m pretty sure the source of Goggin’s misinformation is O’Reilly himself. O’Reilly’s claim was included in Robert Greenwald’s documentary “OutFoxed.” It is followed by a hilarious stream of O’Reilly telling both guests and non-guests alike, over and over, to “shut up.” Here is the clip:

As Ronald Reagan once said, facts are stupid things. And if that’s not enough for you, Mr. Goggin, Jack Shafer of Slate wrote way back in 2003, “Bill O’Reilly says ‘shut up’ the way other people say ‘um.'” He follows that with one, two, three … OK, make that 30 examples.

I posted a comment to Goggin’s letter, but it doesn’t seem to have taken yet. I don’t know if he’s a Media Nation reader, but perhaps someone will send him this way. Meanwhile, my advice for him is to shut up.

Muzzling freedom of speech

Please have a look at The Phoenix’s annual Muzzle Awards, a Fourth of July roundup of local anti-constitutionalism that I’ve been writing since 1998. You’ll see why Nat Hentoff likes to say that the human sex drive is exceeded only by the urge to censor.

Among those who get singled out are Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, whose agencies have banned a respected academic, Adam Habib, from the United States. Habib is scheduled to appear at an academic conference in Boston on Aug. 1, but that’s not going to happen unless the ban is lifted.

Habib is supposedly being kept out because he has ties to terrorism. But he denies it, and the government has provided no evidence to back up its claim. What we do know is that Habib, of South Africa, is a Muslim and has criticized the war in Iraq and U.S. policies in the Middle East.

Also getting whacked is Comcast, for firing longtime Boston television personality Barry Nolan over his campaign against Fox News blowhard Bill O’Reilly. Comcast was within its rights to terminate Nolan, but it was an utterly unnecessary, no-class move.

I’ll be on “NightSide with Dan Rea,” on WBZ Radio (AM 1030), at 9 p.m. today to talk about the Muzzle Awards. If you feel like calling in, don’t be shy.

Illustration is copyright © 2008 by K Bonami.

The rise of Keith Olbermann

Peter Boyer has a terrific profile of Keith Olbermann in the current issue of the New Yorker. The theme — the emergence of the opinion-news hybrid in television journalism, seen first on the right with Fox News, now on the left with MSNBC — is an important one following the death of the determinedly centrist Tim Russert.

Personally, I enjoy Olbermann’s “Countdown” quite a bit. His standards for accuracy are considerably higher than those of his nemesis, Bill O’Reilly. My fear is that craven network executives will take any sign of success and drive it right over the cliff. I hadn’t realized until I’d read Boyer’s piece that CBS News had courted Olbermann as its lead anchor before settling on Katie Couric — who, despite all the drama over her low ratings and rumors of her departure, does a perfectly respectable job of anchoring the evening newscast.

Olbermann’s name has also come up as a possible replacement for Russert on “Meet the Press.” Fortunately, the most plausible rumor of the moment is that Tom Brokaw will come out of retirement to helm the program through the election.

By all means, let Olbermann be Olbermann — hosting a news-and-opinion program, not pretending to be something he’s not.

Also work checking out: NPR’s “On the Media” recently did a piece on what it called “The Olbermann Effect.”