Olbermann Stuns Viewers With Swift Departure

With two years left in his contract with MSNBC, on of its most outspoken broadcasters, Keith Olbermann, abruptly split with the network in a surprise announcement. Bill Carter of The New York Times discusses the host's turbulent time with the network

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NEAL CONAN, host:

On Friday evening, Keith Olbermann surprised viewers of his "Countdown" program with a sudden and final sign-off. The highest-rated host on MSNBC announced he was leaving his program effective immediately, and he offered no explanation except for this.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Countdown with Keith Olbermann")

Mr. KEITH OLBERMANN (Former Host, "Countdown with Keith Olbermann"): There were many occasions, particularly in the last two and a half years, where all that surrounded this show - but never the show itself -was just too much for me.

CONAN: Over the past eight years, Keith Olbermann's distinctive voice put MSNBC on the map of cable television. He welcomed fights with his rivals at Fox News, and did more than anyone else to establish MSNBC as a liberal alternative.

If you have questions about his departure and his legacy thus far, our phone number: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

New York Times media reporter Bill Carter joins us from our bureau in New York.

And Bill, nice to have you back on the program.

Mr. BILL CARTER (Media Reporter, The New York Times): Thanks. Nice to be with you.

CONAN: And any information on exactly why Keith Olbermann has left MSNBC?

Mr. CARTER: I think the only information that I've been able to really confirm is that it was a negotiated settlement, with both sides being amenable to it.

CONAN: He had two years left on his contract. Both sides amenable to it. Is he going to be paid off for the last two years?

Mr. CARTER: Yes. Well, he'll be paid off a settlement for - he won't be paid the full amount, probably half - one year of the two. But, you know, that will include him not being able to work somewhere else for an extended period of time.

CONAN: On TV, anyway.

Mr. CARTER: On TV, anyway. He can do radio and he can do, you know, the Internet if he finds an outlet there.

CONAN: And there's, apparently, a nondisclosure agreement. He can't talk about the reasons for his departure from MSNBC.

Mr. CARTER: That's right. And he can't disparage NBC or comment. And, you know, that was a little frustrating because I know Keith, and I reached out to him, but he did not respond.

CONAN: So the - this is not dissimilar, then, from the kind of agreement that NBC reached with Conan O'Brien.

Mr. CARTER: It's so similar...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CARTER: ...Neal, that they have an incredible synergy. They agreed to this on January 21st, 2011, and they had agreed with Conan on January 21st, 2010. So they seem to have that date in mind when they're going to settle with their talent.

CONAN: Remind us: Keith Olbermann's tenure at MSNBC began eight years ago. He came in, I guess, as a temp, and was soon offered - well, in an odd way, his old job back.

Mr. CARTER: Yeah. He had been there during the Lewinsky scandal, and he left that because he felt that was being overdone. And he left - as he often did - with a bit of, you know, acrimony. But came back and was filling in for Jerry Nachman, who was - had a show at that point. And Mr. Nachman, unfortunately, got ill. And 39 days later, he took over the show and immediately began drawing - you know - real ratings for a network that had done virtually nothing in its previous 10 years.

CONAN: And he became, you argue, the brand of MSNBC.

Mr. CARTER: Yes. No question. He defined the brand that they became - this brand they are, which is this liberal advocate in prime-time - definitely was defined by Keith because he not only drew the best ratings, but he spawned the other shows. I mean, Rachel Maddow, who's become their biggest star now, was a frequent guest and then became a host. Lawrence O'Donnell, who's replacing Keith, was also a guest and then became the fill-in host for Keith. So they basically built around him, and they called him that. They called him their tent pole, and they built the network around him.

CONAN: Yet from the beginning, they had to know that - certainly, given his history not just at MSNBC, but at other places as well - that Keith Olbermann can be difficult.

Mr. CARTER: They knew it. In fact, if you go back...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CARTER: ...and look at their comments, they - from the beginning, they'll say things like, well, we know he's talented. We know how great he is. We know he's crazy, but we know how great he is.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CARTER: Because they had - there's been previous experience with Keith. Keith is a - you know, volatile character, an intense guy and sometimes hard to manage. And this came through in each of his previous spots, no matter where it was - ESPN, CNN, Fox News Sports, MSNBC previously. He tended to have so much short terms that ended - as ESPN did - with Keith, in Keith's own words, in nuclear war.

CONAN: Yes. But a nuclear war which he seemed to relish, at least, making sure that his missiles got off the ground.

Mr. CARTER: Correct. And in this case, because of the financial arrangement, he seems to have, you know, gone into a cone of silence. I think, eventually, we'll hear from Keith - because we always do. And I'm sure what he has to say will be really colorful - because it always is.

CONAN: It always is. We remember, for those of you who have not heard Keith Olbermann's voice, but that one of his great rivals and straw men was Bill O'Reilly, his rival on Fox News, and often the subject of Olbermann's rants.

Mr. CARTER: Well...

(Soundbite of news, "Countdown with Keith Olbermann")

Mr. OLBERMANN: The guilty pleasure offered by the existence of Bill O'Reilly is simple and understandable, 99 times out of 100, when we belly up to the Bill-O Bar of Bluster. Nearly every time we partake of the movable falafel feast, he serves us nothing but comedy, farce, slapstick, unconscious self-mutilation, the Sideshow Bob of commentators forever stepping on the same rake; forever muttering the same grunted, inarticulate surrender; forever resuming the circle that will take him back to the same rake; the Sisyphus of morons, if you will.

CONAN: And...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: But this time, as with every other time, he's done something terribly serious.

Mr. CARTER: Well, you know, it's interesting that when you play that, you realize the guy, you know, had a knack, a flair for comedy and also for writing. He's a good writer. And he's a bright guy. And boy, he was a muscular commentator - which is what, you know, cable news has become, sort of you get these big, very distinctive voices.

CONAN: And distinctive voices that, well, you have to brand yourself on cable TV, given the multiplicity of sources on broadcast and cable and all those channels - that if you're going to make your place stick out, you've got to have some sort of identifiable voice.

Mr. CARTER: Yes. I think that's the conclusion that MSNBC came to after many years of trying many other things. They had to do something that, you know, made them stand out. And once they found it, once they found that - what will be on the left, what, you know, Fox News on the right, they realized, we can market this. This is our brand. And they wound up beating CNN very convincingly, you know, and making much more money. So it was a very winning strategy for them.

CONAN: Their numbers never did rival Fox News. But this was a profitable policy?

Mr. CARTER: Absolutely. This turned them around. They're a profit center for NBC. And you know, as much as they sort of cringed, at times, with Keith - what they consider his excesses - he hung in there for quite a while because they knew how important he was.

CONAN: We're talking with Bill Carter, the media reporter for the New York Times, about Keith Olbermann who suddenly left the "Countdown" program on MSNBC on Friday night, signing off for the last time and reaching a mutual agreement with his bosses at MSNBC; 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org.

Let's go to David(ph), David with us from Columbus.

DAVID (Caller): Hey. How are you doing? I really appreciate this type of conversation, and I think this type of conversation should be on TV more. And I think the Bill O'Reillys and the Olbermanns and all the others tend to miss the power that they have, which is to bring on the television experts that can really make comments and that can really inform the viewers, which is really, what news is supposed to be. And I think one of the problems is that news has been commercialized, and it has to make ratings. And I think they should take out the ratings, and take out the commercials.

CONAN: And I'm sure Bill Carter and I would both accept Mr. O'Reilly's salary.

Mr. CARTER: We would. But here we are. We're talking on an outlet without commercials. So, I mean, it does exist. But it's obviously got a narrow audience. Listen, what Fox News has done is proven that if you speak to an audience that's hungry to hear their point of view parroted back at them, you can do extremely well. That's what they came out and set out to do. And then MSNBC decided, well, there's people with a different opinion; we can speak to them. And it's, you know, it's an effective strategy.

CONAN: David, thanks very much for the compliment. And we thank you for the phone call.

DAVID: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is James(ph), James with us from Charlotte.

JAMES (Caller): How are you?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

JAMES: Thanks for taking my call. I just want to call in and state that I'm going to definitely miss Keith. I watched him every night at 8 o'clock, been watching him since he's been with MSNBC. I think it was a refreshing voice coming from the - I guess you could call the progressive side, that spoke to what was wrong with our current news reporting today, which is no one spoke truth to what was - I consider propaganda, coming out of the other side of the aisle.

CONAN: To the propaganda out of the other side of the aisle. In other words, spoke truth to Fox News?

JAMES: Absolutely.

CONAN: And so he was a needed antidote to what was coming and he - and the other programs on MSNBC.

JAMES: Absolutely. And he was receptive to a disagreement with his point of view on more than one occasion, I would admit.

CONAN: All right.

JAMES: And that's refreshing, I think.

CONAN: All right.

JAMES: We need more of that.

CONAN: James, thanks very much for the call. And James, I think, speaks to a situation that we have spoken about - not just Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow or, for that matter, Bill O'Reilly or Glenn Beck. But this seems to be what we expect of cable television hosts these days.

Mr. CARTER: Well, yeah. And I think he used the word propaganda, which is an interesting word. I mean, you know, if you skew your news always from one point of view and try to sell that point of view, it becomes propaganda if you also ignore the facts. I think what Olbermann would argue is that he had a point of view, but he presented the facts. And certainly, Rachel Maddow tries to do that.

I think NBC - MSNBC is in a different position, though, from Fox News, because the NBC News division - which, you know, operates MSNBC - has a straight news outlet, which is, of course, on Channel 4, whatever the broadcast channel is. And they don't - they really chafed a little bit under the, you know, the harsh commentary that you'd hear coming out of Olbermann. And I think that put them in a different position because they don't want to be a propaganda channel. They want to fight against that. They want to be OK, we have an editorial point of view, but we're presenting real news, real facts, and we're not twisting the truth.

CONAN: And that's why you saw criticism of Keith Olbermann from, among others, Tom Brokaw.

Mr. CARTER: Well, exactly. Tom Brokaw criticized him because he was on the air, saying comments that he felt were unfair to Hillary Clinton during the campaign in 2008. He just said, that's just not fair - he openly said it on the air. And you can see that he was not comfortable with the idea that Keith was not just doing commentary, but he was literally anchoring their news that night - on several nights of the primary campaigns.

CONAN: We're talking with Bill Carter of the New York Times, their media reporter, about Keith Olbermann. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go to Don(ph), Don with us from Toledo.

DON (Caller): Yeah, hi. I'm wondering if possibly for the problem where - I don't know if it's a problem, but with Keith leaving as abruptly as he did, if that could have been a little bit of carryover from the - what do you want to say, dispute that he got in with management over his contributions to Democratic candidates during the last election. And with...

CONAN: Keith Olbermann was suspended for...

DON: ...(unintelligible) I'm sorry. Go, ahead.

CONAN: I was just trying to interject that he was suspended for a couple of days after it was revealed that he made contributions to, among others - interestingly - Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona.

Mr. CARTER: That's right.

DON: Yeah. And it just seemed kind of strange, I guess, would be a good way of putting it, that he left as abruptly as he did. And when I - you know, it was pointed out even during that time that there were other members of the NBC and MSNBC's staff that have made contributions to other candidates, and nothing was said about it. So I think it could be that maybe, let's put it politely, Keith took umbrage at it. And I'll take any comments off the air. Thank you.

CONAN: Dan(ph), thanks very much - Don, excuse me, thanks very much.

Mr. CARTER: Yeah, well, he certainly did take umbrage. He was unhappy. He conveyed that unhappiness. His response was hardly apologetic to management for the suspension. He said they didn't lay out the rules clearly. And, you know, it was a reflection of a growing, you know, dispute between him and management, which had been going on for some time. He had actually engaged new agents in September.

And I think partly it was, you know, a long-range plan to see what, you know, his future was going to be there, and maybe he would find an exit strategy, and then he gets suspended in November. And it got very close to him being fired because he, at one point, threatened to go on Good Morning America to talk about the situation with MSNBC - a rival of the Today Show, NBC's show. And I know that management - Jeff Zucker, who is the CEO - would have fired him on the spot had he done that.

CONAN: Here's a tweet we have from Joshua Schaffer(ph): Was it a coincidence that he left after Comcast acquired NBC Universal, the merger just approved by the FCC earlier last week?

Mr. CARTER: Coincidence is maybe not the right word. I think it wasn't overtly tied to that. But it was clear in everyone's mind that, you know, Keith had been, you know - obviously - rubbing the management of NBC the wrong way for some time. And the NBC News management - Phil Griffin at MSNBC, and Steve Capus at NBC News - were going to continue even after the Comcast merger. But would he have been protected the way he was? Would his, you know, sometimes, you know, questionable - not questionable, but aggressive behavior be tolerated? I think there was a question about whether that was going to happen. And maybe both sides thought, with new management, this isn't going to last anyway, so let's get it done. Let's get it settled.

They contacted Comcast, let them know it was going to happen. The Comcast executives say, we had no operational control while this was going on - which is technically true, although they were definitely consulting and talking to NBC News at the time.

I don't think it was politically motivated because I don't think Comcast wanted to be in the middle of, you know, a questionable activity like this, where they could be accused of making a political decision. They don't want that as they start to take over NBC. I think they're probably relieved that they won't have to deal with it down the road.

CONAN: Doesn't this sort of give the remaining hosts at MSNBC sort of carte blanche, at least for a while? It would take a lot for them to, at this point, fire Rachel Maddow.

Mr. CARTER: It certainly would, but it would be shocking if they fire Rachel Maddow. You know, that's one of the big things - the difference between Rachel and Keith, and especially in recent years. Rachel turns up on, you know, Meet the Press. I mean, she's dealt with as an NBC News, you know, talent that they don't have to worry about. They weren't afraid of her. I think she's very measured. She's tempered. And he was not tempered. And I think NBC really wants that to be the image of MSNBC.

Yes we have an editorial point of view, but it's tempered. We're not going to have rhetoric that winds up spilling over into these questions about, you know, are we inciting people to violence and things that, obviously, were thrown around against Fox News after the assassination attempt of Representative Giffords. So I do think NBC's point of view is, let's have - you know - commentators. Let's have them have an opinion, but let's not have them be overly aggressive.

CONAN: David(ph) - and David in Jacksonville, you're going to have to keep it brief, I'm afraid.

DAVID (Caller): OK. Everyone has the right to their opinions and not their facts. Olbermann dramatized facts. The other channels dramatize opinions, and they can't trace it back to facts - and no one holds them accountable, not even regular NBC News. No one is a fair gamekeeper for what is fact and what is fiction. Olbermann made people accountable, and it made them uneasy.

CONAN: All right, David, thanks very much for the call. I appreciate it. So was this just simply a marriage that could not last in the current media environment?

Mr. CARTER: Well, I can tell you one of the things I put in today's story: An NBC News executive said to me, hey, give us credit - you know -he lasted eight years this time. His track record was that he tended to not last a long time because of his style. He's an aggressive guy. He's an outspoken guy. And you know, I think it had come to the end of its course - it sounded like to me.

CONAN: And clearly, his career is not over. He will surface somewhere else.

Mr. CARTER: Oh, no. This is a big talent. He's going to surface.

CONAN: Bill Carter, thanks very much for your time today. I appreciate it.

Mr. CARTER: OK, nice to be with you.

CONAN: Bill Carter, media reporter for the New York Times, at our bureau in New York. You can find the link to his reporting on our website, at npr.org.

Tomorrow, Stanley Fish on how to write a sentence. That's tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION.

I'm Neal Conan, NPR News in Washington.

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