Keith Olbermann: The 'Countdown' To His New Show After abruptly departing MSNBC in January, Keith Olbermann returns to broadcasting on June 20 with a new version of Countdown on the Current TV network. The anchor explains why he feels like the environment at large news networks can be stifling.
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Keith Olbermann: The 'Countdown' To His New Show

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Keith Olbermann: The 'Countdown' To His New Show

Keith Olbermann: The 'Countdown' To His New Show

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of, in for Terry Gross. Terry's still a little under the weather, but yesterday, she recorded an interview with Keith Olbermann, which we're about to hear.

(Soundbite of television program, "Countdown")

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KEITH OLBERMANN (Political Commentator): I think the same fantasy has popped into the head of everybody in my business who has ever been told what I've been told, that this is going to be the last edition of your show. You go directly to the scene from the movie "Network," complete with the pajamas and the raincoat...

BIANCULLI: When Olbermann made that announcement on his show in January, that after eight years, this would be his final edition of "Countdown," it came as a shock to viewers. Olbermann's mix of political commentary, humor, satire and heavy doses of sarcasm translated to good ratings for MSNBC.

The network's liberal evening lineup was built around his success. He pushed for Rachel Maddow to get her own show. But Olbermann also is famous for clashing with network executives, and his new boss is Al Gore.

Shortly after leaving MSNBC, he made a deal with Current TV, the cable network co-founded by Gore, to start a new version of "Countdown." It premieres June 20th.

Olbermann first became known for his sports commentary. He co-anchored ESPN's "SportsCenter" from 1992 to 1997. Before we hear Terry talk with Olbermann about the old and new countdown, here's more of his final exit from MSNBC.

(Soundbite of television program, "Countdown")

Mr. OLBERMANN: Regardless, this is the last edition of "Countdown." It is just under eight years since I returned to MSNBC. I was supposed to fill in for the late Jerry Nachman for exactly three days. Forty-nine days later, there was a four-year contract for me to return to this nightly 8 PM time slot, which I had fled four years earlier.

The show gradually established its position as antiestablishment. From the stagecraft of "Mission Accomplished" to the exaggerated rescue of Jessica Lynch in Iraq, to the death of Pat Tillman, to Hurricane Katrina, to the nexus of politics and terror to the first "Special Comment," the program grew and grew, thanks entirely to your support with great rewards for me and, I hope, for you, too.

There were many occasions, particularly in the last two-and-a-half years, where all that surrounded the show but never the show itself was just too much for me. But your support and loyalty, and if I may use the word, insistence, ultimately required that I keep going.

GROSS: Keith Olbermann, welcome to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on your new show that's about to start on Current TV. Now, your new show on Current TV will be called "Countdown with Keith Olbermann," kind of like the old show. How is it going to compare with the MSNBC "Countdown"?

Mr. OLBERMANN: It may strike viewers of both as fairly similar, if we're successful at it. The one advantage in doing what I've attempted to do in the last couple of months is that I know what the thing should look like, and the people who I have hired to help me put the thing together and put it on the air know what it should look like at the end, because some of us did that show for about eight years at MSNBC.

And we will be trying to, in many senses, re-create it with some additional bells and whistles, and probably a little bit more commentary. But the premise is, the audience liked that show, so we're going to give them as much of that show as we can.

GROSS: Will you be able to do or say anything on Current TV that you couldn't do or say on MSNBC?

Mr. OLBERMANN: That's an interesting and philosophical question, and as you know from your experience on this program, it's almost impossible to answer it until you get an exact set of circumstances. You can try to say, in the abstract: All right, well, I'll be free to say this now, and then you can't really theorize of an exact set of circumstances that will apply while you try to explain it.

So the broad answer is yes. The specific answer is I'll know it when I see it. But the premise of the change was that what I saw coming for many years in the entirety of television news - this is not specific to NBC or MSNBC - but I just saw an environment growing, in which there were more and more conflicts of interest within these large national corporations or even multinational corporations. Where no matter what you said, you had the potential to affect some other part of the big company's business.

And the more that that's true, the less they want you to say. And even if there is no explicit attempt to censor or to proscribe or otherwise to interfere, there becomes - the larger the corporation - the more fear in the part of the people involved in its production.

So my hope was, you know, to go and get in an environment where there wouldn't be any of that, and I think I've found it.

GROSS: Is there a specific story or interview you could cite where you felt that executives at NBC were uncomfortable because it put one of the subsidiary corporations, owned by the parent company, in a bad light?

Mr. OLBERMANN: No, I can't. I can't point to a specific example. But I think it is well-documented that two summers ago - and I'm relying mostly on reporting that I read in the New York Times to relate this to you, as opposed to anything I knew firsthand - there were negotiations between GE and News Corp about what should and should not be in each of their companies' news networks' content, relative to each other's corporations.

And if you stop and think about that for a second, one of the cardinal tenets of news is that you can't sign any kind of deal that tells people that you might be covering that you're not going to cover them.

I mean, obviously there are restrictions like HFRs - hold for release - and there are certain guidelines that might be given in terms of doing an interview, as you well know. But on the other hand, in a general sense, you can't just sit down and say: OK, we're not going to cover you guys at all, and then in exchange for that, you're not going to cover us at all. It sort of defeats the purpose.

If you know in advance what the news is not going to be, then the next step is you're going to know in advance what the news is going to be, and then it's not news anymore.

GROSS: OK, correct me if I'm wrong, but I think what you're describing here is the fact that on your regular segment on "Countdown" called "Worst Persons in the World," Bill O'Reilly, who was on opposite you on Fox News, he was usually - he was very often the "Worst Person."

Mr. OLBERMANN: It was a strong candidate on all occasions, yeah.

GROSS: Right, and often the winner.


GROSS: In fact, let me play an example in which your parents companies actually figured in to your commentary surrounding Bill O'Reilly's winning of "Worst Person."

So the premise is that you're going to quote things that Bill O'Reilly said, but you're going to quote in a kind of Ted Baxterish voice. And then you're going to say what you think he really meant. So this is Keith Olbermann on one of his "Worst Persons," where the winner was Bill O'Reilly.

(Soundbite of television program, "Countdown"

Mr. OLBERMANN: Fox News has good relationships with ABC News, CBS News and, generally, CNN. That's probably why Fox bought those billboards across the street from CNN headquarters, taunting them about ratings, or issued that anonymous statement comparing CNN to the Titanic or the one about Ted Turner losing his mind.

But "Talking Points" is troubled by the behavior of NBC, which cheap-shots Fox News on a regular basis and has been doing so for some time. You know, I've got to confess, it never occurred to me before, but when we quote your own words back to you about the Catholic Church was out to get Christmas or how we should let al-Qaeda attack San Francisco, they must seem like cheap shots.

GROSS: So Keith Olbermann, are you saying that executives at Fox News and NBC didn't want you and O'Reilly going after each other?

Mr. OLBERMANN: You can appreciate the delicacy of my position, in terms of stating things about that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Yes, I can.

Mr. OLBERMANN: What I can tell you is that it was widely reported at the time, and to some things that I certainly did not know about, that Mr. Immelt of GE, and Mr. Ailes, on behalf of Fox and News Corps., got together at Mr. Immelt's office and just sort of batted back and forth what they could do to stop that.

And, you know, it's one thing if you say we need to tone things down, or it just doesn't make a lot of sense for you to be devoting this much time to covering this story or this enterprise or this political operation, which I always viewed Fox News as a political operation and not a journalistic operation. Those things are negotiable, and that's part of the give and take, I think, of commercial broadcasting and commercial journalism.

When it gets larger than that, it becomes a question of, you know, where does this proceed? I don't mean to be particularly critical of GE, which no longer controls NBC, nor of NBC nor of Comcast, which now controls NBC, but there is a - as a sort of statement relative to the entirety of this process, with ABC and Disney and theme parks and CBS and outdoor advertising and a thousand other things and other networks here and there - I just said: Look, this is the way you want to run things? That's fine by me.

And in the back of my mind, I thought: At some point, I need to go to a place where our business - and there would still be business considerations, obviously in it - but our business would be one television network that covers the news. And that's why I went to Current.

GROSS: Did you temporarily stop "Worst Persons" after you read about those meeting?

Mr. OLBERMANN: I - no, the timing on that is not correct. We stopped "Worst Persons" more after - almost a year later. Jon Stewart's rally, where he talked about some sort of improved tone on both parts of the political spectrum.

And I thought it was a bit overblown, but it wasn't an invalid point, and I wanted to try to offer some sort of start to this backing-down process, and we eliminated "Worst Persons" for a time, and nobody else did anything just to improve the tone whatsoever.

So I brought it back, and then when Gabby Giffords got shot, I began to think: What would the effect of a phrase like worst persons in the world have on someone who might be a viewer of mine or read what I have written or anything like that and not be fully in control of their own mind?

And I wanted to get away from it, and we did in fact stop it at that point, and my hope is to refashion it on the Web and plan to bring it back on Current in a form that's just a little milder, at least in terms of the name, so people don't get the idea that, in any stretch of the imagination, I mean that those people are the worst persons in the world.

Any three child molesters are far ahead on that list, any three terrorists, any three murderers. So we're going to call it something like "Worst Persons of the Day" or something milder like that, probably.

GROSS: If you're just joining, my guest is Keith Olbermann. He hosted "Countdown" on MSNBC for eight years. He left MSNBC in January. He begins a new version of "Countdown" June 20 on Current TV. That's the network that was co-founded by Al Gore. Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Keith Olbermann, and for eight years, he hosted "Countdown" on MSNBC, and now he's about to start a new version of "Countdown" on Current TV, and that begins June 20 at 8 o'clock, his old MSNBC time.

So in terms of talking about charged language, this is a "Special Comment" that you did that I found incredibly moving. Your father was dying, and he was dying during the whole controversy about President Obama's health care plan, and people were talking - the opposition to the plan were talking about, quote, death panels.


GROSS: And so you talked about the need to confer with your doctors about what the plan should be for your father, who seemed to, perhaps, not really want to live any longer. And I want to play just a brief excerpt of that "Special Commentary" that you did last year while your father was sick.

(Soundbite of television program, "Countdown")

Mr. OLBERMANN: And as I left the hospital that night, the full impact of these last six months washed over me: what I had done; conferring with the resident in ICU; the conversation about my father's panicky, not-in-complete-control-of-his-faculties demand that all treatment now stop; about the options and the consequences and the compromise; the sedation; the help for a brave man who just needed a break. That conversation, that one, was what these ghouls who are walking into Blair House tomorrow morning decided to call death panels.

Your right to have that conversation with a doctor, not the government, but a doctor; and your right to have insurance pay for his expertise on what your options are when Dad says kill me; or what your options are when Dad is in a coma and can't tell you a damn thing; or what your options are when everybody is healthy and happy and coherent, and you're just planning ahead; your right to have the guidance and the reassurance of a professional who can lay that all out for you, that's a, quote, "death panel," unquote.

That, right now, is the legacy of the protests of these subhumans who get paid by the insurance companies, who say these things for their own political gain. Or like that one fiend - for money. For money, Betsy McCaughey told people that this conversation about life and death and relief and release, and also about no, keep treating him no matter what happens, until the nation runs out of medicine, she told people that's a death panel, and she did that for money.

It's a life panel, a life panel. It can save the pain of the patient and the family. It is the difference between you guessing what happens next and you being informed about what probably will. And that's the difference between you sleeping at night or second-guessing and third-guessing and thirtieth-guessing yourself.

And it can also be the place where the family says: We want you to keep him alive no matter what; we believe in miracles. And the doctor says yes. Nobody gets to say no except the patient and the family. It's a life panel, and damn those who call it otherwise to hell.

GROSS: OK, that's Keith Olbermann, doing a "Special Commentary" about a year ago, when his father was in the hospital dying.

So, you know, I found your comments about your father very moving. At the same time, I was wondering, like, did you really want to use words like ghouls and subhumans to describe the people who were talking about death panels? And did you really want to damn them to hell? Those are all really strong words.

Will you just - I'd be interested in how you decided to go with those words and whether you'd continue using those words on Current TV, words as dehumanizing as that, to describe people opposed to you.

Mr. OLBERMANN: Yes, and even stepping away a year and two months after my father's death, nearly three, yes. My situation with my dad was the most traumatic thing I ever went through in my life, and yet on the scale of things that were going on just in the hospital in which he died, in which he was in a surgical ICU for seven months, always on the verge of getting out and never getting out.

We had the easiest time of it, because he and I had this perpetual dialogue about what was going to happen and what I should do and what he wanted to do. And yet we had it easiest, because money was not an issue; and because of my name, doctors volunteered information and came in and talked to us very frankly about what this would do and what that would do and what we would do if that failed and what we do if that succeeded.

We had a dialogue about this every day, and it's still the most traumatic thing I ever went through and I imagine is the most traumatic thing almost anybody could go through under those circumstances - the decision I had to make without him to discontinue his treatment.

And as we sat there - I mean, the first half of the whole thing was obviously the subject of health care reform and the incredible burden the current system has put on people who are suffering and trying to get well and worry more about their money than their cancer. Separating it, even from that, this last issue, this end-of-life issue, is I think, where people separate themselves from animals.

And if you are Betsy McCaughey, or if you are Sarah Palin, and you actually take this greatest possible comfort, the opportunity to get a little insurance money back when you consult the doctor, and he spends 45 minutes just talking to the two of you or whoever is involved in the process - you turn that on its head and somehow make that into something to terrorize people - and I use that word decidedly, as well - to terrorize people into believing that some doctor is going to decide that they can't live anymore, when in fact, you are liberating everybody involved in the process. In retrospect, because of the consultation of those doctors and the fact that my father and I started talking about what would happen to him in those circumstances, the day my mother died the year before, we never stopped talking about it.

And we never stopped talking about it with the doctors, and my - in those depths-of-soul issues, when you have those regrets about did I do this, was it wrong, could he have gotten better, is it what he wanted - my margin of error is a question of about plus or minus six hours as opposed to infinity.

I saw people in that hospital and talked to people in that hospital who had no idea what to do, and who'd never had that conversation with their loved ones.

GROSS: So you're still OK with using the word subhuman?

Mr. OLBERMANN: I think that is subhuman. I think to turn that around not only to - I can understand if you don't get it, if you're too foolish to understand what this part of health care reform was intended to be. I can understand that and forgive that, and those are not the subhumans, those are just people who have not informed themselves or who are scared or just listened to political cliches.

But the people pushing this, who receive money from insurance companies to try to terrify people into opposing something that will benefit them particularly in this area, I cannot say: All right, we need to tone down politics in this country and our language. I'm happy to do it in all circumstances except when it's really true. And in my mind, this is really true.

GROSS: OK, so an answer to the question not toning down your political rhetoric.

Mr. OLBERMANN: That's right. All except in that case because obviously that's very personal, and I went through it twice in two years or in a span of actually less than one calendar year with my mom and my dad. And to have that play out while this debate was going on and realize that my consuming issue with this and how much it took over my life was the easy form was the eye-opener.

And my father used to talk to about this all - we have it easy. What about those other people out there? Why are they not being served? Is there nothing that you can take out of political point-making? And the answer is: No, there isn't. And if it's going to be - if that battle is going to be fought, if the up or down on health care reform is going to be fought in this region, I think anything is within bounds. Anything that's nonviolent is within bonds to respond to people who would make that process more difficult for the dying and for the people around the dying.

GROSS: Let me just be blunt and ask you a question here: How do you feel about moving to Current TV, a network, which, according to the New York Times, as of February had 23,000 viewers in primetime each night? You had about a million a night on MSNBC.

Mr. OLBERMANN: Yes, those numbers I - I don't know about the current numbers. I know the MSNBC numbers are correct. The issue in terms of ratings is how many people have access to the program. And so the numbers that apply are MSNBC was, and I suppose still is, in about 93 million American homes, and Current is in 60 million American homes.

So we're at a disadvantage. On the other hand, the network is five years old and is the fastest to 60 million, I believe, in cable history in this country. So the idea that I'm moving from a giant chateau to some sort of matchbox is a bit of an exaggeration.

I am confident that since the major two issues for my viewers to follow me in this task are whether or not they have access to the network. That's the big leap. And for about a third of them, they will not.

The other two-thirds I'm asking them simply to learn a new sequence of three digits and find that on their TVs and their cable. So I'm not too worried about that.

And in addition, to be blunt about the history of MSNBC, when I started "Countdown" there in the end of March of 2003, we were in circumstances not unlike what Current is in now. And I think at its beginning, we had perhaps 200,000 viewers. So I have been through this before, and like anything else, it will grow based on how good it is and how well people can find it.

BIANCULLI: Keith Olbermann, speaking to Terry Gross in an interview recorded yesterday. We'll have more of their conversation in the second half of the show. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: This FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross.

Let's get back to Terry's interview recorded yesterday with Keith Olbermann, former host of "Countdown" on MSNBC. Beginning June 20th, Olbermann and his "Countdown" show will return to television but on a new network, Current TV, the network co-founded by Al Gore.

GROSS: Now I'm assuming you consider yourself a journalist but an opinion journalist, as opposed to a reporter. Yes?

Mr. OLBERMANN: I think that's a I think, I can be a reporter. I haven't done it in the field for a long time, but yes. I think it's a good description.

GROSS: So do you think the ethics for an opinion journalist should be different than for other journalists? And I guess one of the things I'm thinking of is...

Mr. OLBERMANN: I think I know where you're going with this.

GROSS: Yes. The whole controversy of you giving money, like donations, to three Democratic candidates.

Mr. OLBERMANN: Yes. If you were purporting to do a straight news broadcast, if you did the hourly radio newscast on CBS News and you donated money to a campaign, that I can see a sincere conflict of interest. If you're doing a political opinion show and your opinions are nearly universally liberal, and you have been caught donating to Democratic candidates in three instances, I don't think there's a conflict of interest. If the candidates had been donating to you, I could see that as a problem. Or if you were, say, had made a donation while interviewing them or in some period of time other than when you were not covering them, it begins to get a little cloudy. But none of those things applied to the instance last year when I donated to Jack Conway in Kentucky and Gabby Giffords and Raul Grijalva in Arizona.

We had - I had done my last interview with Grijalva, and later that night I made my donations. And my - nobody ever asked me why I made those donations to those...

GROSS: I'm going to ask you. Why did you make those donations?

Mr. OLBERMANN: Yeah. To those particular candidates, I knew people who knew those campaigns very well and it really angered me that so much money had had to have been spent in each of those cases for protection, for security against death threats and threats of violence against staffers, against people just showing up at events, and against the candidates themselves. And I thought that in this case I needed to put my money where my mouth was. And I had no problem with it coming out. There is, to me, a defeat of democracy if the threat of the gun is always there. And as I think we saw, certainly in terms of the symbolism is not the actual, as I said before, kind of straight line from A to B here. I think what we saw with Gabby Giffords is the kind of chilling thing that has happened in this political dialogue in the last few years, and I literally felt angry enough to want to donate to campaigns for the first time in my life.

GROSS: So you felt a foreshadowing of that.

Mr. OLBERMANN: Yeah. Well, I mean if you hear that, you know, there in addition to all the publicly reported things, they were dozens of other incidences that - incidents that were not made public, I - yeah. It just seemed to me to be a very dangerous time in American politics, and I think Gabby Giffords could tell you that right now.

GROSS: So I was reading a feature story about you in New York magazine from a while back, and it said that you don't vote. Is that true?

Mr. OLBERMANN: That's true.

GROSS: Now Jim Lehrer told me that he doesn't vote but he doesn't vote - I mean he doesn't want to even think about taking a, having an opinion or taking sides. He wants to be like do neutral, so like...


GROSS: ...immaculately neutral. No one can accuse you of being immaculately neutral.


GROSS: Why in the world wouldn't you vote if you have such strong points of view?

Mr. OLBERMANN: I honor his position and I'd like to say that my position is kind of a distant cousin of his, which he might recognize. Because I am so intensely identified with opinion and analysis and, as I said, contextualization and all these other, if you want, pleasant euphemisms for opinion. I think I just need for my own psychological benefit a small island in which I can stand and say I'm going to sit this one out. And there's a specific reason for it that came to pass. It's a sports thing. It's the idea of not betting on a game when you're covering it. Not that you're going to somehow influence the outcome, but you can influence the coverage.

In 2006, after the "Special Comments" started, one of the first people to rise to my defense and to my support was Bill Clinton, and I got very involved in the Clinton group. I'm not saying I was advocating for them or anything like that, but I got to go to their events and meet their staff and meet the senator and all the rest of this. And as she ran for president in 2007, I felt two things tugging on me at the same time: One was a kind of obligation to criticize her for what I saw were transgressions in terms of her campaign against Barack Obama and the other would-be nominees.

At the same time, I knew her, and I knew her husband, and I knew their staff and they had been great to me, and they had been so wonderfully supportive of me, and I had gotten too close. And to me, I can't necessarily control every time I get too close, personally, to any politician or political figure. But this one little psychological island where I can say I don't, I will not vote in a primary. I will not vote in a general election. I have to have that for my own, sort of, sense of reassessing, every day, whether or not I am being fair if not neutral.

GROSS: I can completely understand that. Yet, it seems, frankly, to me to be inconsistent with the idea of giving money to candidates for their campaigns.

Mr. OLBERMANN: Well, but I had never done that again. Now again, I can foresee a set of circumstances in which I feel so pushed that I might actually pull a lever somewhere. I could see it happening, conceivably. I don't know what the circumstances might be. The old joke about well, if you're going to leave it up to me, then I will vote. But the, getting back to the idea of making those campaigns donations, those were specific circumstances in which I thought somebody needs to put a little, a drop back in the bucket to balance out the premise of democracy rather than banana republic's holding elections based on who can shoot a machine gun the loudest.

GROSS: So it was only because it was safety, that you...



Mr. OLBERMANN: Yeah. I, you know, I listened to the stories about what had happened in the campaigns of Raul Grijalva, who I had never met, and Gabby Giffords who I never met...

GROSS: Wait. Hasn't he been on your show several times, Raul Grijalva?

Mr. OLBERMANN: Well, if you count that as meeting, yes. But I never met him in person. And he had had no idea that that was coming. And we had done the last interview on Thursday with Raul about, I think about the border fence that he opposed or something else about immigration or the Arizona "Papers, Please" law, and then on Tuesday would be the election. And I knew that on Tuesday night we were not covering the congressional elections on MSNBC. So essentially, my coverage of Raul Grijalva and my coverage of - certainly of Gabby Giffords - was to end on that day. And therefore, I thought ethically there was nothing wrong with it and the slightest. And I, you know, even if it weren't I could make a case for it being legitimate to do that under those circumstances, because it was violence.

GROSS: Well, if you're just joining us, my guest is Keith Olbermann, and he is starting a new version of "Countdown" on Current TV, and that begins on June 20th. And this is after leaving MSNBC early this year. So that new show will be on at 8 o'clock like the old show.

Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Keith Olbermann. He left MSNBC about well, a few months ago in January. And now he's starting a new version of his show "Countdown," on Current TV. It premiers June 20th.

So I think most people got to know you first as like a sports person and then more as a news person.


GROSS: Had you always been interested in politics?

Mr. OLBERMANN: Yeah, certainly. I started in news in college and covered elections and election nights and such in addition to doing sports. And the first time I was offered the prospect of going into news professionally rather than sports, I was 20 years old in 1979, I was getting out of college. And three or four times after that I had been offered jobs and just didn't have the courage to leave sports, either on a full-time or a part-time basis. And finally circumstances sort of slid me into it.

GROSS: Were you an athlete as a kid?

Mr. OLBERMANN: I was not an athlete as a kid. I was a very bad athlete, perhaps you could describe me in those terms. And more importantly, I was a far thinking athlete who knew that he would never get over his pronounced fear of getting hit in the head with the ball. So I thought at age eight it would be much safer and productive for to go and pursue talking about it rather than getting hit by it.

GROSS: That's funny because you hit your head...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...eventually on the subway. Yeah.

Mr. OLBERMANN: Leaving a sporting event. Yes. Yes. Yes, it was - trust me, the first thing, just after I came to, the first thing I thought of was I got hit in the head anyway.

GROSS: Right. And it affected your equilibrium when you're in motion so you can't drive.

Mr. OLBERMANN: Correct. So this is a good city, New York, for me to be in...

GROSS: Great city.

Mr. OLBERMANN: ...because you don't have to drive. Yes.

GROSS: Yeah. It's a great city if you don't drive.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OLBERMANN: And I got to meet Dr. Renee Richards, who was my ophthalmologist who discovered all this. So I've known her for 30 years. So it had some positive benefits.

GROSS: So during your "Countdown" programs on MSNBC, you really went after the Bush administration: for starting the war in Iraq, for the way they continued the war, and for many other things to fiscal and otherwise. Did the Bush administration ever send you emails, letters, phone calls - phone calls through the network and not directly to you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Like were...

Mr. OLBERMANN: Oh, yes. There's one wonderful story about this, actually preceded things like the "Special Comments." But it was a wonderful example of - I've always been convinced that our freedom in this country is largely protected by the stupidity of the people who would take it away from us. I was one of the first people to put Joe Wilson on TV - not the you lie Joe Wilson, but the Joe Wilson, Ambassador Joe Wilson. And, of course, exposing that entire attempt to smear him by exposing his wife. I was one of the first people to put him on, and we sat down to do a long interview by satellite and we publicized it for several days. And apparently, the people in the Bush administration who wanted to confront me on this could not spell my name correctly. And they wanted to send a series of emails, thinking that perhaps MSNBC was still somehow favorable to the Bush administration.

They thought that they could send me a series of questions, of talking points to get Joe Wilson with, to disprove Joe Wilson's claims. But, as I said, they couldn't spell my name so they couldn't - they apparently sent it to me several days in a row and it all bounced back because they left off the second and N or they forgot the L, for they spelled it with an A, or goodness knows what. And finally, they sent these talking points to all the people who they considered friendly at NBC News, and said, would you pass this on to Keith Olbermann?

So I got this same email with talking points for Joe Wilson forwarded to me by seven or eight people at NBC News. And literally, I then had a list of all the people at NBC News that the Bush Administration thought were theirs. And, I had a list of all these talking points that were easily - holes were easily put through them. But in addition to that, I now had a piece of paper that I could hold up and show to Joe Wilson and say, did you know that the White House is circulating this list of talking points? That was the first time that there was any kind of reaction from the Bush administration. The only other one I ever recall was Mr. Cheney made a joke about me at some point, late in the administration. But they, Mr. Bush never said anything that indicated he was aware of my existence.

GROSS: Did you tell the people who sent - who forwarded the emails, this makes me think that you are a reporter, or an executive, that the Bush administration considers to be friendly to them?

Mr. OLBERMANN: You know, matter of fact, I didn't, Terry.


Mr. OLBERMANN: I just kept that information to myself...

GROSS: All right.

Mr. OLBERMANN: ...and use it accordingly over the years.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: OK. Now, would you mind if I played Ben Affleck's impression of you that he did on "Saturday Night Live" of one of your "Special Comments"?

Mr. OLBERMANN: Provided you're not going to play the whole eight and a half minutes of it.

GROSS: No. No.

Mr. OLBERMANN: Go right ahead.

GROSS: OK. In that case, let me play a short clip of Ben Affleck doing his impression of you doing a "Special Comment." This was on "Saturday Night Live." And the premise of this "Special Comment" was that you had asked the board of your co-op if they would make an exception to their no-pets policy to accommodate your cat, Miss Precious Perfect. So this is the "Special Comments" to the co-op president, Richard Lieberstein(ph). And here's Ben Affleck.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Saturday Night Live")

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BEN AFFLECK (Actor): (as Keith Olbermann) And there it was. All perfectly legal. Like the 1942 internment of more than 100,000 Japanese American citizens.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. AFFLECK: (as Keith Olbermann) Or the forced relocation of the Cherokee on the Trail of Tears. Or the monstrous injustice of our nation's Jim Crow laws. It was all perfectly legal and every bit as wrong.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. AFFLECK: (as Keith Olbermann) If not, indeed, more so.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of banging)

Mr. AFFLECK: (as Keith Olbermann) Mr. Lieberstein. You speak of consideration of the rights of others.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. AFFLECK: (as Keith Olbermann) How dare you, sir? How dare you?

(Soundbite of laughter) (Soundbite of applause)

Mr. AFFLECK: (as Keith Olbermann) Where, sir, in any of this, were the rights of Miss Precious Perfect considered?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. AFFLECK: (as Keith Olbermann) Damn you, Mr. Lieberstein. Damn you to hell.

(Soundbite of laughter) (Soundbite of applause)

Mr. AFFLECK: (as Keith Olbermann) No, Mr. Lieberstein - your decision was based, not on consideration, but on fear. Fear of carpets stained. Of deliverymen clawed. Of kitty litter boxes tipped over. Of hairballs coughed up.

(Soundbite of a bang)

Mr. AFFLECK: (as Keith Olbermann) We have seen this fear before: in Cambodia, under Pol Pot.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. AFFLECK: (as Keith Olbermann) In Russia, under Stalin.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. AFFLECK: (as Keith Olbermann) In Massachusetts, under Mitt Romney.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. AFFLECK: (as Keith Olbermann) It is the fear, sir, and the tyranny up with which we dare no longer put.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. AFFLECK: (as Keith Olbermann) I pray thee, sir, let us have done with it.

GROSS: That's Ben Affleck's impression of my guest, Keith Olbermann doing one of his "Special Comments."

So did "Saturday Night Live" or Ben Affleck give you a heads up that this was going to happen?

Mr. OLBERMANN: Once again, things that you don't realize, and I think they didn't realize, so that the executives of "Saturday Night Live" can watch the show without coming into the studio, the rehearsals are put on an interior television channel within NBC. So I saw the rehearsals on the Friday afternoon, and I'd heard something about it. They'd asked for our graphics, they wanted to use our graphic look, so I saw some of the rehearsals and, in fact, went up to the studio to offer Ben, who I know for quite a while, some advantage, you know, if he needed any help in mannerisms, I would try to help him with the thing. So I saw it. I knew that it was coming.

I did not know it would be eight and a half minutes long, only about three minutes of which was funny. As with many of the sketches on "Saturday Night Live," if it were just a little bit shorter it would have been much more hilarious than it was. But I found it particularly entertaining in ways that viewers would not have understood. Namely, I am deathly allergic to cats.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OLBERMANN: So the premise, and the number of people who think that I actually have a cat with that name or that I lived with my mother or the rest of this, because they saw it on "Saturday Night Live," made me really fear for the future of the democracy. And the...

GROSS: Now did his formal language like, I pray thee, sir...

Mr. OLBERMANN: Yeah. That...

GROSS: ...let us have done with it resonate with you and remind you of things like, have you no sense of decency, sir, to President Bush? Or you, sir, have no business being president?

Mr. OLBERMANN: Well, you, sir, have no business being president was just a statement of fact. I don't think that was particularly oratorical. The first one I believe you're - you're quoting me quoting Joseph Welch from the Army-McCarthy hearings. So most of the time when these quotations - I quoted Chamberlain. I quoted Churchill. I quoted Cromwell. I quoted a lot of - I quoted Shakespeare on occasion, but mostly, I quoted Murrow. I quoted a lot of people in these things. The commentaries averaged about 10 minutes long. And there were a lot of quotations in it and they were done for expository benefit.

That was over-the-top and Ben knew it was over-the-top, and Ben apologized to me and took a cue card from the sketch and wrote, you know, Keith, I'm sorry and slipped it under my door. And he did - he did what yeah, I thought it was as a performance, it was staggeringly magnificent. He did that without a teleprompter. He did that and he made 75 camera changes, which I would never try to do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You counted?

Mr. OLBERMANN: Oh, I think perhaps I'm exaggerating.


Mr. OLBERMANN: But it was marvelously, it was marvelously done. And I, you know, bottom line was my show got eight and a half minutes of free publicity right before the election on NBC. And, they had to get an actor in there to do an impression of me who usually makes about $10 million a picture. So I was extremely flattered on all fronts. But, as I said, it should have been a little shorter.

GROSS: So I want to get back to what you said in your final program on MSNBC. You said that there were times when all that surrounded the show but not the show itself were just too much for you.

Mr. OLBERMANN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: What were the things that surrounded the show that were too much for you that may...

Mr. OLBERMANN: I think...

GROSS: part of why you left?

Mr. OLBERMANN: We came to the place that "Countdown" came to entirely by dint of judging each day what needed to be said in my opinion and the opinion of the producers. And that was fine as long as it wasn't successful. And once it started to make a great deal of money for NBC, they began to worry as much about the backlash as they did about the money. And that wear and tear sort of surrounded the entire enterprise, and I just thought I need to free myself from that and I did.

GROSS: Well, good luck with your show. Thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. OLBERMANN: A pleasure, Terry. Thank you for having me.

BIANCULLI: Keith Olbermann speaking to Terry Gross yesterday. The new incarnation of "Countdown with Keith Olbermann" will begin June 20th on the Current TV network.

Coming up, music critic Milo Miles reviews a new reissue of an old Elvis Presley album. And, after visiting for the first time, also reviews Graceland.

This is FRESH AIR.

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