Thirteen months ago, Keith Olbermann announced that his hiatus from TV would be very temporary. He would be taking “Countdown” to Current TV, the flailing network that had launched with ambitions of user-driven documentary content, and been reduced to running the same piece about Russian neo-nazis every six hours. He rolled out the show over a period of months, announcing new contributor hires. At Netroots Nation last summer, Olbermann appeared via video to promote the show. “Al Gore is my boss!” he said, obviously thrilled.
This all came to an end – I almost, wrongly wrote “abrubt” – today. Current TV announced via press release that it had terminated Olbermann and given Eliot Spitzer (a Slate columnist) his time slot. Olbermann released a statement.
I’d like to apologize to my viewers and my staff for the failure of Current TV.
Editorially, Countdown had never been better. But for more than a year I have been imploring Al Gore and Joel Hyatt to resolve our issues internally, while I’ve been not publicizing my complaints, and keeping the show alive for the sake of its loyal viewers and even more loyal staff. Nevertheless, Mr. Gore and Mr. Hyatt, instead of abiding by their promises and obligations and investing in a quality news program, finally thought it was more economical to try to get out of my contract.
It goes almost without saying that the claims against me implied in Current’s statement are untrue and will be proved so in the legal actions I will be filing against them presently. To understand Mr. Hyatt’s “values of respect, openness, collegiality and loyalty,” I encourage you to read of a previous occasion Mr. Hyatt found himself in court for having unjustly fired an employee. That employee’s name was Clarence B. Cain.
In due course, the truth of the ethics of Mr. Gore and Mr. Hyatt will come out. For now, it is important only to again acknowledge that joining them was a sincere and well-intentioned gesture on my part, but in retrospect a foolish one. That lack of judgment is mine and mine alone, and I apologize again for it.
So, that’s what’s happening to grand dream of an even-more-liberal competitor to the cable news lineup. I know and like Olbermann, appeared on his show when it was at MSNBC*, and know many of the people who contribute to the show now. Before this year started, Olbermann appeared to have found a niche. He covered Occupy Wall Street the way that Mother Jones covered it – journalism and activism, updates on the movements and an obvious stake in the movement’s success. Current’s other programming, The Young Turks and The War Room (hosted, respectively, by an ex-MSNBC host and by former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm), built off the Countdown model.
I don’t know much about the internal disputes here (copious amonts of leaks suggest that the serious problems began with GOP primary election night coverage), but if Countdown is finito, what did Olbermann do with it? He took over MSNBC’s temporary show Countdown: Iraq and turned it into a hub of activist journalism. After the 2004 election, Olbermann was basically the only national TV host who covered ballot fraud claims and took a Green Party-backed Ohio recount seriously. (Bush won the recount. The fraud claims were mostly crazy, having largely to do with misunderstandings about how exit polls worked.) In 2005 and 2006, Olbermann was situated perfectly to channel liberal anger about Hurricane Katrina, the Iraq War, and the Plame leak case. Liberal activists saw (I think correctly) that Olbermann was trying reverse-engineer what made Fox News work, but they’d say he was rigorous and Fox News made stuff up.
The Olbermann experiment worked. MSNBC’s line-up used to include Alan Keyes and Michal Savage. It now includes a former Air America host, a former Washington, D.C. editor of the Nation, and Al Sharpton. The question I always had about Current was how/why the project was supposed to work again. Olbermann’s provided his own answer to that question.
*I’m an MSNBC contributor but don’t speak for the network in any way at all.