If Keith Olbermann were one of those National Football League players he used to cover for ESPN, and he had just been fined by the commissioner for a helmet-to-helmet hit, he’d probably be an unapologetic linebacker with a nickname like The Decapitator.
Olbermann survived the TV-news equivalent of a two-game suspension when MSNBC put him back on the air last night after a few days without pay for violating the network’s policy banning political contributions without a doctor’s note (er, prior permission of the honchos). Olbermann’s offense? $7,200 in pre-election political contributions, undisclosed to the brass – one of them coming immediately after airing an interview with the candidate.
But rather than apologize to the MSNBC chieftains after the brief if pointed unpaid leave, Olbermann resurfaced – surprise – with a big chip on his shoulder.
“I don’t want to minimize my gratitude to [viewers] for the kind of support that’s usually reserved for, like, Chilean miners,” Olbermann opened last night on his show, Countdown, referring to the episode as “my little adventure.”
He also quickly addressed the criticism that the tempest was promotional. “This was not a publicity stunt,” he said, then quipped: “Of course, if I had known that all of this would happen, I would have done this years ago!”
Later in Countdown, Olbermann got an attaboy from his guest, Michael Moore. “It’s nice that you’re still here,” the leftist filmmaker told his simpatico host. “Please don’t leave.”
Media critics can hash out whether Olbermann should have known that corporate policy prohibited him from making such donations, or whether he should have cared, or whether this controversy does anything to harm his questionable credibility as a journalist rather than as a commentator.
It may even enhance his fans’ appreciation of Olbermann as a “doer” regarding his ideological convictions rather than just a “talker.”
More broadly, the Olbermann flap certainly will add fuel to the blazing fire of red-hot opinion about the politicization and polarization of what used to be known as “news media.” On that score, some of Olbermann’s allies argue that Fox News is in a class by itself as an avowed partisan operation. Fox and some of its on-air staff (notably Sean Hannity) contribute to Republican candidates. And there’s the small matter that at least two Fox News hosts – Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin – are likely angling for the GOP presidential nod in 2012.
Of course, if Olbermann worked for Fox, he wouldn’t have been in violation of network policy against political donations, because clearly Fox has no such ban. Maybe Keith should pull a Johnny Damon, cut his proverbial hair and sign with the opposition he has so loudly railed against.
Back to reality, and the real question: Publicity move or not, how long can Olbermann and his bosses ride this episode to improvement in the ratings? After all, for the chattering classes both left and the right, yelling and accusing is their business – and business remains very, very good.