Keith Olbermann, Anchorman's Role Model? Newscast of the Future?

One writer in the San Francisco Chronicle really likes MSNBC's Keith Olbermann. Not only is he "hot," with ranting "Special Comments" at the center of the new liberal zeitgeist, he's apparently a model for the newscast of the future. Or so says C.W. Nevius:

And just like that, Olbermann found his voice -- the angry everyman. He became a liberal counterpoint to conservative media ranters like O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh, and an Internet star, too.

The result has been a cultural earthquake.

"Here's what happened,'' Olbermann said in a phone interview this week. "Five years ago (on Sept. 11), 50 percent of the country went quiet. There was this self-imposed censorship. Suddenly it became unimaginable to criticize the administration. And no one else was brave or stupid enough to say, 'I don't remember signing that document.' ''

Today Olbermann is hot, in every sense of the word. He likes to say that the first step to creating one of his blistering editorials is to "get pissed off,'' and that's certainly how he sounds.

Worse yet, Nevius claims that no conservative would doubt he is "one of the smarter guys in the room." Actually, many would. Throwing in odd historical references from your high-school textbooks does not make one a genius:

But there's something more to it, too. Conservatives may hate his attacks, but no one doubts that he comes across as one of the smarter guys in the room. When he laid into then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld on Aug. 30, he threw in references to Neville Chamberlain and the policy of appeasement. Let's see NBC network anchor Brian Williams pull that off.

Not that he would try it.

"Broadcast networks are not interested in the controversy,'' Olbermann says.

Well, maybe they'd better start thinking about it.

"I think,'' says MSNBC General Manager Dan Abrams, "that Keith Olbermann may become a model for the newscast of the future.''

And sure, Abrams is going to say that because he's Olbermann's boss. Besides, the MSNBC ratings have been on a roll lately -- helped by the 67 percent jump in viewership for Olbermann's show in the year since he began channeling Howard ("I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this any more!'') Beale from the movie "Network.''

Nevius delights in recounting how Olbermann's book sales number on Amazon.com rose amazingly after his "Special Comment" rants began. And how Olbermann now makes people cry: 

It's tangible evidence of what Olbermann calls the "proverbial ripples on the pond.'' Not that he needed the book sales to convince him. Wherever he goes, people rush up to tell him that they've seen one of his "Special Comments'' and that he speaks for them.

"Six weeks ago,'' Olbermann says, "a woman burst into tears. I was at a restaurant with my girlfriend and she came up to me and started crying.''

Suddenly, everyone wants Olbermann. Last week, he and political veteran Chris Matthews teamed up to anchor MSNBC's midterm election coverage.

The result? Abrams called it "a major turning point for this network.'' Ratings were up across the board and the coveted 25-to-54 age demographic increased 111 percent from the 2002 midterm election.

What's next? Expect to see Olbermann in even more mainstream settings. The one thing he is resisting, however, is pressure to produce more "Special Comments.'' He has to feel them, he says. "Otherwise I will turn into a cartoon of myself.''

Certainly it is the passion that carries the day. As Abrams says, "Keith isn't faking this, and the viewers can see that.''

So with all of this brouhaha, is there any doubt that MSNBC is playing itself up as a network for the new anti-war Murtha-cheering Democratic majority?

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis