Since last week, MSNBC's Countdown show has reached new levels in displaying personal insults as host Keith Olbermann, as well as regular guest Craig Crawford of Congressional Quarterly, have repeatedly made fat jokes about the subjects of their conversation. Both their targets were conservatives – Fox News Chairman and CEO Roger Ailes and Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert. While Ailes was at the receiving end several times last week, once directly called "fat ass" by Olbermann, on Monday's show guest Crawford took a cheap shot at Hastert's weight. While discussing the possibility that Republicans would "throw Hastert under the bus" by forcing him to resign over his handling of the Mark Foley sexual abuse scandal, Crawford quipped: "Well, if he fits, if the bus has a lot of clearance." (Transcripts follow)
The trend toward fat jokes began last Wednesday, September 27, as Olbermann proclaimed that Ailes had "achieved a perfectly circular shape" as the Countdown host attacked Ailes' criticism of Bill Clinton's conduct during an interview with Fox News host Chris Wallace. (NewsBusters post on that Countdown.)
On Thursday's show the personal insults continued as Olbermann called Ailes "the circular gentleman" and referred to him as "Sydney Greenstreet," an overweight and bald actor who passed away in 1954. The Countdown host also recommended that Ailes "leave some food for Canada." (First recounted in this NewsBusters item.)
But the first two days were only an appetizer compared to Friday as the Countdown host not only directly called Ailes "fat ass," but made several other fat jokes during that one show, calling Ailes "the round man" and "the rotund refugee." He also referred to Ailes making a statement "between pies" and cautioned viewers: "Don't get your hands too close to his mouth." (Mark Finkelstein's NewsBusters item on Friday's insults.)
Then, as Olbermann introduced guest Craig Crawford "to flesh out the Ailes story," Crawford contributed his own fat joke, remarking: "We got a lot of flesh to work with to flesh this one out." And as the interview came to an end, soon after Crawford had talked about conservatives and liberals "broadening out" from their base, Olbermann added one final slap at Ailes as he theorized that "I'm sure Mr. Ailes wishes he could stop broadening out."
On Monday's show, House Speaker Hastert became the target of a fat joke from Crawford, who was again appearing as a guest. After Olbermann asked if Republicans need to "throw Hastert under the bus" to win the 2006 elections, Crawford began his answer laughing as he remarked: "Well, if he fits. If the bus has a lot of clearance."
Below are transcripts of relevant portions from the September 27, 28, 29, and October 2 Countdown shows, with critical portions in bold:
From September 27:
Keith Olbermann: "But our winner, Roger Ailes, the Ming the Merciless of Fox News. And congrats, incidentally, Roger, on having achieved the perfectly circular shape. He says today that President Clinton's reaction to Chris Wallace the other day was, quote, 'an assault on all journalists.' No, Roger. What Mr. Clinton said was an admonishment. Somebody sending terroristic threats to me and others is an assault on all journalists. Roger Ailes, today's 'Worst Person in the World.'"
From September 28:
Olbermann: "Roger Ailes, the circular gentleman, has spoken again. Having already fired or demoted several popular hosts from the Ministry of Truth's Fox News Channel and dealing with a nasty fight between another host and his wife, now former Washington Bureau Chief, Ailes has announced his next ten-year plan. Quoted by several TV blogs as telling his staff, 'it's been a great ten years. We defied the odds. We should be congratulated, but every decision I make from here on in is about the next ten years,' adding that the Ministry of Truth needed [text on screen] 'To focus more on taking audience away from broadcast networks, not the other cable news networks.'
Olbermann: "Not so fast, Sidney Greenstreet. Check out last night's ratings: At midnight Eastern, 9pm Pacific, Countdown in first place in the only ratings the industry cares about: Viewers 25 to 54. Beat Fox News and Brit Hume by 16,000, beat Larry King by 52,000 -- [mimics King] 'Houston, goodbye' -- beat Glenn Beck by 181,000. Mr. Ailes might want to focus back on keeping the other cable news networks from taking audience from his own network and leaving some food for Canada."
From September 29:
Keith Olbermann, at 8:14 p.m.: "This update from the 'Ministry of Truth': 'Bill Clinton's answer to Chris Wallace was an attack on journalists,' says Roger Ailes. Of course, when Roger Ailes orchestrated George H.W. Bush's answer to Dan Rather, that was righteous indignation. Hitting the round man's hypocrisy square. That's next. This is Countdown."
Olbermann, at 8:18 p.m.: "Roger Ailes, the rotund refugee from the Ministry of Truth, was whining about how, during the taping one week ago today, President Clinton had responded to interviewer Chris Wallace breaking his network's agreement to devote half their conversation to Clinton's charitable effort, the Global Initiative. 'It was an attack on all journalists,' said Ailes -- between pies."
Olbermann: "Then, in our fourth story in the Countdown tonight, Ailes told the Chicago Tribune that he was delighted about how much publicity the Clinton interview had gathered for Fox News at the time of its current ratings crisis. A light bulb went off slowly, but it's blazing right now. Remember this infamous CBS Evening News interview with then-Vice President, then presidential candidate, George H.W. Bush, in 1988? You know who the media advisor was who set this up, who was literally holding the cue cards from which Mr. Bush read his prepackaged umbrage? Roger Ailes."
George H.W. Bush: "And it's not fair to judge a whole career, it's not fair to judge my whole career by a rehash on Iran. How would you like it if I judged your career by those seven minutes when you walked off the set in New York? Would you like that? I have respect for you, but I don't have respect for what you're doing here tonight."
Olbermann: "Dan Rather was forever after portrayed as attacking a sitting vice president, portrayed as a liberal. Now the effort is to paint Clinton as doing the same to Fox. And Ailes is back with another memorable quote. Don't get your hands too close to his mouth, by the way. 'I would have paid him,' President Clinton, '100 grand to help us with marketing, just to get a half-hour of his time. As it turned out, I got a half-hour of his time and he did it for nothing. We're very grateful.'"
Olbermann: "So donate the $100,000 to his charity, fat ass. Charity, C-H-A-R-I-T-Y. To flesh out the Ailes story, let me call in Craig Crawford, MSNBC analyst and Congressional Quarterly columnist, whose terrific book, Attack the Messenger, opens with that Ailes-Bush-Rather story. Craig, good evening."
Craig Crawford: "We got a lot of flesh to work with to flesh this one out, I think."
Olbermann: "Yes, certainly we do. So is Ailes whistling past graveyards here? I mean, it seems like the only publicity he actually got was within those areas where Fox is already believed. But the bad publicity certainly galvanized the Democratic Party. Is Roger Ailes slipping?"
Crawford: "Well, they could never resist the Clintons, you know, the conservative movement and those conservatives at Fox. I mean, if Fox were a church, Clinton would surely be their devil. They've beaten him up every Sunday. And I do think, though, there was this other impact, which was that Clinton, by design or happenstance, energized a lot of the Democrats out there who have just been desperate for leadership within, from their own elected leaders, the official leaders of the party, to show that kind of passion."
Olbermann: "Speaking of design or happenstance in a different context, obviously Bush 41's anger with Dan Rather had to be manufactured. But I saw President Clinton immediately before the Wallace interview, and I interviewed him immediately after it, and he was still visibly upset that Fox had broken that deal with him. So that political end of it, Bush 41 needed cue cards to exploit the opportunity, did Clinton just see it before him like a fumble in a football game, just ad lib, beating Chris Wallace senseless like that?"
Crawford: "Well, yeah, I've talked to so many associates of Clinton over the years, and a couple since this happened, and, you know, they always say, you know, when we see these moments, it's the Clinton they know and knew in private, exploding with anger at sometimes the smallest things. Someone described him one time as one of those kind of people who just thinks he can just keep saying it over and over again and louder and louder until you believe it.
I think that, on the other hand, I would have to say, he had to be mindful that he was getting a passionate message out there to some of the Democrats who are desperate for that. And, of course, the Clintons want to be seen as the leaders of this party, for other reasons, not just this campaign, but the next one in 2008."
Olbermann: "By the way, those same employees are the ones who like to point out that after those events, when they happen internally, the Clinton choice gift of apology is a small box that simply contains earphones, earplugs. So, now, twice I've mentioned the first Mr. Bush and the cue cards. That's no hyperbole. You told that story so well in your book. Can you capsulize it here? It was an Ailes production, right?"
Crawford: "Yeah, I deconstructed that interview that you just played between Bush 41 and Dan Rather in the very first chapter of Attack the Messenger because I thought it was a real symbolic moment in a new phase in attacking the media by politicians, that entire Bush campaign, which, by the way, Roger Ailes was actually the campaign manager of that campaign. And the cameraman in that interview that you showed earlier, the CBS cameraman, George Christian, a veteran cameraman, told me that Roger Ailes stood right next to him with a cue card, and that particular moment you showed, where Bush attacked Rather for walking out on the set and threatened to walk out on the set, that Roger Ailes had on a cue card written, 'Now ask,' and put the substance of that question on there. In fact, he had to write it in really large letters, Keith, because the camera had been placed about 30 feet away from the Vice President, and for the Vice President to see the cue card, they had to write it in really large letters."
Olbermann: "Wonderful. So if the Ministry of Truth, that would be Fox, and the White House have spent so much time attacking the messenger these days, why are their ratings down? Why are they firing hosts and Washington bureau chiefs over there? Why, do people seem to have figured out the game? Ailes looks a little like Rod Steiger playing Napoleon as it is. Has he hit a Waterloo?"
Crawford: "Well, I don't know about their internals, but I do know that, you know, the Fox News Channel's much like political campaigns, where you see a strong base. They play to the base. But they reach a point where it's a little hard to broaden out from that. And we see that in politics in both Democrat and Republican side, where they preach to the base, they use the partisan rhetoric, and have a loyal following. But then, that very act of doing that makes it harder to branch out to the centrist, moderate, reasonable voters who don't want to hear that kind of partisanship."
Olbermann: "I'm sure Mr. Ailes wishes that personally he could stop broadening out. Craig Crawford, the book is Attack the Messenger, and if you have not read especially that opening description of that original Bush-Rather interview, it is worth it just for that. Craig, thanks for your time."
Crawford: "Thank you."
From October 2:
Olbermann: "Never mind what the Democrats say. If you've got conservatives who are furious at Hastert and this is the kind of disaster that does not need one-party painting the other, this is self-painting, will the Republicans need to throw Hastert under the bus to save their chances in the election?"
Crawford: "Well, if he fits. If the bus has a lot of clearance."