Like so many others who hunger for some journalistic independence on TV news, I often marvel at Olbermann's dogged reporting and unique commentary. In a cable news environment of conformity and conservatism, the MSNBC host takes on the Bush administration for "demonizing dissent," for abusing our Constitutional traditions, for "taking cynical advantage of the unanimity and love [following 9/11], and transmuting it into fraudulent war and needless death."
It's worth noting that strong criticism of an extremist presidency hardly makes Olbermann a leftist. I remember him as the whimsical sports guy on ESPN. I remember his first go-round on MSNBC in 1998 when he could have sued his bosses for repetitive stress disorder for having to host scores of Lewinsky episodes on the road to Clinton's impeachment an impeachment that may well have been impossible if not for the complicity of TV news.
It's obvious his bosses at MSNBC/NBC/GE never envisioned the increasingly bold Olbermann of recent months. It's likely that Olbermann himself could not have foreseen his current role as the lone voice of those who feel assaulted by a cable news business dominated by the O'Reillys and Hannitys.
So why do I fear for Olbermann? Because I know his bosses. In the runup to the Iraq war, I too worked for MSNBC as an on-air pundit and a senior producer on the primetime Donahue show.
Olbermann has been gaining in audience ratings. That provides him some security. But perhaps not enough.
When Donahue was terminated three weeks before the Iraq invasion, it was MSNBC's most watched program. Canceling your top-rated show doesn't happen often, but it happened to Donahue. Who knows what will happen to Olbermann?
With Donahue, management cared less about building up audience than tamping down dissent. While independent outlets and blogs were soaring in audience by questioning the rush to war, our bosses imposed straightjackets on us that prevented similar growth.
In the last months of Donahue, management gave us strict orders: if we booked a guest who was antiwar, we needed two who were pro-war. If we booked two guests on the left, we needed three on the right. When a producer proposed booking Michael Moore, she was told she'd need three rightwingers for ideological balance.
Olbermann's increasingly bold dissent has been occurring at a time when Bush's approval ratings are low and Bush's war is in shambles. That gives him some added security.
During Donahue's tenure at MSNBC on the eve of war, Bush's popularity was high. And media conglomerates were particularly concerned about not ruffling the White House at that moment as they were lobbying hard to get FCC rules changed to allow them to grow still fatter.
NBC's solution then? Dump Phil, stifle dissent, brandish the flag.
NBC's solution now? So far, Olbermann appears to be on more solid footing mostly because the political zeitgeist is much changed from four years ago.