Only Olbermann talks about Team Bush "monstrously transforming [9/11 unity] into fear and suspicion, and turning that fear into the campaign slogan of three elections." He was virtually alone on TV news in seriously reporting on 2004 election irregularities in Ohio, and in exploring the pre-Iraq war Downing Street Memos indicating White House deception.
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 run-up 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 right-wingers 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. But MSNBC is still owned by GE's conservative bosses, and managed by NBC's ever-timid executives. Olbermann knows this reality as well as anyone; six months ago on C-SPAN, while expressing confidence that good ratings would keep them at bay, he remarked: "There are people I know in the hierarchy of NBC, the company, and GE, the company, who do not like to see the current presidential administration criticized at all."