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Sad Farewell to “Countdown with Keith Olbermann”

[1]MSNBC and Keith Olbermann have ended their contract. The last broadcast of “Countdown with Keith Olbermann” will be this evening. MSNBC thanks Keith for his integral role in MSNBC’s success and we wish him well in his future endeavors.

That is the full text of MSNBC’s official announcement of the abrupt cancellation of the network’s highest-rated show.

File Under “WTF?!”

Just about everyone seems surprised—even though Olbermann [2] was briefly suspended in November after it was disclosed that without network approval he had contributed to the political campaigns of several Democratic candidates for Congress in the 2010 midterm elections (including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, shot in Tucson on Jan. 8). Josh Marshall of TalkingPointsMemo, who was a guest on the program, titles his post “What the Hell Was That About? [3]

I was just on in the opening segment of Olbermann tonight. And I get home and get this press release from NBC saying this was the last episode of Countdown. At first I figured it had to be a spoof email because, jeez, I was on and I didn’t have any sense that any other than a regular Friday evening show was on. But sure enough I pulled up the recording and now I’m watching his final sign off.

Comcast Purchase of NBC a “Disaster for Democracy”

The American press [4] is vague as to the source of the decision—was it voluntary?—but Olbermann himself, in his brief but gracious farewell address [5], refers up front to “what I’ve been told, that this is the last edition of your show.” That’s pretty clear English to us. And, for more plain English, the Guardian (UK) says it was the network’s decision: “Keith Olbermann dropped by NBC [6]: Keith Olbermann, the controversial MSNBC cable news host, has his contract abruptly terminated by parent company NBC.” Keith went on to thank [7] his loyal audience:

My gratitude to you is boundless and if you think I’ve done any good here, imagine how it looked from this end. . . . This may be the only television program wherein the host was much more in awe of the audience than vice versa.

We tend to assume that network executives, whether or not they possess soul or conscience, are at least business-savvy. In this instance we pause to reconsider. Cancelling the highest-rated host, the anchor of the network’s prime time lineup, midway through a four-year contract? MSNBC denies any connection between the Countdown cancellation and the recently approved purchase of NBC Universal by Comcast (though not approved by Sen. Al Franken [8], a former NBC employee). Comcast, too, issued a statement [4] denying any influence in the matter. Juan Cole [9] points to the merger’s removal of Olbermann’s patron and protector Jeff Zucker [10], the former head of NBC programming.

New York Times media reporter Bill Carter quotes [11] law professor Marvin Ammori [12], a former adviser to the nonprofit group Free Press [13], who opposed the merger as bad for democracy:

Keith Olbermann’s announcement tonight, the very same week that the government blessed the Comcast-NBC merger, raises serious concern for anyone who cares about free speech. Comcast proved expert in shaking down the government to approve its merger. Comcast’s shakedown of NBC has just begun.

Taking Countdown’s 8:00 p.m. slot will be The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell [14] (possibly to be retitled as it’s moving from 10:00 p.m.). Will the ratings plummet? What is the rapport between O’Donnell and the very popular Rachel Maddow? The “toss” from Keith to Rachel has a casual, friendly tone; what’s the relationship going to be now? (Click here [15] for Rachel’s brief remarks on Real Time with Bill Maher.) Lawrence O’Donnell is knowledgeable about politics, and telegenic, but as a host and as an interviewer he has frequently come across as bullying, overbearing, and lacking in the self-deprecating sense of humor that Keith Olbermann often displayed (though he too tends to come on strong when he’s hot under the collar).

So, we wonder, will it be “liberal business as usual” around MSNBC? Is this indeed only the beginning of a shakedown? Who will be the next to go? Will the others feel a chill and thought-police themselves? We do not expect Rachel Maddow, for one, to curb her enthusiasm for progressive causes.

“Good Night, and Good Luck”

We regret the departure, not only for Mr. Olbermann personally, but also for his many, many viewers—who showed their love in November in demanding that MSNBC immediately bring him back on the air—and for the good causes he promoted. We salute him for drawing attention to critical issues many others shied away from: Keith Olbermann was the sole voice on mainstream TV demanding to know what exactly happened in the fishy “reelection [16]” of George W. Bush in 2004 [17], particularly in Ohio and with the suspect Diebold electronic voting machines. He kept the pressure on the Bush administration’s illegitimate war in Iraq and the arrogance of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld [18], the Republican party’s shady dealings political and financial, when no one else in the mainstream media was speaking up. As David Brock, founder of Media Matters for America, writes [19]:

For nearly eight years, Countdown with Keith Olbermann led the charge against conservative misinformation in prime time. He was one of the few voices in the media willing to hold the Bush administration accountable and fight the right-wing smears against progressives and their policies.

Levees Not War also applauds Keith Olbermann for his promotion of the Free Health Clinics in New Orleans, Little Rock, and Kansas City organized by the National Association of Free Clinics [20]. His efforts helped raise $2 million [21] for the free clinics, and he always praised the viewing audience for their life-saving generosity.

[22]Toward the end of his last night on Countdown, Olbermann read a short story by James Thurber, as he often does on Friday evenings. (He had read Thurber stories to his father late last year when he was dying in the hospital; Mr. Olbermann suggested that Keith read the stories to his TV audience, too.) Keith read “The Scotty Who Knew Too Much [23]” (1940), which ends with the moral, “It is better to ask some of the questions than to know all the answers.”

Thank you, Keith Olbermann, for asking some of the hardest questions during some of the hardest times.

And good luck.

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