Keith Olbermann: "I'm not qualified" to replace Tim Russert
As I gear up for my first full week back in town after the TV Critics press tour and the UNITY convention, I figured I'd share a conversation I had with MSNBC anchor Keith Olbermann about the topic on everyone's lips when NBC News came to speak with TV writers in Los Angeles:
Who is going to replace Meet The Press host Tim Russert?
"I’m not qualified to do it," said Olbermann, speaking at a swanky party held by NBC at the Beverly Hilton hotel, days before senior vice president Mark Whitaker would be named to take over part of Russert's job; leading the Washington D.C. bureau.
"Understand what it is: If we’re really going to replace him, we have to come up with the broadcasting equivalent of a baseball player/manager who happens to be the most valuable player and the manager of the year," he said. "And how are we going to do that? I’m not qualified to do that – I said that when the first stories came out that I was seeking the job."
Despite defending the decision to allow him and fellow TV opinionator Chris Matthews to anchor MSNBC's primary coverage ("If you’re any good at this, you know when to express your opinions and when not to," he told me), Olbermann allowed that his stands on the issues hosting Countdown would make him a tough pick to take over for the famously even-handed Russert on NBC's flagship political show.
"I’m very realistic about where I stand and the perceptions of what I do based on things like special comments – sort of being out front in a very anti-establishment way. If they said to me, 'listen, we need you to do this' I’d do it. Despite a reputation sometimes deserved in the past, I’m very much a team player for these guys... (But) I knew when I went off in my direction, that going back would be almost impossible. I believe truly, if for some reason they thought it was a good idea, I think I could do it and I could do it fairly, and I think people would be stunned by it. …(But) it’s one of those TV things about perception being reality. I’ve done a lot of things people said I could never do. I’m coming up on the 25th anniversary of the first general manager of a TV station, he told me I would never work in this business. There’s a lot of stuff I’ve overcome. But I don’t think people would buy into it, no matter how well I did it.”
There's more -- click below to read the rest of our conversation:
Me: Fox News anchor Chris Wallace has criticized MSNBC for allowing pundits like yourself and Chris Matthews to anchor their primary coverage, saying "journalists should cover the news." What do you think?
Olbermann: “That was where Chris didn’t know who had anchored his own primary coverage? (Sean)Hannity and (Alan) Colmes and (Bill) O’Reilly did an hour couple of times (during primary coverage) and Laura Ingraham filled in for O'Reilly. As usual for them, it’s just a smokescreen to justify what they have already done... If you’re any good at this, you know when to express your opinions and when not to.”
(UPDATE: A Fox News spokesman corrects Olbermann, saying that opinionators such as Hannity and O'Reilly never "anchored" coverage, instead appearing as analysts. I saw some of segments Hannity and Colmes appeared in, and I think the notion that Fox News is isolating its opinionmakers from primary coverage in a way that is better than its rivals is an open question. Technically, Fox News pundits may not have anchored coverage, but whether that produced more evenhanded coverage hasn't yet been proven to me)
Some critics are suggesting that your Special Comments segments are losing their impact because you do too many and because they are so emotional -- particularly the one urging Hillary Clinton to quit the presidential race. Do you agree?
“The one right after the Hillary one was one that was almost done in a whisper to John McCain....(And)what I thought was most interesting was (critics saying) they had become so frequent now. But I’m doing them less frequently now than I have at any time in the past. So that’s a perception – it’s the same thing that dovetails on the idea that there’s more criticism of what I’m doing on air. More people are watching them. More people are seeing the show. We’re in a position most nights of second or third in the demo in cable news, (so) people will see all of them...It’s the George Carlin joke – somewhere in the world there has to be the world’s worst doctor. So yeah, I admit it, one of the Special Comments -- one of the 130 or so that I’ve done -– is the worst special comment, ever."
Which types of Special Comments work best?
"Generally I’ve succeeded on these when I’ve relied on my instinct. But I do listen to other people. I always prefer to do ones where I’ve waited a day and literally slept on it. I keep saying I’m going to write a short one, eventually. But by the time I get done, they’re always 10 minutes. As long as it holds together through the length of it, it shouldn’t make that much difference...I’m probably just replacing a Britney Spears story with it. To some degree, I’m a little defensive about the idea that they’re too long. Because what is it that we should put on instead? They are isolated, separate segments They’re designed to be distinct from the rest of the network, and even distinct from the rest of what I do.”
What's your next book about?
“The next book I’m going to work on is entirely recreational for me – it’s a baseball card book; just something to take my mind off this.”
It's always seemed to me that MSNBC was strongest when it married the cable channel with NBC News' reporting resources. Why did it take until this presidential election for the channel to do this so aggressively?
“We’ve tried – dating back to before my hiring. The show I took over in 1997, was called Internight…(way) before that, it was a series of pre-taped shows with a rotating group of eight NBC hosts. Costas, Bill Moyers, Brokaw, Jane Pauley...That didn’t work. The network-style newscast, Brian (Williams) sort of warm up for Nightly, that didn’t work. We really fell into it in the spring. It wasn’t intensional in the slightest. The idea that it sort of set a template for what we can do politically is a good one, but I don’t know when it’s going to happen again (past the presidential election)."