BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Keith Olbermann, this is one of your quotes from the past: ”My ego has always operated on all cylinders.”
KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST, MSNBC’S ”COUNTDOWN”: Yes.
OLBERMANN: And your point on that being what?
LAMB: But why would you say that?
OLBERMANN: Because it’s true. I think it gives people an insight into not only what I’m doing, but also my business and the things that are necessary. It’s what would ordinarily be personality disorders in other fields can be useful, productive things for society if you channel them correctly and if you acknowledge them.
So I, you know, say a lot of things like that.
LAMB: When did you discover you had an ego?
OLBERMANN: I can’t remember a time, Brian, when I did not know -- being able to spell the word. I suppose as a kid. I said when I was 7 or 8 years old that I wanted to get into broadcasting, specifically at that point, sports broadcasting, and specifically baseball.
And it occurred to me several times even when I was 8 years old that there were a lot of kids who probably felt that way. What was it that made me think I was going to be able to do it? And apart from just thinking, well, you know, somebody is going to have to do it, there had to be something inside me that said, no, I can go do this. And I presumed it was ego, and I still do.
LAMB: Where did you grow up?
OLBERMANN: Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, it’s generally described as a suburb of New York City, in fact, it’s a small town that happens to be about 40 minutes from Times Square, nestled in among the actual suburbs.
Beautiful little town right on the Hudson River, one -- other than the banks, one chain store in the, you know, 47 years I have known the place. And my parents still live there in the house in which I grew up, and it’s still a great place to go up and see. And nice little town and just happens to adjoin the media capital of the world.
LAMB: How many in the family? What do your parents do?
OLBERMANN: My parents, my sister and I, were and are the family. My folks are both retired. My father is an architect, one of the, I don’t’ know, two or three dozen in the country who did not go to college and still became an architect, took him 20 years to do it.
My mother off and on throughout my lifetime has been a teacher, usually of young kids, although I would never think of her in those terms, she is just mom. And she was the big sports fan in the family.
And my sister, who is nine years younger than I am, is -- was herself a teacher and is married in Rochester, New York, with a son, my nephew Jake.
And that’s the whole set, there are very few others. If you are named Olbermann and I don’t know you already, the odds are we are still, you know, blood relatives.
LAMB: Now you have told somebody you have signed 14 contracts in your 27 years of professionalism.
OLBERMANN: Yes, CNN, one, two, you know, I think that’s right -- that might even be low. That might have been before the last one or two, but yes, that’s about right. I think a lot of people have signed that many.
And I have been in this -- counting college where we had a professional radio station at Cornell, I have been in this business for 30 years. So, you know, two or three years on a contract, 14 is a reasonable number, isn’t it?
LAMB: Cornell comes up often, in a speech that you gave in 1998 to convocation there where you talked about moral force.
OLBERMANN: Yes. It’s a phrase of Winston Churchill’s, one of the earliest speeches he ever gave in the House of Parliament -- House of Parliament, House of Commons, a phrase that always appealed, that we all carry with us that.
You can’t in this world today I think behave morally correctly at all times. It’s just -- you couldn’t get across the street if you didn’t, you know, push in front of somebody else to get into the crosswalk.
But on occasion you need to stand up and say, I’m not going to feel right about this if I do it, and I’m not going to feel right about it for the rest of my life. And it’s violating my principles and I want to say something and I want to do something now. And it’s going to put me at person risk.
You don’t have to -- the point in the Lewinsky-Clinton speech of 1998 was to say, you know, if you are graduating and you don’t like what you see in the world, the first thing you do, go look in the mirror. What are you doing that is contributing to the thing that you don’t like in the world, and then do what you can to correct it.
Not quit your job today, not go to Brazil and work with underprivileged kids necessarily, but what -- can you send $25? Can you try to change the job slightly? Can you move on to another job in a year’s time? Can you do something to correct what you perceive as a moral error? You are exerting moral force.
LAMB: So you stood before that student body in 1998, what was going on in the world and what was your relationship with MSNBC at that time?
OLBERMANN: I was, as I am now, on at 8:00 Eastern Time on MSNBC. I did a program called ”The Big Show,” I had left ESPN to go work for MSNBC and for NBC News and NBC Sports, and I was hosting an hour-long, we called it a ”news variety show.”
There would be breaking news in it, but principally it was a series of interviews, two or three in an hour’s time every night. And that was supposed to be the hook for it, that it would be everything that happened in the world, well, we took the two or three most interesting things.
We are not trying to sell you the entire world, but we are going to take two or three interesting things. We are not just going to hit the tabloid stories, we are not just -- and then the president met the intern and it became every night ”the president met the intern,” an update, an hour-long story on this.
We did 228 consecutive shows on this particular topic. And at about 50, I was pulling my hair out. I could not believe on all levels that we were continuing to do this. Part -- I mean, just the fundamental one, the journalistic one, not on every day did something happen.
We were doing news -- you came in and did a newscast and said, well, there was no news tonight, but to continue with yesterday’s news or last week’s news. It fundamentally bothered me on that level.
And then there were all sorts of moral implications about what -- how the media was being used in that story and manipulated. And I didn’t want to do it anymore. And they had been -- I had been invited to give the convocation, which was the equivalent of the commencement address at Cornell, because they don’t give out an honorary degree, and no one at NBC asked to look at my speech.
So I got up there and said what I thought. And I guess a couple of weeks later it hit the Internet, or the early version of the Internet. And then the people at NBC wanted to read the speech. And I wound up leaving about six months later.
LAMB: Was that the beginning of the end of that particular relationship?
OLBERMANN: No, because I had been saying to them for a while, this is late May of 1998, and I had been saying to them since -- really since the middle of April that I thought we were overdoing the story significantly, that even just from the purely financial point of view, strategically about the future of our cable network was, if we just did one story every night, someday that story would go away.
I said, even if it goes away the day Clinton is succeeded in office, the story will go away, and our audience will go away with it. Let’s try to phase something else in. Let’s do 10 minutes tonight that isn’t about Clinton. Let’s do half -- let’s find -- no, can’t do it.
Look at the ratings, look at what happens when we stop talking about Clinton. See, that’s where you turned, you and Barney Frank started talking about election reform and the audience went from 450,000 to seven guys.
They would actually literally show me that. And so I had been lobbying with them to do something else or get out of the contract or go somewhere else, and it turned out in December of that year that they sold me to FOX to go do sports, which was probably the best outcome that we could have imagined.
LAMB: Sold you?
OLBERMANN: Sold me. I was -- as you may have seen recently, Al Michaels, the sportscaster, was traded by ABC to NBC for some old cartoons. I was sold by Dick Ebersol, the head of sports for NBC to FOX.
I might add I was sold for a million dollars. It was a very nice experience, like being a utility infielder, being swapped from one ball club to the other.
LAMB: I mean, did they pay you a million dollars to sell you or did
OLBERMANN: No, no, they gave -- no, no, FOX gave NBC a million dollars. What they gave me was something that was between me and FOX. We had to negotiate a deal. But I was literally -- to compensate NBC for -- I don’t know, for giving in -- I don’t know, I never really understood what they wanted the million dollars for. They were recouping advertising expenses or something like that. And so I wound up traded.
LAMB: MSNBC may quarrel with this, but I remember when it started, what, about 10 years ago?
OLBERMANN: Ninety-six, we are coming up on the 10th anniversary, yes.
LAMB: And I remember every night they had a program at 8:00 where they had a big name.
LAMB: Tom Brokaw, Katie Couric
OLBERMANN: ”Internight,” it was called ”Internight.”
LAMB: ”Internight.” It had no audience.
LAMB: Thirty thousand people some nights. And then all of a sudden something called the death of Princess Di happened. Five straight months, all day all night, Princess Di, the ratings went 10 times higher.
OLBERMANN: And even in those occasions when the ratings did not go that high, the recognition factor what MSNBC was went through the roof. Two factors in play there. Number one, big names from broadcast television do not translate to big ratings on cable.
As you know, it’s an entirely different world. It is a world of loyalty. It is a world of affection. It is a world of people feeling as if somehow you are intruding on them in cable until they get to know you.
And this was the mistake at the beginning of the planning of MSNBC. Well, we are just going to throw out the big names and everybody will -- gasp, it’s Tom Brokaw, interviewing -- I don’t care who he’s interviewing, it’s Tom Brokaw.
It didn’t work, nobody watched. And the original plan, I got there on the air about a month after Diana died, but I was supposed to take over that show that you are describing that had this -- I think it was basically 10 rotating hosts, filmed interviews, Costas, Bill Moyers, Brokaw, Jane Pauley, Katie Couric, everybody in the NBC family
LAMB: Ed Gordon.
OLBERMANN: Ed Gordon, yes. And then they just said, no, we need a live show instead, let’s get this sportscaster guy. So I took in -- I came to that role. And we hit, because of that Lewinsky story, as, you know, previously the whole network had hit because of the Diana story, the Lewinsky story just sort of catapulted me into some sort of prominence there.
The ratings were spectacular, and they didn’t want to let go of the ratings. But what they missed in the equation was they had identified -- the audience has identified with somebody new. They don’t necessarily want Tom Brokaw. You don’t throw a big name from broadcast news or broadcast television at them.
And despite the quick successes that we had there, that unfortunately taught them to expect quick successes. So I left there, as an example of this, December 2nd or 3rd, 1998, was my last show first time around.
My first show the second time around was March 31st, 2003. So that’s a period of not much more than four years. At 8:00 p.m. there were 17 different shows in those four years. How are you going to build an audience of any kind when it takes about three years per show before people will say, all right, we don’t hate you so much, maybe we will watch?
That’s the history of MSNBC in a nutshell. We finally figured it out about three years ago. Just let it alone for a while and then people will tune in.
LAMB: Quote, Keith Olbermann: ”I loathe FOX.”
OLBERMANN: I do. I worked there. I had an idea before I worked there what they were doing to the news business and how cynical they were about television, but I really had no idea until after I had worked within that company just how bad it was.
LAMB: Let me run a clip, Roger Ailes appeared on this program at the end of the year before last. Let’s watch what he had to say.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ROGER AILES, CHAIRMAN/CEO, FOX NEWS: I think FOX News has come on the scene and identified itself as fair and balanced. We try to do that every day. I think others, instead of trying to get more fair and balanced, probably are offended by that or worried about it.
You know, we get attacked and we get copied, usually at the same time by the same people. And basically it’s fear that we are doing something they are not doing. And they try to pretend that we are doing something political that they are not doing, but that’s nonsense.
We have been around eight years. We are not retracting stories. We don’t have a former attorney general looking into us to try to determine how we screwed it up. We are just doing the news every day.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN: Contained in that, and you could analyze -- we could play it several times again and I could stop it at moments like the Zapruder film and say, well now, here, this -- what he just said there means -- if you noticed, there is no way for him to describe FOX and FOX News without taking a shot at somebody else.
He has got references to CBS and the Dan Rather memo story from 2004. He has got shots at other broadcast networks, the other cable operations, political parties, political interests, it is from the point of view of they are all against you and we are the only ones telling you the truth.
That’s the fundamental -- it’s the inspiration of fear in people, that they are being mislead. I have been in broadcasting for 30 years, your greatest danger from watching television is from watching somebody who is tired and says something wrong. The ability to -- the necessary structure to manipulate a message, liberal or conservative, is very hard to maintain.
They have done a fairly good job at maintaining it. Occasionally they wander off into -- you know, away from their preferred political points of view, but the idea that there are vast structures designed to foment liberal causes, I mean, no one in 1998, no one accused me of being a liberal in 1998 because I was covering the Clinton-Lewinsky story.
And whatever I had to do about it, I tried to be fair and honest and as accurate and as informed as possible, and allow my viewer to be the same way. And nowadays it’s the same thing. And now all of a sudden I’m a screaming liberal.
LAMB: We have got some other quotes about FOX from you: ”Fortunately for the free world, News Corp.,” which owns FOX, ”is very aggressive but ultimately not very bright.”
OLBERMANN: Yes, they are somewhat self-destructive. And that’s the best hope for mankind, relative to them. In other words, you know, Bill O’Reilly, who has an audience at 8:00 that even with recent programming gains on the part of my show, the total audience that he has is still, what, six, seven times what we are doing.
Even -- as FOX and News Corp. put it, the ”money demo,” the 25 to 54-year-old news viewers who don’t watch news, even there they are still about double what we are doing. When I attack Bill O’Reilly or criticize him for something that he said on the air, some ludicrous suggestion like, you know, we should let al Qaeda go in and blow up San Francisco because he doesn’t like San Francisco, I mean, just lunatic things, if I punch upwards at FOX News, the clever response, the cynical and brilliant response is to just ignore.
Like, well, why do we have to worry, they have one-seventh of our audience? They attack. Bill O’Reilly’s agent calls the head of NBC week after week saying, you have got to get Olbermann to stop this, as if for some reason there are rules here.
We have -- these are the people who have suspended the rules and they want the referee to step in protect them against my little pinky.
LAMB: More quotes. This is about Rupert Murdoch: ”His covey of flying monkeys do something journalistically atrocious every hour of the day.”
OLBERMANN: Yes. I think that’s probably true. I think -- well, sometimes they miss. They are sometimes -- there are a few hours in a row where there might not be a flying monkey appearing, devastating society.
LAMB: Doesn’t this work for both of you?
OLBERMANN: I don’t think so. I haven’t met a lot of flying monkeys at NBC. I have met people who -- and by the way, this is the great freedom and the great protection of American broadcasting, commercial broadcasting, we made a mistake in the ’20s.
We let broadcasting in this country develop with commercial broadcasting taking the lead and all other kinds of information on radio or television secondary or tertiary. But the protection of money at the center of everything, including news to the degree that it is now, is that as long as you make the money, they don’t care what it is you put on the air.
They don’t care. 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.
Anybody who knew anything about American history and stepped out at any point in American history and got an assessment of this presidential administration would say, yes, I don’t know how much they need to be criticized, but they need to be criticized to some degree.
There are people who I work for who would prefer, who would sleep much easier at night if this never happened. On the other hand, if they look at my ratings and my ratings are improved and there is criticism of the president of the United States, they are happy.
If my ratings went up because there was no criticism of the president of the United States, they would be happy.
LAMB: What does say about moral force?
OLBERMANN: It says that moral force and money often do not mix in the slightest. They are often separate beams of light traveling through the universe, and you may have to jump off one to ride the other for a while.
LAMB: Have you ever done that?
OLBERMANN: Well, I was prepared to go and walk away from the NBC contract. It was fortunate that we had, you know, ironically enough, the FOX Sports people who are -- it’s the same company, it’s less politically oriented therefore there is less, you know, deviltry there, to use a Bugs Bunny term.
Fortunately they were there to sort of extricate me from that position. But I was prepared to -- at that Cornell speech in 1998, I talked to a couple of the senior administrators at Cornell and said, have you got any communication arts teaching positions? Because I have got this radio thing on the side that makes plenty of money for me. I could move back up here and just do the radio shows from here. We have the technology to do that.
I was prepared to do it. And I have always felt that I was, you know, two or three crises of conscience -- or consciousness, but you know, two or three moments away from saying, no, sorry, I’m out.
LAMB: But then when you went to FOX Sports, didn’t they pay you to sit on the sidelines for a year, about a million dollars?
OLBERMANN: I have to say that’s the best job I ever had in the world.
LAMB: Now how did that happen?
OLBERMANN: I think -- you know, you said that how many contracts I had signed and mentioning my ego. I think they believed that if they took the shows that I was doing for them, which was the baseball game of the week, most importantly, and then a cable show that I did for them on Sunday nights, which was just sort of a weekly version of a weeknight sportscast, if they took those things away from me, that I would run to the press with my hair on fire going, they hurt me! They hurt me! And then they could fire me.
I had eight months to go on the contract and they had decided that because I had not indicated to them that I was guaranteed to sign another contract with them for much less money, that I was a bad investment long term. So they wanted to get rid of me. And they figured I might either quit in protest say something really stupid and allow them to fire me for cause and not owe me the rest of the contract.
Well, you know, I mean, people grow and people change and I like to think I’m much more mature and sober and balanced in my life than I was five, 10, 15, 20 years ago, but if you took the worst day of my life, Brian, and said, all right, Keith, you have got eight months to go, they owe you $100,000 a month, you can shoot your mouth off to the magazines and the newspapers right now, feel really good about it for about 20 minutes, and they get to keep the money.
Or, you can keep the money, you get $100,000 a month until the end of the year, at which time you can spend the rest of your life shooting your mouth off about these people. Every day of my life I would have taken the option that allowed me to keep the money, every day of my life.
I’m not that crazy, never have been, never will, and I would hope anybody given that situation would say, this is my point about moral force, seriously. You don’t have to operate it immediately. You do not have to operate it in terms of destroying yourself or not taking advantage of the lotto ticket that has just been handed. You can keep that money, do something with it later on.
LAMB: We know a lot about you, but we don’t know anything about your personal life. I’m not sure you want us to know that. Are you married?
OLBERMANN: I’m single. I am a 47-year-old bachelor. This is not something I’m proud of, it has just worked out that way. I have been endeavoring to make it happen otherwise, but through some bad choices by myself and by certain women, here I stand unshorn with, you know, no rings on my fingers.
LAMB: You want to try the Internet?
OLBERMANN: That’s right.
LAMB: Where do you live?
OLBERMANN: I live here in New York. This is my hometown. And I have lived in a lot of different places. I was in Los Angeles long enough through my local career in sports casting there, and then at FOX to be sort of an honorary Angelino. So I had 10 years in L.A.
LAMB: KRLA (ph) and KNXT (ph)?
LAMB: And then KNX radio?
OLBERMANN: And KNX radio, they were simultaneous, yes. And also KCBS, I worked at the CBS station in Los Angeles.
LAMB: There is one incident in your life, I think it was 1981 that I want to talk a little bit about, and that is getting your head caught in the doors of the subway.
LAMB: Is that -- no?
OLBERMANN: No, no, well
LAMB: What happened?
OLBERMANN: All right, OK. Well, I’m going to have to refresh my
LAMB: Because it obviously changed your life.
OLBERMANN: Yes. That phrase -- you may have heard the phrase, don’t run for a train, there will always be another one. That’s a warning. That one means business. At Shea Stadium in New York, if you come out of the press entrance, the train there, this New York City subway train is elevated, as much of the subway system is, even though we call it a ”subway,” millions of people get on board an elevated subway everyday and never stop to think about this and protest it.
From a certain point you can see the train coming from the last stop on the line going back into Times Square. I had a job as a sportscaster at a radio network and I was a little late. I also had a job part-time as a photographer. It’s 1980 -- August 1980. I was 21 years old.
And the trains shot past Shea Stadium once every half an hour or so and I didn’t want to wait because I was going to be late. So I ran for the train, and literally running from a certain point near Shea Stadium, if you run at breakneck speed, which is when I learned they call it ”breakneck speed” for a reason too, you run up a set of stairs, across a viaduct, up another set of stairs, and there, bless me, was the train waiting for me.
No damage so far, no head injuries sustained. My mistake was I decided to celebrate that I had defeated time and the train was waiting for me. So leaped on board. I’m six-three-and-a-half. The doorway of the train comes about here on me anyway.
(INDICATES TOP OF HEAD)
OLBERMANN: So I caught the doorway as I descended right here.
OLBERMANN: There wasn’t a lot of blood, it hurt, there wasn’t a lot of stitches. I had a concussion, six months went by, the concussion symptoms passed. Didn’t seem to be a big problem. Then I noticed a little nausea at odd times in the next couple of years, but one day at the U.S. Open, right across the street from Shea Stadium, on the other side of the same subway station, two years later covering the U.S. Open where you watched tennis like this for 16 days.
(HEAD MOVES FROM LEFT TO RIGHT TO LEFT AGAIN)
OLBERMANN: You know, I look over here.
(LOOKS TO LEFT)
OLBERMANN: And this eye is still looking out that way.
OLBERMANN: That hurts, too. Now I have got the reverse of crossed eyes. I’m Marty Feldman and I’m walking around with my hand in front of my eyes for a couple of days. My optometrist starts laughing when I tell him this story.
I said, well, what is the joke? He said, I have to send you to the best muscle ophthalmologist in New York City. Sure, fine, whatever you like, please make it stop. He said, you don’t know who that is?
I said, I have left my knowledge of my muscle ophthalmologists in my other suit, doc. He said, you have just gone to the tennis for 16 days, covering tennis, and this is where this happened? Yes. I’m sending you to Dr. Renee Richards (ph), the transsexual tennis player.
I said, I don’t care if you are sending me to a monkey smoking a cigar wearing a stethoscope. I go in to see Dr. Renee Richards, it’s two years after this head injury at the train and I’m not even thinking about it. I don’t even put it on my history, and she comes and gets this gigantic device, looks in my eyes and says, did you hit your head in August or September of 1980?
And I said, last week of August. That’s why I couldn’t be sure when, she said, OK, I knew I would see one of these cases eventually. She proceeds to tell me that what I have managed to do by hitting it in exactly the right spot is I have essentially broken my inner ear. That’s the very, very simplest way of describing it.
If your gas tank measure on your car always said empty, whether you had any gas in that tank or not, that’s what my inner ear says. In motion I have no way of perceiving depth past about 15 miles an hour, so I can’t drive and I’m a kind of terrified passenger because things suddenly appear to be closer to me than they really are.
LAMB: And how else does it affect you in your work?
OLBERMANN: I think it might have made me slightly crazy, I’m not sure. It might have improved my syntax, I’m not sure. It improved my hearing. It clearly improved my hearing. What else it did, there have been no other damage that I know of.
LAMB: So you don’t drive.
OLBERMANN: I don’t drive and I lived in L.A. for 10 years without it, and by the end of the first four or five years I was living there, I had friends of mine coming up, saying, can you show me exactly how to do that to my head so I don’t have to drive here, either?
LAMB: So how did you do it, then?
OLBERMANN: Well, in L.A. -- I mean, how did I get around in L.A.?
LAMB: How do you move around, yes.
OLBERMANN: In L.A. it’s a buyer’s market when it comes to cabs. If you call up and ask for a cab, they will say, well, what color car do you want? Any particular driver? What side of the street? Do you like this license plate number better than the other? It’s a buyer’s market there. It’s easy to do it. And there are parts of the community you can live without a car.
LAMB: Somebody tuning in right now sees Keith Olbermann on this program, in the event that they have never seen you before, I want to run the opening of your show.
OLBERMANN: Oh, please
LAMB: This was done on a Friday night in February, the 17th, let’s watch the opening of your program, you can explain what you are doing here.
OLBERMANN (voice-over): Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow?
The victim of the hunting accident is out of the hospital and immediately has another accident.
HARRY WHITTINGTON, SHOT BY DICK CHENEY IN HUNTING ACCIDENT: Regardless of how experienced, careful and dedicated we are, accidents do and will happen. And that’s what happened last Friday.
OLBERMANN: Uh, Saturday, right? You meant Saturday, not Friday? Oh, and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Hunting accident report official sketch of the injuries shows them on the left side of Mr. Whittington’s face when clearly they were on the right side.
DICK CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Thankfully, Harry Whittington is on the mend and doing very well.
OLBERMANN: Doing better, clearly, than is the story of what happened to Harry Whittington. What is going on here?
LAMB: As you know, anybody watching this will see bias right there.
OLBERMANN: Of course.
LAMB: Should they?
OLBERMANN: All I can say is, I would think that were that Vice President Lieberman having shot somebody here in the year 2006 and the victim says, the accident was a terrible one last Friday, and it actually happened last Saturday, my reaction would have been, you mean, Saturday, right? You mean last Saturday? Read from the line, read from the script.
As I said seven, eight years ago, I spent 228 consecutive hours of television, right to the last day even though I wanted to get out of it, right to the last day, the last show, 10 minutes to air I’m rewriting the copy to make it a little bit more punchy, because, you know, we went out after -- you go after power, you don’t go after a Republican or a Democrat.
It’s unusual, to say the least, that there is a hunting accident and the victim gets the day wrong. Something -- I don’t know where my suspicion comes in there. At minimum, it’s really strange that they are letting him out of the hospital and he has forgotten which day the injury is.
I just -- I think it’s relevant, and with the format, the actual structure of what you were seeing was the open, the tease of the show, the minute, minute-and-a-half of pre-produced highlights of what we are going to have.
LAMB: Who invented ”Countdown”?
OLBERMANN: The idea was Neal Shapiro’s. He was the previous president of NBC News, and he liked -- this is the way a lot of things happen in television. He had a show called ”Countdown to Iraq.” And he liked the concept of it. He liked the name ”Countdown.”
Then we sent troops into Iraq, and you couldn’t have a show called ”Countdown to Iraq” anymore because we were already there. So he said, how are we going to keep a show on the air called ”Countdown”? I like it. What could we do that would be ”Countdown”? We will number the stories, but we will put them in backwards, five, four, three, two or one.
One of his ideas actually had us going as high as 70, numbering them backwards from 70. And I thought, someday you are going to have me saying that the president of the United States has resigned in our 70th story on the ”Countdown” tonight.
But he just said, I would like you to do it, do it in your style. Here are my contributions. Call it ”Countdown.” I want numbers. Go backwards. And the opening line of the open should be, ”which of these stories are you going to be talking about tomorrow?”
LAMB: How much do you have to say about the content?
OLBERMANN: As much as I want, basically. It is -- I don’t know what happened, maybe I shouldn’t say this aloud or it will all stop, but for some reason after 25 years of professional broadcasting in which people have told me, no, no, you can’t do it that way, this is one where they come to me and they say, how shall we do it, Keith?
And to the degree that I want to be involved in the preparation, I used to be very hands-on, the first meetings in the morning I would actually put the rundown together and say, there is your fifth story, your fourth story, your third story. I soon discovered that was causing my hair to fall out in large chunks and I’m much better off letting a very able staff do that preparation work.
LAMB: How many work on the program?
OLBERMANN: Probably full-time in terms of editorial content, no more than about a dozen of us.
LAMB: And how much of it do you write?
OLBERMANN: It varies. I have written as much as 100 percent. I have literally written every word in a one-hour newscast when we have had people out sick or something. I have written everything from that -- the open I always write, which you heard there. And then there might be 6,000 words in the show, I try to keep it down below 3,000. I try to keep it below 50 percent, but I rarely succeed in that.
LAMB: Here is a little bit more, 30 seconds from that program.
OLBERMANN: Good evening. Where in the hell do these crazy tinfoil hat people get these conspiracy theories from? Just because the official sketch of Harry Whittington’s wounds after he was accidentally shot by the vice president of the United States shows them on the left side of his face when the witnesses all say they were on the right side of his face, and just because as he left the hospital this afternoon Mr. Whittington himself said the accident occurred last Friday, not last Saturday is no reason to go off all, you should excuse the expression, half-cocked.
Our fifth story on the ”Countdown,” you know, come to think of it, maybe it is.
LAMB: A little bit of acting there.
OLBERMANN: It’s a television show. What I’m finding now, there is a real reluctance, as much as the television news industry is acknowledging that they are losing people in large numbers to other forms of entertainment, and you know, when we all started cable in 1979 and ’80 -- the two of us started cable, we are totally responsible for it.
OLBERMANN: When we started this, we were just the kind of divertissement (ph) from the networks, and obviously it has now changed and the number of entertainment opportunities, the number of channels a viewer will have is just mind-boggling.
As much as the television news industry recognizes this and says, we are losing viewers in droves, very few people in the industry are saying, we have got to make it a good TV show. And you can make it a good TV show without sacrificing the fundaments of journalism.
And that’s what I’m trying to do there. The thing that is admirable about FOX News and the thing that is ultimately what keeps them successful is that it is always a good television program.
There are, you know, a thousand things that make me howl if I sit there and watch it, and things that I think are genuinely nefarious. But the television production techniques are superb. And we try for this now too.
LAMB: You are quoted as saying: ”My attention has been shortened like everyone else.”
OLBERMANN: Yes, I think that’s absolutely true. I used to sit there as a kid, no doubt, and watch the hour-long local news in New York followed by the network news and I hated to be interrupted by dinner or anything else, but I watched all of it without pause.
The commercials were just an opportunity to check to see if the newscast on the other stations might not be in commercial and I’d get a little more news.
LAMB: You blog?
LAMB: Explain that to someone that’s never been involved.
OLBERMANN: Well, it’s a kind of simplified version of simply writing a series of columns or articles that appear only on line or are extensions of what you might be doing television wise, translations of them from the TV format to a written format.
You can do them almost any length that you want and the idea that separates them from all other forms of on-line writing would be that there are often links, they’re often connections to other people’s work so that if somebody is interested in what you’re saying, or you want to reference their work, you simply type in the address or contain it within the body of the piece.
LAMB: How often do you blog?
OLBERMANN: It’s diminished recently because I’ve picked up some additional responsibilities and started doing sports on the radio again, so my something had to one of those packages had to drop out of my hands. I’m not doing it as much as I used to.
But the other thing about a blog is, you do it when you have something to say as opposed to absolutely every day or absolutely every week.
LAMB: Recently, there was a lot of copy (ph) about your quarreling with Rick Caplan (ph), your boss over there at MSNBC, over what you did after Peter Jennings died. Explain that.
OLBERMANN: Two things happened simultaneously. I had a cancer scare. I had been a smoker for 27 years, cigars and pipes and there was something on the roof of my mouth.
LAMB: How long had it been there?
OLBERMANN: It had been there a good long time and the doctor, my dentist said, saw it one day and said, is this new? And I said, no. He said, I don’t remember it. It’s changed. Go see the oral surgeon. He’ll take a little cut out of it to see if it’s OK.
Two things I learned immediately, if the oral surgeon is ever going to do this or anybody else is going to take anything out of you, don’t let them do it on a Friday, anything that requires a biopsy, because that’s just going to add two days to your wait.
I could see in his eyes that he thought it was cancerous and the idea that he took the whole thing out and left me a bloody mess for the rest I went on the air that night, having spent most of the day, since there’s no in the roof of the mouth area where he took this thing out, there really is no skin to sort of cauterize.
I spent the rest of the day putting pressure on the roof of my mouth exactly like this, so here’s the dope man sucking his thumb all day, which I thought was punishment enough for, you know, abusing my body in such a way as to create a growth out of the roof of my mouth.
In any event, fortunately the biopsy came back negative and it was just some sort of crazy growth. But I had five days to think about it.
And it occurred to me that even if you smoke and you are one of the people who is not going to get cancer, having somebody come in and cut something out of the roof of your mouth and then try to cauterize it with a laser and cause you to bleed all over the place and spit blood into a garbage can in your office, guess what? That’s bad enough.
And I also thought something that they never talk about in the anti-smoking campaigns, how much easier it will be for you to quit smoking if you do not have cancer because the pressure of having cancer and trying to quit at the same time would be enough to make the back of my head blow off. I thought about that for five days, almost nothing else.
It was on before a vacation week of all things. So I come back the following Monday to do a commentary on this, and Peter Jennings finally passed away and we did most of the show about Peter Jennings. And then at the end, I said, if somehow Peter Jennings’ death has not convinced you, let me tell you what happened to me in the roof of my mouth.
We were premiering a new 9:00 show that night and Rick, as the President of MSNBC, is a very emotional, very high strung, gigantic man, also a very squeamish man, was very surprised to hear, even though it had been discussed before, I was talking about spitting blood into a garbage can and all the rest of this stuff.
And he was he was mortified. He just assumed everybody would be terrified by what I was saying, change the channel, and here we have the premier of this new 9:00 show that I would have just ruined, and he was yelling and he was yelling uncontrollably.
And a couple of days later, after he calmed down, he was apologizing to the same degree of giant-sized gestures and such. He just was squeamish about blood, that was all it was.
LAMB: So it wasn’t an attack about you?
OLBERMANN: No, not at all.
LAMB: Or on you?
OLBERMANN: No. Rick if he’s not the biggest fan of the show within NBC, he’s doing a very good impression of it. No, he’s been completely supportive of the show, all the way through.
LAMB: Here’s some more from that February 17th night in talking about the three top newsmakers.
number three, Soo E Ling (ph), an official prosecutor’s office in Northern Taiwan, is now offering convicted drunk drivers a choice of sentences, a standard cash fine or mahjong. You can get out of the fine by playing mahjong with a local elderly.
Number two, Bob Schieffer, that’s kind of secondary, I’m sorry, Bob, the CBS News Anchorman and noted baseball aficionado (ph), offering up lunch in an eBay auction, all proceeds to the communities in schools charity. One problem, three days ago in the bidding, they had to lower the reserve price, getting up to $500.
How much would you get if you auctioned off lunch with Katie Couric? They are auctioning off well, they’re auctioning off Katie Couric. Oh, oh. Number one, Tor (ph) Jeffrey Stephen Loffer (ph), in Fort Washington, Wisconsin, facing three years in jail after a crime spree.
He says he took a variety of objects from the construction sites so they could look like an ordinary robbery. In fact, he was only interested in one thing, doorknobs.
Steven Laufer (ph) of Port Washington, Wisconsin facing three years in jail after a crime spree. He says he took a variety of objects from the construction sites to make it look like an ordinary robbery. In fact, he was only interested in one thing, doorknobs. He steals doorknob after horrifying doorknob. What does he do with the doorknobs? I don’t know and what’s more, I don’t want to know.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LAMB: Now the thing that is anybody’s that watched it for years that you see there at the end is a trademark of yours, throwing paper in the air or just wadding something up and throwing it at the camera. What’s that all about?
OLBERMANN: I wish I knew. It started with the with the wadding of the paper at the end of the show. That I think there was in the old studio at MSNBC, the same one you just saw in the clip there, but the equipment doesn’t work anymore. There was on the roof there was a track camera, a remote operated camera that (INAUDIBLE) something out of 2001, out of the movie. That just rolled around, this little white nodule that hung from the ceiling. And, at the end of the show if there was 30 seconds to kill, I would just start wadding up my paper and try to hit this thing.
And it was, you know, the height of about 20, 30 feet. It was I did it, I think once in a period of 14 months that I actually hit the thing. That’s I believe where it came from. People have read symbolism into it that there’s, you know, it’s some sort of anti-news, anti-television gesture. Something that try to break down the wall with no it’s just trying to hit the moving camera, that’s all it was. And then this thing where throwing the papers up at the end of the news maker segment which is in the middle of the show, I should point out, that’s just being on camera with nothing to say or do and there’s nothing worse than television than just a shot of I was watching some old tapes the other night with a friend, of newscasts that I did in 1987, and there was a 30 second bump at the end of a segment for a commercial.
Thirty seconds where there was after the last news segment had occurred, where it was just a shot of the three of us sitting there at the news desk, for 30 seconds. That’s essentially saying to the audience, ”Change your channel right now, go look somewhere else.” And so, here’s I’m on camera, do something quickly, you know, throw the paper, what the hell.
LAMB: Is it true that you have recorded 50 percent of the programs that you have done in your life, on tape?
OLBERMANN: Not including the Sports Centers, the ESPN shows. That’s probably over 50 percent. The ESPN ones were difficult to time cause we were always almost always on after ball games, so I wouldn’t tape them.
LAMB: Why do you do it?
OLBERMANN: I do it because we’re in a femoral (ph) business. It goes away. No one else, to my knowledge, is doing it. It’s an old habit of mine dating to childhood and really recording for posterity, just to have a record, the works of the great comedians, Bob and Ray, who I listened to as a kid. They were on in New York and I one day I just said this is just too good not to somebody should be taping it. I don’t know that they’re taping it, I should do it. As for me, it started in college as a learning tool. If I didn’t know how good I was, I’m just going to judge it by the five minutes you’re on the air. I mean, five minutes on the air, you’re nervous and for the first couple days, I was having out-of-body experiences. I needed some reference points, so I taped it. And I didn’t really have the modesty to erase the tapes and go back and record over them, so I just kept them. And everybody made fun of me and they made fun of me when I would tape the broadcasts when I worked at CNN and any time there’s a reunion with anybody from any point of my many jobs, the first thing is did you bring some of those tapes because we’d all like to just see what they look like.
LAMB: Where do keep them all?
OLBERMANN: I have a storage locker. True, I have a storage facility that must have two or three hundred VHS tapes in it. In about 120 Street in Manhattan. They’ve gotten too large. They used to fill my basement in my home in Connecticut. Literally, you’d walk down to into this sort of subterranean, cool basement in Connecticut, go into a room and there were like all the tapes of every broadcast ever we’re like the museum of television and radio, it’s that bad.
LAMB: We’re a little early to do this, but if you were going to write something on a tombstone, would it be let me just name
he was a and I’ll just assume that you consider yourself to be great
LAMB: He was a great newscaster. He was a great sportscaster. He was a great comedian.
OLBERMANN: I would put on, probably, ”Finished on time again.” But I that would probably be the best one.
I don’t know. Goodness. I’m hoping not to anybody has to deal with this in the immediate future.
Not comedian. I’ve never been a professional comedian. I’ve used comedy as a means of making news or sports more palatable and more entertaining. So, I’ve never been a comedian.
I don’t know. I
LAMB: Did you have someone as you were growing up in the business that you wanted to emulate? I mean, with
OLBERMANN: Lots of them, sure.
LAMB: Name somebody that you
OLBERMANN: Well, really, truly, just in terms of broadcasting, just the idea of how to do a broadcast, Bob and Ray were perfect. They were ideal. Their nobody more creative. No better broadcasters.
I saw their show they invited me to come in and watch them when I was 15, from a studio that I would later actually broadcast from, at WOR Radio in New York. And the thrill of that is with me still, and it’s well over 30 years ago.
LAMB: Who else?
OLBERMANN: Jim Boutan (ph), who was a baseball player who became a sportscaster when I was 11 years old and told a joke which taught me I mean, he might have been on the air three weeks when he did one joke that taught me where the line was.
A former teammate of his named Jim Wynn (ph) had been stabbed by his wife on their anniversary. Not serious stitch, they didn’t break up, she apologized, no charges, she no serious injury, there’s no police record, and the couple is not splitting up. Therefore, you’re entitled to make the following joke, which is, ”Mrs. Wynn (ph) should know that the correct gift on the seventh anniversary is not steel, but paper.”
I’m 11 years old and just howling that he got away with that, and then proceeds to give the scores. Taught me how to mix television humor and television news. That was another one.
I always enjoyed Tom Snyder’s work immensely. And it was so gratifying to me later on when I found out that he enjoyed my work. It was a real circular kind of thing. I was a guest on his show, he was a guest on my show. It was very nice.
LAMB: So, if somebody is a new viewer to your show, knowing what you know, because you put it together, what did you advise them to do as they’re watching this program? Give them some hints as to what to look for and what you’re really doing.
OLBERMANN: Somebody once said, when I was doing sports in Los Angeles, that it was the only sports broadcast wherein the commentary was more important than the visual. This might be still, to some degree, true. I mean, we really try to produce this thing up. We’ve got a bunch of clever people who look for visual puns and actual puns. We have graphics.
There’s almost never a, just straight-on head shot of me. There’s a shot of me, and you see this one monitor over this shoulder, and then the camera pans over and they show this shoulder, and there’s a different monitor with a different there’s a lot of stuff going on.
But my advice, actually, to a viewer is to listen, because what we’re about, ultimately, is the content. I’m asking questions, as you do, I think, to get information. I don’t I’m not trying to elicit a political opinion or a stance. I want to know what’s going on. I want to know what I don’t understand about this story, what this person can explain to me.
Or, when we start to traipse into some of the less serious subjects, the celebrity news and things that we do, we just consider it part of the news, I will just ask, why am I interested in this?
LAMB: You have made Bill O’Reilly the Worst Person of the Week
OLBERMANN: Worst Person in the World.
LAMB: Worst Person in the World 15 times. Before we ask you more about that, here’s it’s a fairly long segment, one minute and 14 seconds, of this thing called the Worst Person in the World.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
Jennifer Silva (ph), a teacher in Katy, Texas. She told her class if they didn’t settle down, she’d tape their mouths shut with Scotch tape. They didn’t, she did. She’s been suspended.
Runner-up tonight, environmental protestors in Turin, Italy. To try to combat global warming, they want less fuel used on the Olympic torch. All right, we know you’re right. Just give it a rest until next week, all right?
Tonight’s winner, former baseball star Albert Bell. The global positioning satellite device on the car of his ex-girlfriend fell off last month. This was a double shock to her insomuch as, she’d never put a GPS on her car. But this did explain why the former slugger kept showing up at the store she was shopping at, or at the gym, or on her dates with other guys. Bell is charged with stalking, out on bail of $108,000. He also gets bonus points tonight for having told an Associates Press writer, ”You didn’t write a story about my Hall of Fame induction. You guys never report the good stuff I do.”
Albert, I hate to break it to you you did not get inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame this year. You only got 40 votes.
Albert Bell, today’s Worst Person in the World.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LAMB: How long have you been doing this?
OLBERMANN: We started that, I think, sometime early last year. Middle of the summer, sometime in June. I had been wanting to do a list like that, of people who were just despicable, with varying degrees of seriousness and importance. Obviously, no one - none of the people is truly the worst person in the world, but they’re just our nominees for the title for today.
LAMB: Bill O’Reilly?
LAMB: I mean, is it fair to say you hate the man, or is this just an act?
OLBERMANN: Somebody asked me the other day if he was - you know, if it seemed to me that he was going to retire soon, or leave this - leave the air, and I replied (ph), ”I hope not,” because he provides me with so much material. I can’t hate him. He’s so extraordinarily obvious and the antithesis of what I think broadcasters should do and what journalists should do and what people should do that he’s necessary, in some way. I would be lost without him, in some respects. But, what he does on the air, everything is a simplification. It goes back to what we were talking about earlier, about inspiring fear in people, both in terms of what the world is going to be like, and also what the rest of the media is like. And I don’t hate him. I’m entertained, to some degree, by him. I wouldn’t watch him with a gun pointed to my head because I - people watch and actually think they’re hearing the truth.
LAMB: You ever met him?
OLBERMANN: Not really. We were both at a charity dinner. It was a wonderful thing. My friend, Joe Torre, I used to work with years ago in Los Angeles. He’s the manager of the Yankees now. And he had a charity dinner, and I was really looking forward to this, I guess last December. Walk into the table to get the little identity plaque or little nametag. One of us ”celebrities,” and obviously there were a lot of tables, per table, you know. So, they even had people like me there as a celebrity. Well, of course, what do I see right below me under - you know, reading upside-down on this table, here’s Keith Olbermann. The next one’s Bill O’Reilly. I went, ”This is going to be entertaining.”
And sure enough, he showed up, and he was - he’s a little taller than I am, so most of the people, if you notice, he picks fights with Al Franken and people like that who are significantly shorter, Janeane Garofalo, people like that. I didn’t really anticipate that there’d be trouble, but we were, like, 20 feet apart at all times. There was - as if, to use the term, ”global positioning satellite,” it was as if we knew at all times where the other one was, and we were, like, just staring daggers at each other from the corners of our eyes. But, I used to - I think I did used to hate him, but it’s - this segment has become so useful to me, and allows me to express that hatred in a positive, ratings-growing way.
LAMB: I don’t know that I’ve ever seen this fact about any other individual, that three of the four planes that were involved in 9/11 and were - three of the four planes had friends of yours on them, and that two of your friends worked at Cantor Fitzgerald in one of the Towers.
OLBERMANN: To this day, I don’t know what the statistics are against that, the odds.
LAMB: You know, how long did it take you to find out that fact?
OLBERMANN: Well, one of them was a regular guest on the shows, both that I did and other people did, in the Lewinsky area (ph), Chet Olson’s wife.
LAMB: Barbara Olson?
OLBERMANN: Barbara Olson. And obviously, we all knew about that fairly quickly because she was on the cell phone before the plane went into the Pentagon. But, it was, I guess I found out about her that afternoon, then I did - that was in that period of time when I was working for Fox and not being - being paid not to be on the air. I managed to work out a deal by which I could be a street reporter for a friend of mine who runs an all-news radio station in Los Angeles. I was on the air with them when they told me that Garnet Bailey, Ace Bailey was a hockey executive and who had signed an autograph for me when I was a kid, when he was still a player, was on one of the planes that went into the Trade Center.
And I guess it was two weeks later that I found out that Tom Pecorelli had died. He had been my - one of my cameramen in the studio at Fox, and I was just - you know, each one of those is exactly what you would expect it to be. These were not close, you know, dear friends or anything, but these were people - you know, Barbara Olson signed a farewell baseball to me when I left MSNBC the first time and, you know, I knew all these people well. And then, in reporting the story on the streets of Manhattan, Amon Mackanady (ph) and Mike Tanner (ph), who I went to college with, who played on the football team, were the quarterback and the receiver at the first sporting event I ever got paid money to go cover. And they both worked at Cantor-Fitz, and I knew about Amon. I don’t remember how I found that out that quickly. But, Mike (ph) I saw on one of the ”Missing” posters. And that was ...
LAMB: Did 9/11 have any lasting impact on you, do you think?
OLBERMANN: ... Has to have. It must have.
LAMB: On your work?
LAMB: On the kind of work you do?
OLBERMANN: Yes. I mean, I knew beforehand I was back in sports, and I was very comfortable in it, and I’m back in sports, to some degree, now on the radio. But, I know that we were entering a period of time in history where I’m not - I’m anemic. I’m not going to be a blood donor. I’m not a good soldier. I’m not any of these other things. If I was going to contribute anything to society, it would have to be journalistically, and if I had news skills and sports skills, I probably should put them to use in news, if I could, and things worked out that I did.
LAMB: We’ve about a minute left here. There’s a quote, one of my favorite quotes that I found from a fellow at ESPN, Mike Soltis.
OLBERMANN: Mike Soltis.
LAMB: Soltis. This was in one of your alleged difficulties with ESPN.
OLBERMANN: No, this was after I left, in fact.
LAMB: ”He didn’t burn his bridges here. He napalmed them.”
OLBERMANN: Yes, that’s a pretty good one. I liked my version of that better. I had said, when Tom Snyder asked me did you burn your bridges there, I said, ”No, I burned the bridges and the river.” I’m the only person to have done that.
LAMB: Do you tend to shout and scream when you’re in one of these moods?
OLBERMANN: No, no, no. No, no, no. That’s the impression people get, or that I - you know, be just belligerent to people I - who work for me or such. It’s not like that at all. It’s just I send a lot of memos. But, Soltis still works there, and now I’ve become associated with ESPN Radio again, and he came back and he said, ”Well, you know, we rebuilt the bridge.”
LAMB: Under this ability to use humor in your work, are you angry about stuff?
OLBERMANN: Sometimes. Not that much. I usually find that the humor is much more effective weapon. It stays with people. That’s Bob and Ray (ph) training coming through.
LAMB: What do you want to do in this business that you haven’t?
OLBERMANN: Probably stay and work someplace 25 years.
LAMB: Have you found it?
OLBERMANN: Maybe. We’ll find out. I’ve got another year to go on my contract. I’ll let you - give you a call.
LAMB: Thanks, Keith Olbermann.
OLBERMANN: My pleasure, Brian.