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Keith Olbermann on Rachel Maddow, Glenn Beck and Leaving MSNBC

On the cusp of a new show and a new network, the superstar political host opens up to "Rolling Stone" in a revealing interview.
 
 
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On Monday, Keith Olbermann will finally return to television, debuting the new Countdown on Current TV. No matter how it pans out, ratings-wise, his debut will be something of a triumph; one of the few staunch voices for true liberal ideals, he’s viewed with rockstar-like awe by his fans, plus his pairing with Al Gore’s broadcast network leaves progressives feeling vindicated.

But even with the new leg of his career, there are still questions about his unceremonious departure from MSNBC. Why did the split occur not long after his suspension for political donations? Was his contract really up? And did Comcast, which acquired NBC Universal just days before their breakup, exert any pressure on the network to force him out?

We may never know the full truth about any of that -- certainly Olbermann had to sign some nondisclosures before he dipped -- but a new interview with the superstar pundit in Rolling Stonesheds light on his feelings about the situation, at least.

Introducing Olbermann for the divisive figure he is -- not among conservatives, but within his own ranks -- reporter Matt Binelli delves deep into his methods, casting Olbermann as a stalwart spitfire with a human self-examination streak. He notes that, in a recent oral history of ESPN, where Olbermann cut his teeth, upon his departure there a coworker stated, “We felt not so much relief when Keith left as unrestrained fucking joy."

And yet, later in the piece, Olbermann breaks down the intense pressure he feels when delivering opinions that resonate so powerfully with both disciples and dissenters. “I sweat every time I've ever done a 'Special Comment,'” says Olbermann. “Trust me, there are comments I've started to write and said, 'Nope, you're wrong.'" Specifically, he points out the time he called Scott Brown a racist homophobe, when Jon Stewart took him to task. “When I got criticized for the first comment, I did it again out of defiance—'I'll show you,'" he says. “It wasn't until Stewart took off on me that I said, you're right, I've been over-the-top."

But Olbermann insists that he never purposely took an extreme viewpoint as a tool against MSNBC, stating “You don’t screw with the product.” He also reveals that since his departure, his relationship with Maddow has changed:

Are you still close with her?

[Pause] Yes and no. We had a very brotherly/sisterly relationship. I was normally in her office or she in mine, four out of five days, just to throw the crap around. Several times I talked her out of storming out of the place, and several times she talked me out of storming out. But since I left, I've kept my distance from all my friends I couldn't bring with me. I hope I'm employing all of them someday, but at the moment there is a somewhat chilled view of me at NBC. I don't think they expected this would be the outcome. They expected "OK, he's going to go away now, probably for so long that nobody will be interested in bringing him back."

You think they thought that?

They definitely had no idea that I'd be back on the air June 20th, I promise you that—and against my replacement.

But back to his exit. Olbermann says that he was fairly certain his last day would indeed be final, but that no one else working on Countdown that day found out until he announced it on air. “The reason it happened that way,” he says, “was because it was only finalized during the preceding commercial break.” 

Ouch. Still, Olbermann doesn’t seem to blame NBC entirely, instead pointing to the corporate media structure for valuing ratings and money over truth-telling and reportage. He does note, though, that after Tim Russert died, the network clamped down on him harder. “One of the reasons I got as far as I got was that Tim was there to run interference for me,” he told Rolling Stone.

In a strange way, he notes that he feels a weird and unlikely kinship to Glenn Beck, of all people. “Glenn Beck and me, we're in the same boat now. We're both off the Fox reservation. People who think his leaving Fox News was some kind of change in tone caused by the Giffords thing are as wrong about that as they are when they apply it to me. I'm sure that he viewed this entirely as a great business proposition for himself. In Beck's point of view—nobody's gotten this yet, but I know exactly where he's coming from—Beck looked at this and said, 'Why am I letting these Fox people take some of my money? I don't need them.'”

Wow! Read the full piece here, and watch this space for a preview of the new Countdown with Keith Olbermann this weekend, complete with inside info straight from the man himself.

Julianne Escobedo Shepherd is an associate editor at AlterNet and a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and editor. Formerly the executive editor of The FADER, her work has appeared in VIBE, SPIN, New York Times and various other magazines and websites.