The Liberated Keith Olbermann Is Making Powerful TV

On Tuesday, Keith Olbermann anchored a special live broadcast of the News of the World hearings from Parliament. Interspersing Rupert Murdoch’s historic testimony with commentary and conversation from John Dean, the former Nixon counsel turned progressive commentator, the several-hour broadcast was Olbermann at his finest: calm, cool, collected.

The topic, of course, was as delicious for him as it was for the rest of us—watching the super-wealthy, super-conservative Fox News godheads squirm under the interrogation of government—and so he certainly cracked a few jokes here and there. (Referencing the widespread web meme that Rupert and James Murdoch are akin to the Simpsons’ Mr. Burns and Smithers, he playfully compared Rebekah Brooks to Sideshow Bob.) But it also underscored a point longtime fans of his political commentary have known: Keith Olbermann is excellent at times like this; a level, serious breaking-news reporter whose demeanor under duress belies the hot-headed persona his deriders like to trot out. Even clearer, his new slot on Current is letting him stretch out and break free. We’re almost exactly one month in to the new slot, and these days, Keith Olbermann is better than ever.

It was no secret that his final days at MSNBC were riddled with strife, unhappiness, and depending on whom you believe, conspiracies to oust the outspoken anchor. While the network is no enemy to progressive viewpoints—they have Maddow, after all—the chatter was that new owner Comcast had, in the words of head conspiracy theorist Glenn Beck, “marked Keith for death.” As Howard Kurtz put it at the time, he was “on the defensive about his intense and sometimes incendiary style.”

But Olbermann had his own beef with the network, particularly when MSNBC suspended him without pay in November 2010 for making three political donations to Democratic Congressional candidates. When his final day eventually came without warning, the break was rough to begin with, but in retrospect it was one of the greatest things that could have happened for fans of Olbermann and of progressive reporting. The quality often termed “combativeness” has toned down a bit—he is not less passionate, but he does seem much more relaxed. Amazingly, even his hair is a little looser, poufed with a little swoosh and less gel than before. It gives him a more confident visual demeanor.

As Olbermann promised, he’s gathered together a smart but motley crew of contributors and guests for the Current iteration of Countdown, ranging from the expected, like John Dean, Senator Chuck Schumer, Daily Kos’ Markos Moulitsas and relationship advice columnist Dan Savage, to the less traditional. Janeane Garofalo, for one; as he told Rolling Stone last month in a preview piece, he admires and respects the truth that comedians can get away with in political commentary simply because they’re framing statements with jokes. “We'll make mistakes, but it will be such a great relief to not have to spend all day executive-icizing,” he said, “and just go out and do what I'm really good at. This is as close as I'll get to a comedian's freedom." For a Countdown online extra, Garofalo spoke jovially with Olbermann on several topics including the Tea Party, which still harps on her two years after she called the organization racist. “I do not enjoy when people don’t like me,” she quipped dryly. “I would prefer to be well liked in any and all situations. I also feel it’s quite unjust to be punished for calling racism racism.”

With Countdown on Current, Olbermann’s found a way to strike a balance between celebrity and activism, eliminating the concept of shallowness that sometimes accompanies famous Hollywood activists and delving deep into their beliefs. In the meantime, he’s helping to chip away at the tired idea that show business is full of a bunch of leftists who blather but do little else. For instance, beloved actor Mark Ruffalo is not only a leading man, he’s also one of the most recognizable and outspoken voices against fracking, and Olbermann capitalized on that in a segment posted July 13, Ruffalo’s first as an official contributor to the program. “This is an industry that is the dirtiest, slimiest, most arrogant and negligent that you could imagine,” said Ruffalo. “Everywhere they grow, they wreak havoc. You wanna know how they’re lying? Their mouths are moving.”

Historically, Olbermann has created a safe space for people of his (and our) ilk to voice their concerns with the most pressing issues facing progressives today. But again, it’s being done with such a new openness, such enthusiasm, that while some of the segments are the same—Special Comment and Worst Persons live on—it feels like an entirely new program. The quote from Olbermann about not having to “executive-ize”? You can feel it in the fabric of the show; the pressure, it seems, is off.

In his July 11 Special Comment on GOP pressure to cut Medicare and Social Security he held court with the gravity we’ve come to expect—but the vehemence was unleashed a bit. Detailing the ways in which the GOP is holding the debt ceiling deal hostage, he became particularly resolute when referring to the most basic concept of humanity:

“The movement in this country for more than 100 years has always been forward,” he said. “Has always been just slightly better and bigger than it was yesterday. Toward the simple idea that those other people you see every day, the background characters, the extras in the movie that is your life: They. Count. Too. And that the only obligation you truly have in life is to try to do something, something for them. Even if you will never meet them, even if you will never know them. Something. Not everything. Something.”

Part of the joy of watching Olbermann is his expression of what we are feeling—as ever, his dismay makes him relatable, and there is forever a heartening feeling knowing a progressive ally has such a widespread platform. And, of course, the proof is in the ratings. While last week there was a slight dip (which Current CEO Mark Rosenthal is not sweating), the show debuted very strongly, beating out CNN despite the fact that Current’s distribution is much smaller. So while his Twitter still rages with @ fights between himself and his conservative baiters, it’s clear his future, slightly more laid back, is bright. How to gauge it? Keep an eye on the hairdo.

Watch Olbermann’s July 12 segment in which he discusses being blackmailed by Rupert Murdoch during his time at Fox Sports:


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