Earlier this month, Republicans in Ohio lost their lawsuit challenging a state rule that allows voters to register and vote early on the same day. But the state party had no intention of conceding the point. GOP officials demanded records from all 88 county boards of election identifying every person who took advantage of same-day registration and voting. In one county, the Republican district attorney even opened a grand jury investigation.
"He's investigating people who the law says are allowed to vote," said Ohio ACLU lawyer Carrie Davis. After it was revealed that the district attorney was also the local chairman of the McCain campaign, he was forced to appoint a special prosecutor to handle the case.
There's no indication that any of these voters did anything illegal. But the attempt to investigate voters who took advantage of a state rule designed to encourage voter participation exemplifies the kinds of attacks on new voters that are going on across the country.
Even when the challenges fail, Republican officials persist in their claims of voter fraud in what appears to be an effort to lay the groundwork for challenging the outcome of Election Day. In about a dozen interviews, legal scholars and voting experts say this broad-based attack could lead to serious and continuing challenges to the legitimacy of the next president.
"(Republicans are) trying to do what they can to poison the well on the eve of the election because they're not winning on the issues," contends Charles Lichtman, statewide lead counsel for the Florida Democratic Party. The party, like the Obama campaign, is assembling a team of volunteer lawyers to take on unwarranted challenges and obstruction to voters on Election Day. "They know there are more Democrats registered than Republicans," said Lichtman, "so they're calling out fraud where it didn't occur."
For months now, Republicans have been claiming that voter fraud is rampant and that government officials aren't sufficiently cracking down. Democrats insist that voter fraud is practically nonexistent -- the real problem is intimidation and harassment of voters at the polls, they say.
Voting-rights experts tend to agree with the Democrats. A study by the Brennan Center for Justice, for example, found that, "It's more likely that an individual will be struck by lightning than that he will impersonate another voter at the polls."
Another study, by Barnard College political scientist Lori Minnite, similarly concluded that voter fraud is "extremely rare." The Brennan Center also showed that the sort of strict rules advocated by Republicans in Wisconsin, Ohio and elsewhere would disenfranchise thousands of people -- usually the poor, elderly and minorities.
Even the most rigorous studies, however, haven't made the issue any less of a political football. Republicans like Cleta Mitchell, an election lawyer who chairs the Republican National Lawyers Assn., says such experts are just part of "the professional vote-fraud deniers industry," insisting that voting fraud exists even if it's nearly impossible to prove.
"If you just deny it," Mitchell said, "then that means that anyone who wants to take any steps to protect the integrity of the process can only be doing that because they're a racist."
In fact, even official Justice Dept. policy had acknowledged until recently that individual voter fraud has "only a minimal impact on the integrity of the voting process" and therefore usually wasn't worth trying to prosecute. Then last year, the Bush administration changed that to allow individual prosecutors to pursue such cases at their discretion.
When some U.S. attorneys refused because of a lack of evidence, several were fired, contributing to the scandal that ultimately forced the resignation of Atty. Gen. Alberto Gonzales. Since then, Democrats have become even more vigilant in fighting back against claims of voter fraud.
In many states -- including Florida, Ohio, Wisconsin and Oregon -- Republican officials have insisted that states square new voters' registration information with that in other state databases, such as motor vehicle or Social Security. While such matching is required by the Help America Vote Act of 2002, Republicans in swing states are insisting that the match be exact as a condition to vote.
Some of these "no-match, no-vote" states allow voters whose registration doesn't match to fill out a provisional ballot, but they must provide matching verification information to election officials within 48 hours or their votes won't count. In close swing states, which votes are counted could make all the difference to the outcome.
In Ohio, for example, Republicans sued Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner to make matching a condition of voting. In response, she argued that adopting such a rule could get some 200,000 Ohio voters kicked off the rolls. The problem is not that they're ineligible, for the most part. It's that the information doesn't match because voters have changed their names or because state workers have made clerical errors.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with Brunner. Ruling on procedural grounds, it found that the state GOP likely didn't have the right under federal law to challenge the Ohio law's application. So Ohio Republicans are taking their fight elsewhere. Last week, they sent a letter to U.S. Atty. Gen. Michael Mukasey asking him to force Ohio to require matching under federal law.
And on Friday, President George W. Bush himself got involved, asking Mukasey to investigate the status of the 200,000 non-matching Ohio voters.
The Republican attorney general in Wisconsin brought a similar challenge against his state's elections board, but it failed last week. (The attorney general plans to appeal the decision.) A Dane County judge ruled that, "Nothing in state or federal law requires that there be a data match as a condition on the right to vote." A matching requirement, the elections board had found, could have disenfranchised more than 20 percent of Wisconsin's registered voters.
Republicans have lost most of their legal challenges claiming states aren't adequately protecting against voter fraud. But legal experts worry that the steady barrage of legal attacks in battleground states is part of a broader effort to lay the groundwork for undermining the legitimacy of the outcome of the presidential election. That could further fuel the anger of the Republican base against the Democratic candidate -- and possibly the next president.
"If it's close, and if, in the grand scheme of things, Ohio would make a difference in the Electoral College or the finally tally, all these aspersions could come into play in challenging those results," said Davis, the Ohio ACLU attorney. Either party could bring a legal challenge questioning the validity of provisional or absentee ballots.
While experts say it's rare to see the sort of scenario that occurred in Florida in 2000, where the outcome of the presidential election hinged on a few hundred votes in one state, the increased focus on voter problems and recent changes in voting laws means litigation over the outcome remains a real possibility.
"Besides Florida, you'd have to go back to the 19th century in the United States to get to an election that was that close," said Daniel Tokaji, a law professor at Ohio State University and an expert in election law. "Then again, in 2004 we weren't that far away -- there were about 100,000 votes in Ohio on which the outcome depended. If we'd had a second litigated election in 2004, it would have been like lightning striking twice. So it could happen again."
Because of the close elections and revelations of voting problems in 2000 and 2004, said Tokaji, "we've got people paying much closer attention to the mechanics of elections." Also, "there are a lot of changes in the law. That always leads to more litigation, because there are issues of how those laws should be interpreted and applied."
Even if the election weren't close enough to merit legal challenges, many Democrats worry that the GOP claims of voter fraud are a preemptive attempt to undermine the legitimacy of a Barack Obama presidency.
"It's a desperate attempt to unfairly flavor and throw something out there and take people away from the real issues," said Lichtman of the Florida Democratic Party. Florida's voter registration rules, which require all voter registration information to match the state databases, have been the subject of ongoing litigation.
The History of Voter Fraud
Claims of voter fraud before an election are nothing new, of course. For centuries, strict-voter registration rules have been applied to limit access to voting, often targeting the poor and minority citizens.
"We've seen it throughout American history," said Tokaji. "In the 19th century, claims of fraud were made to exclude immigrants, ethnic minorities and laborers. And throughout most of the 20th century, the disenfranchisement of African-Americans in the South was done through voter-registration requirements that local officials claimed were to prevent voter fraud."
More recently, Republicans have been claiming widespread voter fraud to tighten requirements on who can vote. "They're trying to use the so-called epidemic of voter fraud to justify voter ID laws," said Gerald Hebert, a senior elections official at the Justice Dept. from 1973-1994 and who is executive director of the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan organization focusing on election reform.
That's how Indiana came to pass its voter-identification law. When that law was challenged, the Supreme Court acknowledged there was no evidence of voter fraud in Indiana. Still, the court upheld, by a vote of 6 to 3, the state's requirement that voters present a state-issued photo identification card before casting a ballot, finding that it did not impose an unjustified burden on the poor, minorities or others less likely to have such a photo ID
Associate law professor Michael Pitts at Indiana University studied the effects of the new law. He found the votes of 80 percent of Indiana residents forced to fill out a provisional ballot because they didn't have the required I.D. card were never counted.
The ACORN Controversy
Recent revelations that some workers from the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, have turned in fraudulent registration forms has fanned the flames of this dispute, leading to calls for more voter-identification laws, as well as no-match, no-vote requirements.
But Republicans' claims against ACORN have gone further. Legislators and party officials have used the false registrations to claim that ACORN is engaging in an effort to steal the election for the Democratic Party. Investigations of fraudulent activity are going on in at least 10 states, and the Justice Dept. has reportedly begun an investigation of ACORN, a community-organizing group that advocates on behalf of low-income families, following requests from numerous Republicans.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), for example, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, wrote to Mukasey earlier this month, urging him to investigate ACORN as a "criminal enterprise."
The Obama campaign and former Dept. of Justice lawyers involved in voting-rights issues say such an investigation before the election might intimidate legitimate voters and violate Justice Dept. policy.
ACORN has repeatedly explained that when its workers submitted false registrations, the fraud was against ACORN, not against voters or the elections process. That's because the duplicate or made-up registration forms were mostly turned in by workers who ACORN paid to sign up voters in their neighborhoods.
That some of those workers copied names out of the phone book, or listed their favorite cartoon characters, doesn't mean those people are going to show up to vote. But it does mean that ACORN didn't get it's money's worth. The group checks all submitted registration forms and flags for local election officials those that are suspect. In most states, it's still required by law to turn all forms in.
"The overwhelming evidence is that fraudulent voter registrations do not lead to fraudulent voting," said Wendy Weiser, a deputy director specializing in voting rights at New York University's Brennan Center for Justice. "It's a big resource drain on election officials, but it doesn't affect the outcome."
That hasn't stopped the allegations. Sen. John McCain's claim in the last debate that ACORN is potentially committing "one of the greatest frauds of voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy" has helped set the stage for broad claims of a stolen election after Nov. 4.
McCain's remarks were followed by violence. Within days, two ACORN offices were vandalized, and one organizer received a death threat. People for the American Way reports that ACORN offices have received a barrage of racist and threatening voicemails and emails.
ACORN's own exaggerations about its effectiveness in registering voters haven't helped. Last Thursday, the group admitted it had vastly overstated the number of legitimate new voters it registered this year, acknowledging that about 30 percent of the 1.3 million new voters it had claimed credit for were either duplicates or not real.
Though some percentage of erroneous applications is expected, both the large number of registered voters and the colorful news stories -- about how characters like Mickey Mouse have registered, for example -- encouraged Republicans to keep hammering away at charges that the liberal-leaning group, which advocates on behalf of low-income Americans expected to favor Sen. Barack Obama, is planning to steal the presidential election for Democrats.
Given the latest polls, it probably wouldn't need to. But election lawyers worry that the problems of voter registration by groups like ACORN provide an easy way for Republicans to later claim, if Obama wins, that he's not the legitimate president.
"It does seem like there is an attempt to cast the specter of voter fraud over this election," said Hebert. "Like there's an attempt to get people all riled up in the base of the Republican Party, to say, 'We're not going to let people steal our election.'"
In January of 2008, Staff Sgt. Ryan Maseth, 24, was electrocuted while showering in his Baghdad barracks. His death prompted last week's congressional report concluding that defense contractor KBR, (until a year ago a subsidiary of the oil services giant Halliburton) was well aware that the electrical system in Maseth's complex was faulty. An accident like this, the report found, was bound to happen. But this report also now raises a larger and thornier question about military defense contractors: can they be held legally liable for their actions -- or inactions? Will anyone be held responsible for Maseth's death?
This is an increasingly important question as the U.S. government hires ever more military contractors to do work that used to be done by U.S. soldiers. The war in Iraq has already involved more outsourcing of military functions than any previous war in American history. An estimated 180,000 civilian contractors now work in Iraq and Afghanistan to support the U.S. government there. They do everything from guard U.S. officials and dignitaries to truck fuel, food and other supplies to military bases -- all jobs that used to be done by soldiers.
Private contractors operating in Iraq are not subject to U.S. military authority, or to U.S. or Iraqi law. Their employees are not subject to the rigors of Army basic training; and their superiors are not held to the strict rules and ethics that apply to the U.S. military. As a result, notes Peter W. Singer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, in his book, "Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry," "When the means of security are privatized, certain mechanisms of moral hazard and adverse selection might lead firms astray. Just as in the rest of commerce, war is business where nice firms do not always finish first."
Indeed, whistle-blowers at these companies run the risk of being fired. In 2007, shortly after one KBR electrician reported to a defense contracting agency official that logs were being created to make it appear that nonexistent electrical safety systems at the base were working properly, he lost his job, according to The New York Times. Another employee "said his KBR bosses mocked him for raising safety issues."
Yet, the Pentagon inspector general's interim report provided to the House Oversight Committee on July 28 said it "has not found any credible evidence that representatives from KBR were aware of imminent, life-threatening hazards" in Maseth's complex prior to his death. This is despite that fact that the Army itself had issued an urgent bulletin (pdf) in 2004 warning soldiers of the threat.
Of course, the Pentagon may have an interest in protecting its contractors. The Defense Dept. indicated, in a 2006 review, that it intends to increase its reliance on private military companies and other outsourced support services. Its handling of the death of Maseth certainly suggests that the Pentagon is defensive on the subject: the soldier's mother, Cheryl Maseth, was originally told that her son had carried an electrical appliance into the shower.
As of January, more than 1,000 private civilian contractors -- including 110 KBR employees -- had been killed in Iraq, and another 13,000 wounded. Deaths of American soldiers in battle, meanwhile, have climbed to more than 4,100. So what happens when the military contracting companies themselves are to blame for the deaths? For years now, KBR and other military contractors have argued that as a matter of law, regardless of the circumstances, they are not responsible. As government contractors, they say, just like the military, they're immune from legal suits. That's been KBR's defense in a series of cases over the past few years when the company has been accused of knowingly sending unarmed civilian employees into active combat zones -- sometimes to their deaths.
In a case I wrote about in January for The American Lawyer, KBR denied responsibility for sending an unarmed convoy of trucks down a dangerous road under active insurgent attack. In what's come to be known as the Good Friday Massacre, in April 2004, six KBR drivers were killed and 14 were wounded. One driver is still officially missing, and presumed dead.
Now KBR could be facing many such claims. According to the Defense Dept.'s own inspector general, as of July 10, there have been 16 deaths due to faulty electrical wiring on U.S. military bases that KBR was supposed to be maintaining. Companies like KBR rely on a range of legal defenses when accused of wrongdoing, but the gist is always the same: working for the U.S. military means they're beyond the authority of the U.S. courts -- therefore immune from U.S. law.
That's exactly the tack KBR appears to be taking in the case of Maseth, whose mother has sued KBR, claiming that the company knew of the danger and was responsible for fixing it, but didn't. In other words, KBR, she asserts, could have prevented her son's death.
KBR, which has received $20 billion in Iraq war contracts since 2003, vehemently denies this. KBR's actions "were not the cause of any of these terrible accidents," company executive Thomas Bruni told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Wednesday. An interim DOD inspector general report, obtained by The Associated Press last Tuesday, reached the same conclusion.
But at least some evidence suggests otherwise. Under KBR's multi-billion-dollar contract with the Army, the company was responsible for maintaining U.S. military bases and facilities in Iraq. According to documents produced to the Oversight Committee, KBR had inspected and found problems with the building's electrical infrastructure at least four times in the months prior to Maseth's death. Documents show, for example, that another soldier in the complex had experienced electrical shocks while showering and submitted a work order (pdf) to KBR on July 8, 2007, stating: "Pipes have voltage, get shocked in the shower." A KBR electrician that day found a faulty pressure switch and noted: "Plumber needs to repair." On July 9, 2007, after KBR workers replaced the pressure switch and the water pump, the work order was stamped "finished".
Still, on Jan, 2, 2008, when Maseth turned on the shower, an ungrounded water pump short-circuited and electrified the water pipes. The current traveled through the pipes, the shower head and the water itself, electrocuting Maseth. He was dead within seconds. The congressional report concludes, based on the evidence, that KBR had installed the water pump that malfunctioned and caused the death.
Whether a court will hold the company liable, however, may depend less on the facts than whether a judge accepts KBR's claim of immunity. According to KBR's legal papers, even if the company knew of the problem and failed to fix it, KBR will claim that it's not legally liable because it was working for the U.S. government. In its motion to remove the case from state to federal court, KBR's lawyers wrote that they plan to invoke the "government contractor defense" - meaning the government approved the work so it is not responsible; the "official immunity doctrine" - that, as a government contractor, it's entitled to the same immunity as the U.S. military itself, and the "political question" doctrine -- a KBR favorite on which it's won several cases before. Under this, KBR argues that the court should dismiss the case because it would require the court to judge the actions of the U.S. military -- province of the president and Congress, not the federal courts.
KBR has relied on this same "political question" defense to win at least two previous cases involving the death of U.S. soldiers or of its own employees. But the courts are now starting to question the legitimacy of those defenses.
In the case of the Good Friday Massacre, the traditionally conservative Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals last May reversed a Texas district court's order that had dismissed the case under the political question doctrine. The three-judge panel noted that, contrary to KBR's argument, it may well be possible to resolve the cases without engaging in a "constitutionally impermissible review of wartime decision-making." Though the court cannot judge the military decisions of the Defense Dept., the court acknowledged, that doesn't shield every action taken by a military contractor. Judge Leslie Southwick wrote, "these tort-based claims of civilian employees against their civilian employers can be separated from the political questions that loom so large in the background."
The same reasoning likely applies to the electrocutions. Whether the political question doctrine applies "is partly determined by how closely intertwined the contractor is with the government officials," said Laura Dickinson, an expert on military contractor law at the University of Connecticut Law School. "One of the interesting things that I think we're seeing is that courts are not willing to throw these cases out when the contractor has a fair degree of discretion."
In this case, either KBR was responsible for repairing the electrical problems at the military base, or it wasn't. That is a factual dispute that would emerge as the lawyers gather evidence. It is not a legal matter that warrants dismissal of the case.
Unless carefully applied, contractor immunity defenses preclude a real investigation into what happened and who is responsible. If, as has happened over and over in this war, nobody is held responsible for the failures of military contractors, then there can be no incentive to do better next time.
The result is that, as long as something is done in a war zone, even the shoddiest work gets a pass -- regardless of the consequences.
If you picked up the New York Times on October 18, you'd have had little reason to think it was a particularly significant day in American history. While the front page featured a photo of George W. Bush signing a new law at the White House the previous day, the story about the Military Commissions Act -- which the Times never named -- was buried in a 750-word piece on page A20. "It is a rare occasion when a President can sign a bill he knows will save American lives" was the first of several quotes of praise from the President that were high up in the article. Further down, a few Democrats objected to the bill, but from the article's limited explanation of the law it was hard to understand why.
But if you happened to catch MSNBC the evening before, you'd have heard a different story. It, too, began with a laudatory statement from the President: "These military commissions are lawful. They are fair. And they are necessary." Cut to MSNBC anchor Keith Olbermann: "And they also permit the detention of any American in jail without trial if the president does not like him."
What? Did the Times, and most other outlets, just miss that?
Indeed, they did. Olbermann, who decried the new law as a shameful moment in American history, went on to proclaim that the Military Commissions Act -- which he did name -- will be the American embarrassment of our time, akin to the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 or the 1942 executive order interning Japanese-Americans.
It was a perfect story for the bold and eccentric host of Countdown With Keith Olbermann, which airs weeknights on MSNBC. A former anchor for ESPN's SportsCenter, Olbermann likes to call the news as he sees it -- especially when almost everyone else in the media seems to be ignoring a critical play. As it turns out, that tack on the news is increasingly popular these days, upending the conventional wisdom that incisive analysis and intelligent critiques don't win viewers on mainstream television.
Olbermann first cast off the traditional reporter's role in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, delivering a powerful indictment of the government's handling of the rescue effort. "These are leaders who won re-election last year largely by portraying their opponents as incapable of keeping this country safe," he said bitterly. The government "has just proved that it cannot save its citizens from a biological weapon called standing water."
At the time, other newscasters, most famously CNN's Anderson Cooper, also unleashed their outrage, spawning speculation that the natural disaster might also become a watershed event for broadcast news. But most anchors quickly returned to business as usual, censoring their own criticisms no matter how bad the news continued to be. Not Olbermann. Encouraged by rising ratings, he's since turned his distinctive take on the government's incompetence into a regular part of his show.
Last August he took the tone up a notch when he aired the first of his hard-hitting Special Comments. Regularly invoking some of the most shameful examples of American history to frame the Bush Administration in historical perspective, he's likened the President's recent acts to John Adams's jailing of American newspaper editors, Woodrow Wilson's use of the Espionage Act to prosecute "hyphenated Americans" for "advocating peace in a time of war" and FDR's internment of 110,000 Americans because of their Japanese descent. Ours is "a government more dangerous to our liberty than is the enemy it claims to protect us from," declared Olbermann the day after the President signed the Military Commissions Act.
Since his first Special Comment ripped into Donald Rumsfeld for attacking Americans who question their government, video clips and transcripts of Olberman's commentaries have been zipping around the Internet, a favorite on sites like Crooks and Liars, Truthout and YouTube. (The Rumsfeld commentary was watched more than 100,000 times in the month after it appeared on Countdown.) But it's not just a niche following: Since late August Olbermann's ratings have shot up 55 percent. In November he was named a GQ Man of the Year. When MSNBC teamed him with Chris Matthews to cover the midterms, the network's ratings were up 111 percent from the 2002 election in the coveted 25-to-54 demographic. And certain fifteen-minute segments on Olbermann's show have edged out his nemesis, Bill O'Reilly. (Olbermann deems O'Reilly the "Worst Person in the World" on his popular nightly contest for the newsmaker who's committed the most despicable act of the day.) Unlike O'Reilly, Olbermann doesn't shout over his guests, condescend to his opponents or deliver empty diatribes. Instead, his show -- which attracts guests ranging from Frank Rich to John Ashcroft -- features in-depth interviews with prominent academics, public officials and journalists on serious, often overlooked events of the day.
"Keith is a refreshing change from most of the coverage of civil liberties since 9/11," says Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor and frequent guest on Olbermann's show. "Reporters tend to view these fights in purely political terms, so the public gets virtually no substantive analysis. As long as two people disagree, reporters treat it as an even debate. They won't say that the overwhelming number of constitutional and national security experts say this is an unlawful program -- they'll just say experts disagree. It's extremely misleading."
Olbermann, who denies any partisan leanings and whose background doesn't suggest any, insists his job is to report on what's really going on -- even if the public is loath to believe it. "We are still fundamentally raised in this country to be very confident in the preservation of our freedoms," he said in a recent interview. "It's very tough to get yourself around the idea that there could be a mechanism being used or abused to restrict and alter the society in which we live." Olbermann credits sportscasting for his candid and historical-minded approach. "In sports, if a center-fielder drops the fly ball, you can't pretend he didn't," he says. "There's also an awareness of patterns, a relationship between what has gone before and what is to come that is so strong in sports coverage that doesn't seem to be there in news reporting."
If history lessons in prime time seem an unlikely sell, it helps that Olbermann's show is also witty, quirky and fast-paced, covering everything from the Iraq War to Madonna's adoption fiasco to pumpkin-smashing elephants -- one of his nightly fifteen-second Oddball segments. With a growing number of TV viewers saying they get their news from Comedy Central's The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, it's no wonder Olbermann -- who's sort of a cross between Edward R. Murrow and Jon Stewart -- has a growing audience.
MSNBC seems to be egging him on. "The only issues I've had with my employers is to calm them down and say 'doing this every night won't work,' " says Olbermann, referring to his Special Comments. "I have to do it only when I feel moved to."
"The rise of Keith's skeptical or pointed comments are the mood of the country," says Bill Wolff, MSNBC's vice president for prime-time programming. "He has given voice to a large part of the country that is frustrated with the Administration's policies."
In a pre-election Special Comment about the Republican National Committee's campaign ads featuring menacing images of Osama bin Laden and associated terrorists, for example, Olbermann declared: "You have adopted bin Laden and Zawahiri as spokesmen for the Republican National Committee." Invoking FDR for contrast, he added: "Eleven Presidents ago, a chief executive reassured us that we have nothing to fear but fear itself. His distant successor has wasted his Administration insisting that there is nothing we can have but fear itself."
Not surprisingly, Olbermann has his critics. National Review recently lambasted him for his "angry and increasingly bizarre attacks on the Bush administration," claiming that he offers nothing in the way of hard news. But the author didn't cite a single fact that Olbermann had wrong. Meanwhile, as the Review acknowledged, O'Reilly's numbers are trending downward as Olbermann's are shooting up.
While his views may seem radical for mainstream television news, they turn out to be a pretty safe bet for him and his network. Which may prove that the American public does have a taste for serious, even high-minded, news -- particularly when peppered with a sharp sense of humor. It's another unexpected Olbermann news flash: Dissent sells.