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LIFESTYLE

Making Sport Of It All

By LIZ HALLORAN, Courant Staff Writer
 
He made his national name more than a dozen years ago as an anchor on the 11 p.m. edition of ESPN's "SportsCenter," a much-copied mix of sports news, commentary, pop culture and humor.

Keith Olbermann has since been on the radio, worked as an anchor for NBC Sports; hosted prime-time news programs; written books; contributed pieces to newspapers, magazines and television; and served as a model for a character on a sitcom based on "SportsCenter."

In his latest incarnation, on MSNBC's news program "Countdown With Keith Olbermann," he says he's trying to do a broadcast that is "a good newscast and a good television program." It's a concept Olbermann says he first pitched in 1998.

And though "Countdown" attracts only a fraction of the viewers who tune in to competitors like Bill O'Reilly on Fox News Channel's "The O'Reilly Factor," Olbermann, 46, consistently draws an extra measure of attention - a fact he attributes to his effort to "stay on the edges."

He responded by e-mail last week to questions by The Courant:

Q: "Countdown" mixes news and commentary with humor and edge. With ever more readers/viewers convinced that journalists are biased anyway, do you think your show's format is the way of the future - a "Daily Show With Jon Stewart" attitude, but with real instead of fake news?

A: Ever since we started this two years ago, we've felt this was "next" in news. Not so much an issue of "attitude" as one of perspective - there's a lot more to life than the 22 minutes of dead-serious news, and we try to make room for a little of everything else. We have noticed that a lot of the techniques and even a lot of the stories have wound up copied by other networks, which is always a little complimentary and a little embarrassing at the same time (if it's not done well, as in Anderson Cooper's case).

Q: How much has the early "SportsCenter" model influenced "Countdown"?

A: Actually, I hadn't thought of any similarities until you mentioned it. The only real similarities would be the idea that we let the anchor/anchors tell most of the stories/highlights before going to reporters in the field, and, of course, that I was on one show and am on the other. But what you're referring to, the "early `SportsCenter' model," was something Dan Patrick and I created out of our own personalities. I've been doing broadcasts like this since October of 1975.

I first presented MSNBC with a layout for a show like ["Countdown"] in 1998, and I offered it to CNN three and four years later. And it finally crystallized while I was filling in for Paul Harvey at ABC Radio pretty regularly between '01 and '03 - that kind of flow from serious to not-totally-serious to laugh-out-loud, then using a commercial break to separate it, then repeating it. I think it permits you to do a broadcast that is both a good newscast and a good television program, which has been sorely lacking in news for years.

Q: Where do you draw the line between delivering serious news and being funny and outrageous?

A: It really is instinct, I've concluded. I think mine is pretty good, but it can be a dangerous edge to traipse if you don't know what you're doing, as a lot of sportscasters have found out in the past few years.

Q: You've described yourself as non-political and nonpartisan and have said you don't vote. But often the tone, if not the content, of your show can suggest otherwise, and conservative folks like those at the "Olbermann Watch" blog refer to you as "rabidly leftist." If not political, what are the basic standards you use to evaluate policy, for example, or candidates and politicians?

A: Boy, how soon they forget. I did 228 consecutive shows on MSNBC in '98 on the Clinton-Lewinsky story, and not a one of them was pro-Clinton. And I know that most of this ideological nonsense is predicated on my coverage of the Ohio [2004 presidential election] voting problems. What I found so amusing about the backlash to that was that the undertone to my coverage of Ohio was what a fool John Kerry had made of himself, dipping his toe in the recount water and then running away when it got too chilly. As an overall philosophy, I liked what Dana Milbank of The Washington Post said as he bowed out as White House correspondent: that he's basically antithetical to power. Me, too.

There is a whole army of bloggers, radio hosts and TV people who have decided that any deviation from their political view is to be persecuted - and the "Olbermann Watch" and [Brent] Bozell jokers [of Media Research Center and Parents Television Council] are foremost among them. We made just as much sport of Kerry as Bush during the campaign, but neutrality is not what they want. They want conformity and a deliberate, institutionalized, pro-Republican slant. Guess what? They're never going to get it.

No matter what your political orientation is, if you don't stick up for freedom of all opinion, eventually the wheel will turn, you'll be the minority and you'll have written the rules by which you yourself are squashed.

Q: For hosting a program that, compared to competing shows, has a relatively modest viewership, you draw more than your share of attention. Why? A function of your celebrity as a host of "SportsCenter," or more than that?

A: This has always been a factor in my career, and I'm not sure why. I've always gotten about 140 percent of the publicity I deserved. I guess the best explanation is from Los Angeles. Our newscasts were rated third, but my Sunday night sportscast was rated second. I think that was because - and the publicity volume is because - I don't spend a lot of time on the air doing ordinary things. They may be extremely serious or extremely silly, but I try to stay on the edges, not in the middle.

Q: Do you think criticism of the so-called mainstream media is warranted, and why? What must the mainstream media do to recapture the trust of readers/viewers?

A: Always, and we've always deserved it. But the latest efforts are more like a political campaign than media criticism, and again, in both directions. One of the reasons the bloggers get so angry is that they perceive each MSM outlet as gigantic. I got an e-mail asking me why I "didn't assign one of my staff" to investigate voting irregularities in Pennsylvania. I pointed out that "my staff" is less than a dozen people, and the writer called me a liar. The assumption is we have inexhaustible resources and are deliberately not covering stories. We can do a lot to counteract this by being open, by using new media as starting points for our own reporting (as I did in Ohio and elsewhere), and by interacting. But the political stuff - that's just an aspect of a time in which every group believes themselves persecuted, and most of them need to get over it.

Q: Are you happy with your career right now, and do you have plans or expectations for its next phase?

A: As to things today, I'm delighted by them, and by the opportunity to do the kind of newscast I want to do - and develop the kind of newscast we'll all be seeing almost everywhere within the decade.

Q: What do you read every day?

A: Almost nothing on paper. Our NBC in-house news summaries, AP and Reuters wires, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Houston Chronicle and the shop-talk sites, Romenesko's Media News and TVNewser.

Q: On Bloggerman, you tweak O'Reilly, quote Felix Ungar, give Brit Hume of Fox News the business for "premeditated, historical fraud," ponder the identity of Deep Throat, and pretty much start a war with the "Focus on the Family" religious conservatives. What can you do on your blog that you can't on "Countdown"?

A: Mostly the blog is an opportunity to go at length on topics, to tear off the restraints of writing copy to fit time deadlines. With breaking news, of course, it's like being your own wire service. And there is a little more space for opinion, although I believe in something rare on the Net - that you shouldn't just spout; you need to prove.

Q: To follow up on your contretemps with "Focus on the Family": On Bloggerman, while writing about the "SpongeBob" controversy, you gave your credentials as a religious man and said: "I believe in God." Why did you decide to do that?

A: A majority of the first few thousand of the spam-mails from the FOF site stated that I was obviously against religion and an atheist, and I thought these folks needed to understand that. It stunned a lot of them. So much thinking in our society has been replaced by following. I know God didn't make us for that.

Q: You've said you don't follow sports anymore. Can that be true?

A: No time, largely. Plus, I was never into basketball or football. Baseball I remain devoted to and still get to 20 to 30 games a year and still write on the subject - I've got pieces this year in the yearbooks of the Yankees and the Washington Nationals. But then again, I don't think of baseball as a sport. I think of it as breathing.

Q: And, finally, Secaucus or Bristol?

A: Sorry. Secaucus (but were Bristol 15 minutes from Central Park, it'd be Bristol).

 
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