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MSNBC on PBS: Bill Moyers interviews Keith Olbermann

I blog. You decide. Moyers and Olbermann - who was Goliath and who was David? No injuries reported, no giants slain. Only interesting insights into the arguments over news commentary versus screeching. Can Olbermann be added to the list of "screechers" along with O'Reilly and Limbaugh? Are they boundaries over which a good news commentator should not cross? Is this a liberal versus conservative argument (no accounting for taste, say the Romans) or is this about a commentator whose main selling point is the fact-count rather than the decibel level? Supporters distinguish Olbermann from the pack as actually being right, even prescient, about what he says about the Bush administration (his favourite food); critics say he's a liberal attack dog.

But pay special attention to the interviewer. Bill Moyers proves why he's a worthy heir of the Murrow legacy at CBS - on PBS. Interviewing is 90 per cent listening. Read below and see why.

By the way, Moyers himself was a news commentator on the CBS Evening News.

December 14, 2007

Bill Moyers talks with MSNBC host Keith Olbermann.

BILL MOYERS: Welcome to the journal. We have a lot of ground to cover
in this hour - from journalism and media merger mania to politics and race.
First, despite the clutter and conglomeration in commercial broadcasting a new
voice occasionally emerges that proves the exception to the rule. The rule is
either echo right-wing ideology or bow your knee to the god of "objectivity,"
meaning you simply counter a pound of official propaganda with an ounce of
counter spin. Jon Stewart broke this mold with his daily show on comedy central.
And now MSNBC's Keith Olbermann has done the same for cable news. Olbermann
leaves no doubt about what he sees: Here's what Olbermann says about the vice

KEITH OLBERMANN: The mind reels at the thought...What servant of any
of the 42 previous presidents could possibly withhold information of this
urgency and this gravity and wind up back at his desk the next morning instead
of winding up before a congressional investigation or a criminal one?

BILL MOYERS: And for president minced words:

KEITH OLBERMANN: "I accuse you, Mr. Bush, of lying this country into
war. I accuse you of fabricating in the minds of your own people a false implied
link between Saddam Hussein and 9/11... BILL MOYERS Rolling Stone calls Keith
Olberman "the most honest man in news." Critics accuse him of extended polemics,
and national review calls him, "shameless". Olberman shrugs it off. After years
of knocking around broadcasting mainly as a sportscaster. He's found his place
and his voice. His nightly countdown on MSNBC is the fastest-growing news show
on cable television. To find out more about what's on Keith Olbermann's mind
read his new book, Truth and Consequences. Keith Olbermann, welcome to the

KEITH OLBERMANN: My pleasure, sir. Good to be here.

BILL MOYERS: One of my closest friends always watched your nightly
sportscast. And he remembers to this day, just got a word from him this morning,
he remembers your saying about hockey is the most boring sport he's ever seen.
And you went on to say, "Nevertheless, here without further comment are the game
results for whatever they're worth." But you don't do that with politics. You
don't-- you don't just give the scores. You have some strong things to say about

KEITH OLBERMANN: It became necessary.


KEITH OLBERMANN: I was sitting on a plane in Los Angeles reading in
August of 2006 about Don Rumsfeld talking to the veterans and talking about how
every-- everyone who was in opposition to the Iraq War policy, the so-called war
on terror, even to some degree the Bush administration, was the equivalent in
his mind to the Nazi appeasers of the 1930s. And he went on at length about how,
you know, here's the-- we're doing the Churchillian role. And I thought, you
know, sir, I took history classes. Your group is not Churchill. Your group is
Neville Chamberlain because Neville Chamberlain minimized and marginalized
anybody who disagreed with him. Reading this ridiculous remark and waiting to
see somebody respond to it. And no one did. I'm thinking, well, you know,
somebody with a platform ought to be talking about this. Somebody with a-- with
an avenue to respond should be-- oh, yeah, I have a platform.

BILL MOYERS: And we have the commentary you did after that incident.
Let me show it to our audience.


KEITH OLBERMANN: The man who sees absolutes where all other men see
nuances and shades of meaning is either a prophet or a quack. Donald H. Rumsfeld
is not a prophet. Dissent and disagreement with government is the life's blood
of human freedom and not merely because it the first roadblock against the kind
of tyranny the men Mr. Rumsfeld likes to think of as his troops still fight this
very evening in Iraq.

BILL MOYERS: You were angry.

KEITH OLBERMANN: I was. I was very angry. I was angry for a period of
two days. After that first commentary, when I didn't know whether it was going
to be greeted, I had support from management at MSNBC for that one. They-- I
didn't surprise them. I said, "Look, I want to do this." And they went, "Yeah,
you should." I didn't know what their reaction was going to be. I didn't know if
I was going to be gunned down as I came out of the building or put in a black
car or, you know, or lauded or whatever. People, for the most part, were
ecstatic about this. And our ratings went up immediately. And the reaction from
management was-- "Can you do one every night?" And I said, "No, I can't do one
every night. I don't want to turn into that either." I don't want to be silent
here. But I don't want to turn this into a manufactured thing. And they said,
"Well, how 'bout once a week?" And I said, "No, you're not following me. It has
to be organic." When I get angry on the air, it's because I'm angry about that
particular subject and because of the revision of this country that has been
done under our noses for the last seven years against the will of the people.
And when something happens that touches into that general anger combined with
the specific anger for the actual event that we're talking about, it swells up
and I feel like, all right, here comes another one.

BILL MOYERS: But here's the anomaly. You work for General Electric--


BILL MOYERS: --which is one of the top defense contractors in-- in the
world. And you were criticizing the Secretary of Defense. This could have meant
billions of dollars to them. Did they come down on you?

KEITH OLBERMANN: Not in the least.

BILL MOYERS: Not in the least?

KEITH OLBERMANN: Not in the least. I can imagine circumstances in
which they would. But remember one thing. In the '20s when the decision was made
that we should have a broadcast model for television and radio at that point but
essentially laying the groundwork for television even then of commercial
television, sponsored television for the most part-

KEITH OLBERMANN: The one advantage to it is the people who own
television, commercial television will do whatever makes them money. And I make
GE money. At a time when television money is increasingly scarce, they are
delighted by my money. And I don't wanna minimize the idea that there is support
for the point of view or freedom of speech. But ultimately, they don't have to
make those choices as much as they have to make a choice about whether or not
they're making money. Fortuitously, I help them do that.

BILL MOYERS: But if you were not making a profit for GE, you would not
have this free speech.

KEITH OLBERMANN: I wonder about that in particular under these
circumstances. I think to some degree that automatic-- money is the --
everything has been changed to money is the first thing in some circumstances.
Now, I say this because in 2003 I believe ours was the first commercial newscast
in the country to suggest that the raid to rescue Jessica Lynch, the injured
then kidnapped private in Iraq, was not necessary. Not that it wasn't
patriotic-- dangerous to the best of the knowledge of the men who effected it.
But it wasn't-- didn't turn out to be necessary. There wasn't anybody defending
her. It wasn't a hostage situation. Everybody they saw said, "She's over there."
Simply reporting this-- reading this report out of a Toronto paper, which was
the first--

BILL MOYERS: That's where I read it--

KEITH OLBERMANN: Right. The right-wing crashed down on my masters at
MSNBC and NBC. And they came in and they said, "Okay, look, we don't need-- you
don't need to retract. You don't need to change. If the story happens again
tomorrow, do it again tomorrow. But just do me a favor. Come on and say
something that emphasizes when you did this story you were not criticizing the
troops who actually did the raid." And I said, "I wasn't." And they said, "Well,
if you could say that again, that would probably be all we need."

BILL MOYERS: These are your bosses talking.

KEITH OLBERMANN: Right. And I said, "Well, this would then allow me to
tell the story again." And my particular boss said, "Mm-hmm." And there was a
kind of, "We're going to shut down this criticism. We're going to answer these
people. We're going to give them what they think they want. They've made the
wrong request." This will give you another opportunity to tell the same story
again. And it has gradually escalated where I've had more and more license ever

BILL MOYERS: Yeah, I noticed when you a sportscaster you never took
sides between the teams on the field. But a lot of people think you've taken
sides now. They think you've taken sides with the progressive or liberal story.

KEITH OLBERMANN: They didn't say that a lot during the Lewinsky thing.
I always find that kind of ironic as I've seen some of the criticism from the
right. But, what I've done on the air in the last 4 1/2 years, and particularly
in the last year and a half since the special comments began, is really
journalism. It's saying here's what you're being told. Here's the identifiable
objective fact to the situation. This statement from the government may be a
lie. And what we all did in this country, those who had voted for this president
and those who did not, was to say we're in dire trouble. We've been attacked.
Let's rally around him, give him all the support we can, and we will suspend our
disbelief. The moment that it began to be obvious that we were being
manipulated, used-- that was when my suspicions began to take voice.

BILL MOYERS: I watched you walk off when you were at MSNBC and they
were covering the Lewinsky scandal. And I believe you said, "This is


BILL MOYERS: This is drip, right?


BILL MOYERS: You walked away.


BILL MOYERS: Would you do it again?

KEITH OLBERMANN: I think probably it won't happen. But I would say
that there were circum-- there were circumstances in this show, there was one
occasion where I was prepared to go out the door an hour before one of the shows
because we had one of those conflicting moments. This is very early on again.
This is 2003. When we were all still in that kind of, "Gee, should we suspend
our disbelief? What if he's-- what if George Bush is right and this is the kind
of threat that he portrays?" He-- it's probably exaggerated because he's a
politician, number one. But number two, what if he's right? I think a lot of us
were saying, "Well, okay, let's just tread gently." MSNBC hired a guy named
Michael Savage. And he came on and did-- not only did he do a show once a week
that was basically just spattering invective on people he didn't like and these
people change from week to week, but it was terribly produced. I mean, it was an
awful show. And he was-- he looked like he was standing in front of a chalkboard
somewhere in somebody's basement with a camera. One night I walk in, my boss is
out of town. And the guy actually running the show at the point said, at
countdown, said-- "We're going to run a Michael Savage commentary. I've got to
go now." And he ran away. And I said, "We're not running a Michael Savage
commentary. That's in the"-- and he was gone. I called my agent. Now, I'd just
gotten back to MSNBC. I left, as you said, under the Lewinsky circumstances. A
lot of bridges were burned. Came back. Everybody hugged. It's three or four
months in. I'm enjoying it. I think I'm making a difference. I'm getting that
little sort of skeptical thing back. And here we're going to have a Michael
Savage commentary in the middle of it. So I finally got a hold of my agent. And
I said, "I have to walk out, don't I?" She said, "Yep, you do." And I said,
"Yeah, I guess so. Well, it was a nice career." I'm going to try to get a hold
of my boss in Washington. And I called him and I said, "I can't"-- he said, "Can
you find some reason not to run it that doesn't pertain to the politics?" I
said, "Are you saying to me if I go and look at it and it doesn't meet
production standards we don't have to run it?" "I might be saying that, yes.
Just give me something to work with." And I went in and looked at it and the guy
repeated himself nine times. So I called the guy back and said-- "It's very
badly produced. He's repeating himself. I don't think you should run it." "Okay,
good enough." But those things still happen, and I'm sure they'll still happen.

BILL MOYERS: You said you were getting this little skeptical thing.


BILL MOYERS: What is that?

KEITH OLBERMANN: It's what we do. It is the necessity of-- of
journalism. Skepticism. Especially if you're trained in sports. Skepticism.

BILL MOYERS: Why in sports? I mean, what does sports have to do with
news reporting?

KEITH OLBERMANN: In sports reporting it is almost assumed that you
need to have some predictive ability. And you have to be able to discern
patterns and also discern when somebody's telling you, "No, our shortstop's
great," and he really isn't." And what the difference between those two things
are. When the results don't match up to the hyperbole, you need to be able to
see that and you need to be able to say it in some sort of informed way. When
you cover a sport like baseball or football or whatever, that you're just--
you're here for this part of the story. You're-- you've joined it 75 years in
progress or 100 years in progress. It should be the same way when you're
covering the news and particularly in politics. And yet, as we've seen, you
know, people in the political world now don't know what the Cuban Missile Crisis

BILL MOYERS: It seems to me that this country has become two choirs--
each side listening to-- only to its own preachers. If-- should journalists take
sides when everybody else is polarized

KEITH OLBERMANN: The definition now of being on one side is to have
not-- flag wavingly supported the president in anything he wanted, not handed
him carte blanche after carte blanche after carte blanche.

BILL MOYERS: Not saying mission accompli--


BILL MOYERS: --mission accomplished?

KEITH OLBERMANN: Exactly. It-- it is-- I said that-- I'm on the air
with Chris Matthews on that day with miss-- mission accomplished on May 1st in
2003. And I-- and he's talking about this as George Bush's moment in history and
this. And I said, "Don't you think that him wearing a flight suit's going to be
a little bit of a problem during the election cam-- "No. This is American
history at its finest." I thought, "Gee, I'm the guy's wearing a flight suit."
You talk about the emperor's new clothes. Here it is. He-- his new clothes are a
flight suit when there was a controversy over whether or not he-- he fulfilled
his Air National Guard service. You-- you just-- to-- to say that suddenly
became subjective, just to recognize that. It was as if you were saying, "I'm
only going to report," back to the sports analogies. I'm only going to report
the Dodgers scores when they win.

BILL MOYERS: You-- you've started a new feature that goes beyond just


BILL MOYERS: And I have an excerpt from it for the audience. Let's
look at it. OLBERMANN: COUNTDOWN`s list of the top three Bush administration
scandals you may have forgotten about because of the latest Bush administration
scandals. Number three, the U.S. attorneys firing scandal. Haven`t heard much
about that lately. Number two, the when the hell are we going to get body armor
to the troops in Iraq so they can stop protecting their vehicles using
corrugated metal they found by the side of the road in Iraq scandal. And number
one, ...The commutation of Scooter Libby`s sentence scandal. Today Libby dropped
his appeal. So the case is closed. And finally the White House can answer
questions about it, right? Right!"

BILL MOYERS: What inspired that? You're doing it every night.

KEITH OLBERMANN: Yeah, well, I seriously, it was-- when the NIE about
Iran, the National Intelligence Estimate, was this overarching story consuming
almost every news organization, left, right, and middle, for two or three days.
And then, bang, here comes the water-boarding tapes, or if you prefer,
Water-boarding Gate, out of nowhere. And no one mentioned the NIE again. Just--
it just vanished. And it occurred to me that this had been bothering me for some
time, that we had had so many scandals, so much scandal fatigue that literally
people were going, "What was the name of that attorney general who was-- who
was-- who was-- what was-- didn't he get fired? Did he fire somebody? What was
his name? What-- I can't remember. Who was it? Was it Ashcroft? But after
Ashcroft? Who was it?" I said, "Well, look, this is-- this is-- this is
literally a problem." I began to ask friends and people that I work with: How
many scandals have we covered in this administration?

BILL MOYERS: It all happened so fast. Amnesia sets in immediately.


BILL MOYERS: What does it mean for journalism?

KEITH OLBERMANN: It means you have to do something like that. That
part of the news is not just saying, "Well, this happened in the last 24 hours,"
but here's something that happened six weeks. There's been a development in it.
You're just not reading about it, you're not hearing about it because there's so
much else to worry about. The list, Bill, of things that we could attach the
word "gate" to in the Bush administration is now 50 items long.

BILL MOYERS: One of the reasons I'm glad you came is because I wanted
to give the young people who work for me a chance to ask you some questions.
They're all aspiring to be journalists. So I circulated the fact that you're
coming and said, "Give me some questions you would ask him."


BILL MOYERS: Quote, "I have long had mixed feelings about Keith
Olbermann. While it's nice to have a cable anchor how doesn't obsequiously
parrot Republican National Committee talking points, I struggle with the fear
that angry histrionics on both sides create more of the ugly polarization that
paralyzes our institutions and prevents Americans finding common ground. How
does Mr. Olbermann differentiate his ad hominem attacks from those we see on the
other side?" What do you say to Jesse?

KEITH OLBERMANN: Well, they're better written. The first-- no, I hate
to-- I-- it's the most vulnerable point because it bothers me, too. It do-- it's
the one criticism that I think is absolutely fair. We're doing the same thing.
It is-- it becomes a nation of screechers. It's never a good thing. But
emergency rules do apply. I would like nothing better than to go back and do
maybe a sportscast every night. But I think the stuff that I'm talking about is
so obvious and will be viewed in such terms of certainty by history that this
era will be looked at the way we look now at the-- at the presidents and the--
the leaders of this country who rolled back reconstruction // I think it's that
obvious. And I think only under those circumstances would I go this far out on a
limb and be this vociferous about it.

BILL MOYERS: Another question from Gloria. "Yesterday I was scanning
some of Mr. Olbermann's clips and I found one especially striking. He was
calling Bush a war profiteer, more concerned about the profits of the defense
industry than the lives of the soldiers. Right after he was done speaking, an ad
came up for Boeing. Does Mr. Olbermann feel his credibility is at all undermined
by the fact that his network is financed by some of the very industries he
decries in his commentary?"

KEITH OLBERMANN: Yeah. If we're going to try to go corporation-free in
any regard, I'm afraid everybody watching would just be prepared for that, you
know that old test pattern with the Native American head appearing in the middle
of it. 'Cause we're all, to some degree, involved in it. It's a nation of
corporations, whether we like it or not. As I said earlier, the fortunate part
about broadcasting is if I'm making them money, it doesn't make a difference to
them and I'm on the air, how I'm doing it. And to be fair, many of these people
on an individual basis have consciences that cannot be expressed in a corporate
sense. Many of the people for whom I work-- say, "You are saying things that I
cannot say." So I get support in a different way entirely from my bosses.

BILL MOYERS: Follow-up from Reniqua. And this could be to me, too.
"You're a middle-aged white man who works for GE. What's so different from you
sitting at the news desk than Walter Cronkite 40 years ago? Why should people
listen to you?"

KEITH OLBERMANN: I can't personally do anything about my-- about my
racial background. I'm not going to wake up tomorrow anything other than what I
am. I just-- I'm just taken, though, by the Cronkite analogy because, of course,
it was Cronkite who did exactly what we're talking about in a very focused way--

BILL MOYERS: Yeah, when he--

KEITH OLBERMANN: --on Vietnam.

BILL MOYERS: --when he came back from Vietnam and said-- the war has
been lost. And Lyndon Johnson said, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost middle

KEITH OLBERMANN: But the point being that there was-- there were
emergency circumstances that he saw, too.

BILL MOYERS: Emergency?


BILL MOYERS: You keep using that word. Are we in an emergency?

KEITH OLBERMANN: Well, we're being-- what-- here-- this is one thing
with which I agree with George Bush. We're in an emergency. He and I could just
sit there-- we just talked about what an emergency we were in and never went
into details, we'd have a great time.

BILL MOYERS: What is it, as you see it?

KEITH OLBERMANN: Well, it is the question of the future of the nation.
It's one of those pivotal times in our history. And I don't know that
necessarily everybody sees it in those terms because it is, once again, an
opportunity not merely for any external threat but for internal threat.
Governments exist based on power that is taken from people. It is-- they are
necessary. I'm not an anarchist. I believe in government. But there is-- there's
no-- no possible interpretation other than to say that this administration and
the Republican Party, to some degree the Democratic Party, have taken advantage
of fear, of the unprecedented, nearly unprecedented attack that we saw in 2001,
to expand their powers on the premise always of security, which is, you know,
the famous Franklin, Jefferson warning about that is it's never been more
applicable. So it is, yeah, it is emergency circumstances as Walter Cronkite saw
it. I mean, here-- objective Uncle Walter, most trusted man in America. When I
have an opinion on the most important political issue of the day, I'm gonna sink
a president and maybe throw the election to the other guy right now. And he
said, well, you know, the chips have to fall in this direction because people
are dying and our country is, to some degree, wounded and bleeding. And our
country is wounded and bleeding now if we don't know whether or not habeas
corpus exists.

BILL MOYERS: Alright, last question. Name the four 20-game winners on
the 1971 Baltimore Orioles.

KEITH OLBERMANN: Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar, Pat Dobson, and Jim

BILL MOYERS: That is amazing.

KEITH OLBERMANN: Oh, come on. I was 12 years old and a huge baseball

BILL MOYERS: They're only--

KEITH OLBERMANN: I better remember that.

BILL MOYERS: --there are only two teams in the history of baseball
who've ever had four 20-game winners. That wasn't a trick question. I didn't
think you would know it.

KEITH OLBERMANN: Oh, sure. I can do the Yankee managers from, like,
1901 on. 1903 on. They didn't exist in 1901.

BILL MOYERS: Keith Olbermann, thank you very much for joining me on
The Journal.

KEITH OLBERMANN: An honor, sir.


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