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MSNBC's Olbermann calls it as he sees it

The Baltimore Sun

When MSNBC moved a couple of months ago from its longtime home in New Jersey to 30 Rockefeller Plaza in Midtown Manhattan, Keith Olbermann got his pick of offices.

It was a nice perk for the anchor whose bracing mix of irony and stridency made him the first big star the 11-year-old cable channel can call its own.

Olbermann chose a room looking directly into the street-front studios of MSNBC's rival, Fox News. If you're walking up Sixth Avenue, look for the huge cardboard cutout of Bill O'Reilly's head gazing out of a third-floor window in the world headquarters of NBC.

Rare is the night when Countdown with Keith Olbermann, MSNBC's highest-rated program, doesn't take aim at something said on "Fox Noise" or "Fixed News," Olbermann's pet names for the channel. He has more ways of describing O'Reilly than baseball announcers have home-run calls. Bill-O. Bill Orally. Bill "Oh Really?" Falafel Guy. The Frank Burns of news. And so on.

But when I asked Olbermann about being able to peer into the glassy soul of the enemy, he said the point was not inspiration but caution.

"The reason my computer faces out that window is ... to remember the lessons learned in that building."

To him, Fox News is an object lesson in how not to handle success. To an observer familiar with Olbermann's career missteps, he seems determined not to repeat them as his star rises again.

By any measure, 2007 was a terrific year for him. Since mid-2006, when he began inveighing against the Bush administration in a series of on-air editorials, known as "Special Comments," ratings for Countdown have risen 55 percent. MSNBC is beating CNN when Olbermann is on, and catching up to the second-place news channel overall.

His new book, Truth and Consequences: Special Comments on the Bush Administration's War on American Values, was assembled from a year's worth of editorials on Countdown. This week it entered The New York Times nonfiction best-seller list at No. 19.

"I've often thought the real danger in broadcasting is people going on the air without ever stopping to ask: 'Now why is it again that I think people want to hear me talk about this?'"

"Inasmuch as it is a responsibility and it is the public airwaves, I think I owe the viewers and the industry and the people who've gone before me -- who have been role models, who have faced actual dangers to do this in the history of our country -- I owe all those things and people my best. To try to present an honest version of what I see around me."

Fair enough, but detractors contend that Olbermann's "honesty" has seeped into every corner of his show. With its opinionated take on the news, its mocking tone and its lack of dissenting voices, Countdown in some ways is a lot like the radio show hosted by Rush Limbaugh, who is Olbermann's biggest target after O'Reilly.

Olbermann's saving grace is that he is funny, which covers a multitude of sins, including self-righteousness. From years in sportscasting, trying to pump life into look-alike game highlights night after night, he developed a comic cadence and an arsenal of silly voices (his Walter Cronkite is the best). And Countdown is structured less like a traditional newscast and more like SportsCenter, where he became a national cable star on ESPN in the 1990s.

Yet even with Countdown and the spiffy new digs at 30 Rock, the third-rated cable news channel faces an uncertain future. Millions of dollars are to be lopped from its budget this year. Olbermann can't control MSNBC's fate, only his own. Hence the "lessons learned inside that building" that he and cardboard Bill-O look out on every day.

He knows all too well the Fox News temptation to lash out at critics and even create enemies where there were none. Olbermann did it at ESPN. An executive there once said, "He didn't burn bridges here, he napalmed them."

But these days, he has plenty of reasons to remain calm. He lives with his beautiful girlfriend, Katy Tur. He signed a new long-term deal with NBC in 2007. And last fall he landed a sports gig on the big network, joining Bob Costas and Cris Collinsworth in the studio for Sunday Night Football.

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