On Air and Online, Olbermann Draws Attention to Voting Problems

Keith Olbermann is a rare bird for a TV personality. He went from covering sports as a wisecracking news anchor on ESPN’s SportsCenter in the mid-’90s to anchoring coverage of the War in Iraq for MSNBC in 2003. And now he writes his own nightly TV show, “Countdown,” which he hosts on MSNBC.

Keith Olbermann, anchor and managing editor of MSNBC’s “Countdown”

Olbermann also recently started his own blog, Bloggermann, joining the blogosphere on its own terms, calling out other bloggers and taking on an issue — voting irregularities from the recent U.S. presidential election — that is perfect for the medium. Olbermann doesn’t just pump his TV show and use his blog as a promotional vehicle. Instead, he has brought up original ideas on the blog that have bled onto the air later.

One example: He made a long post in reference to the sexual harassment suit by Fox News producer Andrea Mackris against Olbermann’s nemesis, Fox host Bill O’Reilly. Olbermann made an offer of $99,000 to Mackris, who settled out-of-court with O’Reilly and never took Olbermann’s offer, so he could have the audiotapes she made of O’Reilly’s alleged obscene advances over the phone. Only later did Olbermann mention his offer for the tapes on the air — after he received considerable interest in the story from the blogosphere.

After the Cincinnati Enquirer ran a story about Warren County locking out the media from vote counts due to terrorist concerns — which later proved to be false — Olbermann started a steady stream of posts about voting irregularities, which also bled into nightly reports on his newscast.

While some folks online have been ranting that the election was stolen by Bush, Olbermann takes a more measured approach to the story, including voices on his show that believe the irregularities are overblown. Plus, despite the appearance that he’s taking sides with Sen. John Kerry — including his presidential debate scoring heavily weighted in the Democrat’s favor — Olbermann says he’s non-political and won’t even vote in elections.

Conservative bloggers have been angry at Olbermann’s efforts, putting him in league with wackos and conspiracy theorists. But one right-of-center blogger, Robert Cox, admits that Olbermann does understand blogging and puts him ahead of the pack of nascent mainstream media bloggers.

“If you accept the notion that a blog is the unedited voice of a person and that blogging is about a dialogue with other bloggers and blog readers, then it seems clear that Keith Olbermann is among the top tier of TV personality ‘media bloggers’ along with Kevin Sites of NBC and Tony Snow at Fox News,” Cox told me via e-mail. “Unlike some of the bastardized, ‘corporatized,’ so-called blogs at major media outlets, Olbermann is much closer to producing a genuine blog. He reads blogs (including my own which he labeled ‘belligerently uninformed’), links to blogs and regularly responds to other bloggers.”

While Cox thinks Olbermann has been smart to cover voting problems on his blog, he thinks Olbermann has gone too far by going on TV without enough vetting of online material. Cox has been running the most biting criticism of Olbermann on his blog. “He routinely lifts information from Internet sources such as ‘chain letter’ e-mails, satirical Web sites and blogs and puts it on the air,” Cox said.

Perhaps the worst breakdown was when Olbermann broadcast a story about an Indiana University study showing that parents lose IQ points after having children. Unknown to Olbermann, the story he read online was at a satirical site called the “Hoosier Gazette.”

Later, the MSNBC anchor had to make an on-air apology for the mistake: “Ordinarily, here at our vast ‘Countdown’ fact-checking headquarters, we meticulously vet all those weird sagas,” Olbermann said. “In this case, there were lots of people who should have, but didn’t. But, ultimately, I’m the managing editor and the guy who writes it and reads it, so I should have known. And, ultimately, it is my fault. So I apologize.”

Through his ups and downs as blogger/anchor, Olbermann has kept his trademark humor intact, even as his subject matter varies from news of the weird to election results. So it’s a perfect time for Olbermann to gain momentum, as younger viewers start to turn to comics such as Jon Stewart for a better grip on reality.

The following Q&A is edited from a series of e-mail exchanges that I had with Olbermann right after Thanksgiving.

Online Journalism Review: How have you used computers and the Internet in the past? Do you consider yourself a geek?

Keith Olbermann: I believe I was first accused of being a geek around 1975. And I recall first using a computer in 1970, in the 8th Grade, and was amazed when the teacher explained it couldn’t respond to my question “Who were the 14 New York Yankees struck out by Carl Erskine during Game 3 of the 1953 World Series?” The machine was half the size of the room we were in and to my mind it was useless. I just decided to see how long that would take on the Internet today. Answer: 45 seconds. Professionally I’ve used computers since I joined UPI in 1979, bought my first PC in 1986, but I really didn’t get into the Net until about five years ago. But I’ve written Web-only stuff for Brill’s, Salon, MSNBC in my first incarnation there in ’97-98, so this is not new territory for me.

OJR: Whose idea was it to start Bloggermann and what was your vision of the blog when you started it?

KO: I had been doing a lot of posting on Hardblogger since the Democratic Convention, and the response was superb. Jeanne Rothermich, who runs the blogs, had been talking about a separate blog for me starting sometime next year, but it really kicked into high gear when I did the “round-by-round” scoring of the debates, for which we got hundreds of thousands of hits. The launch of Bloggermann was moved up to the last debate.

I viewed it, and view it still, as an opportunity to expand on news we’ve covered on Countdown, offer opinion that would be less appropriate (and would slow down the pace) on television. It’s a newsblog, basically.

OJR: How much time do you spend each day on the blog? More than you expected?

KO: Not very much, really. I’m not locked into a schedule: I post when I can, or when I want. Conveniently, I’m a very fast writer, so the longest it’s ever taken me (excepting the debate play-by-play) would’ve been about an hour. I had to laugh recently when a guy in the New York Observer took a shot at me for blogging 6,000 words on the election irregularities while I was on vacation. I write 6,000 words a day for Countdown, so 6,000 over nine days is a vacation.

OJR: What’s the biggest surprise to you about running a blog? The response you’ve had?

KO: Not the response — I’ve gotten an abnormal amount of viewer/listener/reader response dating back to my days working at my college radio station. I’d say the quality of the response. Critical stuff tends to be minimal and puerile (“Your ratings suck!” — well, there’s a clear political argument), but the others, like the 40,000 e-mails we got in two weeks of election coverage, have all been thoughtful, intelligent, probing, and valuable. Not every lead they include is journalistically sound, but many of them are. I’ve compared the bloggers and the Web-savvy to Holmes’s Baker Street Irregulars — always on the hunt.

OJR: What first got you interested in voting irregularities, and why do you think you’re the only mainstream news guy up on this?

KO: Ironically enough it was a piece in a newspaper, The Cincinnati Enquirer. MSM [mainstream media] in the heartland. It was the story of the still unexplained “lockdown” of the vote-counting in Warren County, Ohio. That just struck me as a terrific, very strange story. That was my doorway to a lot of terrific, very strange stories.

The MSM is beginning to get on board, as I suggested they might, as the Ohio recount becomes a reality. Chip Reid, a friend of mine who reports for NBC, went from doing a piece for Nightly News dismissing everything to just recently doing a piece on the Ohio recount, the reports of the flaky computer voting, etc. There was a Bev Harris sound bite in an Aaron Brown package on CNN the other night. They’ve only put a toe in the water, but they may yet dive in.

Relative to my being first, I think it’s largely because I’m not a full-time political guy and not a partisan. The MSM political reporters are: 1) outcome-driven (when Kerry conceded, they checked out, largely because of exhaustion), and 2) driven by what the parties say about one another (Kerry concedes, Democrats stay in the background, Republicans say nothing — so in their minds, where’s the story?). My thought is that there are three components in the two-party system: Republicans, Democrats, and Voters.

Also I think TV has been reluctant because as an industry, we can soft-soap it all we want, but we did use those “early wave” exit polls to shape the tone of the early hours of election night coverage. We took so much grief in 2000, I think there’s a natural reticence to publicize the fact that something might have gone wrong this time, too, especially when few of our critics in the newspapers are bringing it up themselves. There’s a lot of passivity going around.

OJR: In your gut feeling, what do you think all the irregularities and recounts in Ohio and Florida will show, in the end?

KO: I can guarantee that they’ll show that this Rube Goldbergian system of different voting laws, voting equipment, voting auditing we have in this country can’t be taken for granted any more and must be standardized nationally, or we face a real threat to the democracy. As John Zogby said on the show the other night, yeah, it’s great that 80% of the public thinks the election was absolutely legitimate. But, my God, that means one in five don’t. That’s an incredibly dangerous truth. We have to fix that.

Practically speaking, I suspect that the Ohio recount and whatever happens in Florida will not alter the outcome — although I don’t think that’s the billion-to-one shot people assume. I’d say it’s closer to 8:1. Ohio really, really messed up. And I think we’ll see a lot of proved computerized disasters, and a lot of inappropriate partisanship.

OJR: How would you describe yourself politically on the liberal-to-conservative spectrum? How important do you think it is for MSM to be transparent on their political affiliations?

KO: I’m not political. I don’t vote — I don’t believe journalists covering politics should (and I don’t think the democracy would suffer if however many of us there are, recused ourselves). I have no more interest in the political outcome of an election than I did in the winner or loser of any ballgame I ever covered. I think transparency is vital; I think it’s also, in these super-heated political times, unintentionally inescapable. If a reporter’s work in turn winds up criticizing a candidate or party in some cases, and praising that same candidate or party in others, he’s as close to neutral as he can be. If not, he’s a partisan. The partisans outnumber the neutrals 1000:1.

OJR: Do you think MSNBC is more enlightened than other news organizations when it comes to blogging? Why or why not?

KO: Definitely. It’s funny, because when we started, and I got here in the second year, we were trying to force MSM and the Web together without really knowing how, kind of like Bart Simpson trying to get the lizard and the gerbil to mate. But now that the system has developed organically, we’re all over it. Joe Trippi has been invaluable in translating his experiences in the Dean campaign to journalism, and I’ve got to give our president, Rick Kaplan, a lot of credit. He’s really pushed the idea, and with very effective results.

OJR: Does someone edit your blog postings before they go live? After they go live?

KO: Hasn’t happened yet, except at my request. I always respond better to “you’re responsible for this” rather than “I’m looking over your shoulder.”

OJR: What will the future hold for anchor/bloggers and any other combination of journalist/bloggers? Is this a trend that will grow? Does incoming “Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams get it?

KO: The trend’s already grown. This year began without Hardblogger or Bloggermann. The post I did on November 9, which outlined a lot of the questions on the Net, got something approaching 200,000 hits. The ability to interact with a TV news audience via the blog, and turn people onto the Net (or on to TV) is the salvation of the MSM. As to Brian, he’s a sharp guy; I don’t know if a blog is first on his list of priorities right at the moment, but it will be, sooner rather than later.

OJR: Do you blog in your pajamas or suit and tie? How do we know that it’s really you doing all the writing on your blog?

KO: I don’t own pajamas. But unless I’m working from the office, I’m not blogging in a suit. Usually just slacks and a polo shirt. Except when I wear my Darth Vader costume. As to knowing it’s really me, not too many folks write the way I do, and I can assure you if I could find them, I’d have hired them already to write the TV scripts.

OJR: What news, sports and blog content do you read regularly, and how does it split percentage-wise?

KO: I am not a constant reader. I don’t read any sports any more, save for an occasional visit to MLB.Com — because a) I don’t have to any more, and b) I don’t have the time. I surf a lot of news sites and blogs but to identify them would be an endorsement that really wouldn’t be honest — I’m a fly-by guy.

OJR: Now that Ron Artest has attacked fans in a sporting arena, can we expect Dick Cheney or a Congressman to start taking punches at the media or people in the gallery?

KO: Lord, I hope so. Seriously, the Artest thing is completely overblown. There was a far worse NBA incident in a Detroit/Golden State playoff game in ’77 but there’s no video. And the Rocket Richard riot with tear gas bombs and the evacuation of the arena and $500,000 in damage to the streets of Montreal was 1955. This is nothing new. But I do, honestly, fear that the political climate will boil over into small-scale violence, fisticuffs and such. That, sadly, is also nothing new. Senator Sumner of Massachusetts was beaten senseless by a Congressman with a cane circa 1860. We may be approaching that.

OJR: Do you think that bloggers (and Slate) hurt their credibility by running early exit poll numbers that ended up being wrong?

KO: Well, I agree with Warren Mitofsky [who runs Mitofsky International, which helped run the exit polls] that releasing exit-polling data before polls closed in a particular state was madness. It’s something the TV networks used to do (by declaring winners in states before the polls closed, based on exit polling) and got blasted for — and rightfully so. But I’m not sure about that characterization “wrong.” They might have been “incomplete” but exit polling at 5 p.m. can neither be right nor wrong, just indicative. It’s that later data, the midnight numbers, that should have been released (and should still be released) because of its usefulness as an audit to the vote itself, a process we’re seeing play out in Ukraine.

OJR: Do you have any other thoughts on the blogosphere and journalism?

KO: I gave a piece of advice in one of my blogs and it seemed to resonate with a lot of people. There’s a freshness, a wide-eyed quality, to everybody getting into this. But with that, there is a lack of control. This can be overcome if bloggers consider their sources, and identify them as fully as possible. At ESPN, they always used to ask me why I would say “The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports…” rather than just saying “reportedly” when the latter was journalistically acceptable. My answer applies to the bloggers: a) because it’s right, and b) because if the source is wrong about the story, you have avoided people thinking you were the one who screwed up.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at http://www.sensibletalk.com.