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Chasing Fox

Walter Cronkite. And that's the way it was, a long time ago.  

Olbermann may be at war with the right, but today he’s been drawn into a skirmish with his brothers on the left. Earlier that morning, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs sparked outrage among progressives when he labeled liberals critical of Obama “the professional left.” The ensuing fracas exposed a long-simmering rift between Obama and the liberal commentariat. “Maybe Gibbs is blasting me personally,” he says. “Apparently we’re the professional left. I didn’t know that until being defined this morning by Mr. Gibbs. I suppose that makes them the unprofessional left.”

Olbermann’s tiff with the White House was minor, a “superficial” issue, he assures me. His true enemies will always be the right and Fox News, which, in Olbermann’s eyes, are one and the same. “The standard false equivalency in the coverage of cable news is that this is a left-wing version of Fox,” Olbermann says. “I get no talking points. It illustrates the core difference between us and the guys down the street.”

With the explosion of anti-Bush rage after Hurricane Katrina, Olbermann saw an opening. “I wanted to take over this little corner of the world,” he says. He blasted onto the scene by practicing the well-worn political tactic of punching up, attacking Bill O’Reilly, who, at the time—it’s hard to remember now—was TV’s king right-winger. “O’Reilly punched down on Olbermann and brought attention to Keith,” Phil Griffin tells me. Tensions got so bad that in 2009, Zucker and then–Murdoch adviser Gary Ginsberg discussed a secret truce after O’Reilly began attacking G.E. CEO Jeff Immelt. But these days, Olbermann largely ignores his old foe. “There’s just something missing. There’s some fire that’s gone,” Olbermann says. “He looks tired, he sounds tired.” Olbermann has refocused his artillery on Glenn Beck. “He is the spearhead of the moment. It underscores where the right is,” Olbermann says. “He really is the definition of the demagogue.”

Olbermann’s nightly numbers—Countdown tripled MSNBC’s audience in the 8 p.m. slot—give him immense power at the network and force his bosses to tolerate his mountain-size ego. MSNBC president Phil Griffin, who has worked with Olbermann on and off since their first days at CNN in the early eighties, acknowledges there have been issues. “It’s always complex because of management and Keith,” he says.

There’s tension between morning and night at MSNBC. “I don’t have an hour to waste for someone just reading Democratic or Republican Party talking points,” says Morning Joe host Joe Scarborough, who’s positioned himself as a moderate. “We’ve created a safe house,” he says of his show.

“I have no comment about him,” Olbermann says.

Sometimes the stories that circulate about Olbermann are hard to believe, and certainly they’re fueled by competitive jealousies that dominate the halls of television news. But Olbermann can take his eccentricities to extremes. There’s a story that he told his producers to communicate with him by leaving notes in a small box positioned outside his office. Last spring, after David Shuster tweeted that he was guest-hosting Countdown while Olbermann was out sick, Olbermann erupted when a blog mentioned Shuster’s tweet and he fired off an e-mail to him saying, “Don’t ever talk about me and medical issues again.” Olbermann’s executive producer later told Shuster that there’s a rule against mentioning Olbermann on Twitter.

Griffin, a master politician with talent, says that Olbermann’s influence is overstated. “Keith doesn’t run the show,” he says. “I do a lot of things he doesn’t like. I do a lot of things he does.

Desperate to get CNN back in the game, Klein called Kathleen Parker one morning this spring. A longtime print journalist, with debutante features and long, flaxen hair, Parker had been a regular guest on Chris Matthews’s Sunday-morning show on NBC, but she had no ambitions to host a television show. Klein explained he was thinking of launching a new program, and would she be interested in hosting? Parker remembers Klein wouldn’t divulge who her potential co-host would be, but the offer piqued her interest. Parker and Klein met twice, but both times Klein kept the name of her co-host secret. Finally, during a third phone call, Parker asked Klein, “Are you going to tell me who?”

“Eliot Spitzer,” Klein responded.


“Bold,” Parker responded.

Parker’s reaction was better than many of Klein’s CNN colleagues. Spitzer’s scandal baggage was a big turnoff, especially for senior female executives. And the move also seemed to undermine Klein’s own philosophy. “If you have Eliot Spitzer and his right-wing foil, why did you cancel Crossfire?” one frustrated producer asks me.

But Klein believed that there was space in the middle to counterprogram to O’Reilly and Olbermann (while copping their style—he tried to hire Maddow’s executive producer, Bill Wolff). “We’ve gone for intelligence, and we’re betting on that,” Klein told me before he was fired. “Intelligence driven by a sense of, say, adventure.”