November 29, 2004

Counting Down With Keith Olbermann '79

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Keith Olbermann ’79 is currently the host of Countdown With Keith Olbermann, which airs on weekdays at 8:00 p.m. on MSNBC. Olbermann was a communications arts major (as it was called at the time) in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and worked at WVBR (and at The Sun for one day). He recently sat down with The Sun to discuss his Cornell career, his professional career, and his recent coverage of the 2004 election voting irregularities.

The Fifth Story of the Countdown: Olbermann’s Cornell Career

Olbermann entered Cornell at the young age of 16, a year younger than his classmates, after receiving a full scholarship to Boston University and getting rejected by Harvard. He had an internship with the Boston Celtics lined up, but when he realized that he had to spend two years in a generalized liberal arts program at B.U. in order to be a communications major, he decided to attend Cornell.

“I ended up at Cornell knowing nothing about the radio station, but it could not have been a better training ground,” Olbermann said. “There is nothing that I have experienced professionally that I did not experience there.”

He said that WVBR competed with professional radio stations and that there were office politics and professional ambitions similar to the ones he would see later in his career.

Olbermann said that in order for him to graduate, he had to take 28 credits during the spring semester of his senior year. In addition, he did not know until the day before graduation whether he was going to be able to attend the festivities as a member of the Class of 1979. “It was a little stressful,” he said sarcastically. “I had a dream about it as recently as last night.”

While Olbermann was a hockey fan, he didn’t attend many games. However, he occasionally covered playoff games for WVBR. He remembered the Red’s playoff game against Providence College in 1979 in which they were losing 5-1 and came back to win 6-5 in overtime.

“There was nothing like that game, and I covered the 1980 Olympics. I was at the Russia game,” Olbermann said.

The fourth story of the Countdown, Olbermann’s career in sports journalism

Olbermann is best known for his five-and-a-half year stint on ESPN’s SportsCenter in the mid-1990s when he co-anchored the show with Dan Patrick.

He worked for various radio and television stations prior to receiving his seat at the SportsCenter anchor desk, and his career in sports continued after his exit.

During his career, he worked for NBC and Fox, covering various events, including a Superbowl, a World Series and some All-Star Games. In addition, Olbermann was an anchor on nightly and weekly sports news shows on Fox Sports Net.

“Fox Sports was an infant trying to stand [in comparison to ESPN],” he said, “but on the broadcast side there was no comparison — ESPN was the bush leagues.”

“Until the year before I left, we did not have anyone to put on our makeup [at ESPN]. Those commercials with me and Dan Patrick in the bathroom were drawn from real life,” Olbermann said.

“At Fox [on the broadcast side], there was a guy whose job it was to bring us menus for breakfast. His name was Dan. He was Dan the breakfast man,” he said.

When Olbermann left ESPN in 1997, he took a job with NBC which included working for NBC sports in addition to anchoring a new “news variety” show on MSNBC, catapulting him into a journalistic area he had not encountered since he was the news director for one day at WVBR.

The third story of the Countdown: Olbermann’s career in news journalism

Olbermann first delved into news broadcasting on MSNBC’s The Big Show in 1997. Each show covered three or four different topics in the one-hour broadcast.

Once the Clinton-Lewinsky investigations entered the news however, everything changed. As the investigations continued, the show became consumed with the story, leading Olbermann to become frustrated with his job.

“About three weeks ago I awakened from my stupor on this subject and told my employers that I simply could not continue doing this show about the endless investigation and the investigation of the investigation, and the investigation of the investigation of the investigation,” Olbermann said in the 1997 Convocation speech in Barton Hall.

This conflict eventually led to Olbermann’s departure from MSNBC. Eventually he would return to news on CNN as a freelance reporter, and then would move back to MSNBC in 2003, where he can currently be seen on his nightly newscast, Countdown with Keith Olbermann.

“Neil Shapiro [the president of NBC News] wanted to do a show called ‘Countdown’ because he liked the name and because he wanted to free a newscast from having to lead with the front page news,” Olbermann said.

He said that his current job is the most enjoyable one he has had. “The fit cannot be better,” he said. “I get bored from covering just one story. I need a format in which I can express different sides. This format allows me to do that. It lets me do what I want to do.” He has now been anchoring the show for a year-and-a-half, and the ratings have doubled in that time.

“The key to success in television is longevity. If we are still doing this show a year-and-a-half from now, I think we’ll be doing pretty good,” Olbermann said. “I worry sometimes whether I can write 6,000 words every day, but it has gone very well.”

The second story of the Countdown: Olbermann’s typical day at work

“There are 10 or 12 people who work on the show,” he said. They spend part of the morning looking for interesting and unusual stories, partially by surfing the Internet. The group meets by conference call at 11 for a half hour to “bat around subjects” for the evening’s show.

At 12:15, Olbermann gets a final list of everyone’s submissions. “Then I go shopping. I pick what I like and I put them in order,” Olbermann said.

He then e-mails the list to the staff and by 2:00 he is in Secaucus, NJ where the show is broadcast live. He writes the show’s material in his office until 7:30, when he gets makeup, goes on air and “reads it.”

He said that the show is taped for the West Coast; however there have been a few times that he has had to go back on-the-air live in order to report on breaking news. Recently, Olbermann has covered the voting irregularities in the 2004 presidential election on his show.

The first story of the Countdown: 2004 election irregularities, and why Olbermann is the only major television news personality covering the story

On the “Thursday or Friday after the election,” someone sent Olbermann a link to an article about a “lockdown” in effect on election night at the Warren County, Ohio courthouse because of a “terrorist threat.” “It struck me on the face of it as the most ridiculous thing I had ever heard,” Olbermann said.

After seeing countless other reports of minor voting inaccuracies, Olbermann was stunned.

“Suddenly it was clear to me that there were a large number of stories suggesting widespread voting irregularities,” he said.

“At a minimum we know the election hardware is not working,” he added. When asked why other reporters haven’t picked up the story, Olbermann said that he “assumed everyone else would.” But, he had some ideas as to why they did not.

“After Kerry conceded, the reaction of all the political reporters was probably to take time off,” he said. “Also, 2000 was a disaster for the networks. They were beaten up by the newspapers. This time, nobody got beaten up.”

He said that the networks are “loathe to bring up” the fact that the exit polls had problems. In addition, Olbermann said that political reporters usually take their cues from what the Democrats and Republicans say.

“If there was a prominent Democrat saying this, it would be front page news,” he said.

“I don’t think there is any question that Ohio messed up the election [in some way]. The question is: was it deliberate or accidental? And I don’t really care which answer is correct,” Olbermann said.

“You see machines with inaccurate vote counts, you see stories about unused voting machines in
a warehouse when the precincts were begging for more machines because of long lines and long waits; these are facts, they are suggestive facts,” he said.

“The only way that we can find out what happened is to ventilate the issue and find out what’s wrong with these ‘Rube Goldberg’ voting machines.” Olbermann said. “There is no national standard for elections, and if we don’t get one, we are going to have an election just like the one in the Ukraine.”

What would happen if the Ohio result were overturned? “It’s all political science fiction at this point. If something is found in Ohio, and Ohio is found to go for Kerry, it would be fascinating to see what the Republicans would do,” he said.

He said that the Republicans in Congress would have to make a choice about whether to support the President, or risk their own seat in Congress due to recall or impeachment. They would have to decide whether they would go down with the president or save themselves. “We have proved time and time again that self-interest will trump party interests. This could become a non-partisan issue,” Olbermann said.

Archived article by Eric Finkelstein
Sun News Editor