Bill Moyers on his Bill Moyers Journal interviewed Keith Olbermann on December 14, 2007. I watched it online today as I’ve been taking a break from all forms of media. It was an astoundingly good interview. Watch it at the PBS site as they have the best feed.
Watch Olbermann as he says, “It is the necessity of– of journalism. Skepticism.”
Full transcript on the flip.
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 president…
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 bush…no 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 Journal.
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 politics.
KEITH OLBERMANN: It became necessary.
BILL MOYERS: Why?
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: Okay.
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–
KEITH OLBERMANN: Of course.
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 since.
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 ridiculous.”
KEITH OLBERMANN: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: This is drip, right?
KEITH OLBERMANN: Right.
BILL MOYERS: You walked away.
KEITH OLBERMANN: Yeah.
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.
KEITH OLBERMANN: Yeah.
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 was.
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–
KEITH OLBERMANN: Right.
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 skepticism.
KEITH OLBERMANN: Yes.
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.
KEITH OLBERMANN: Yeah.
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.”
KEITH OLBERMANN: Okay.
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 America.”
KEITH OLBERMANN: But the point being that there was– there were emergency circumstances that he saw, too.
BILL MOYERS: Emergency?
KEITH OLBERMANN: Yeah.
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 Palmer.
BILL MOYERS: That is amazing.
KEITH OLBERMANN: Oh, come on. I was 12 years old and a huge baseball fan.
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.