Friday, November 22, 2002

First of all, just because I have one of the longest-running Keith Olbermann fan pages ( doesn't mean anyone cares what I think or that I have any special insight into his stunning "ESPN: Mea Culpa" column in Salon this week. But being something of a student of his career and his journalistic voice, it's hard to leave the column alone. Because it rambles, wanders, and raises almost as many questions as it answers, it will take some time, follow-up columns from him, and feedback to put it into context. But here's my initial thoughts.

1) Olbermann gave too much ground. Whereas he simplistically saw ESPN management as too evil and himself as too righteous while working there (as he now admits), now he simplistically sees management as too righteous and himself too culpable. Granted, he stands by everything he says in Michael Freeman's scathing book, but says it must now be taken with this grain of salt: he was so insecure about his personality and his career that he impulsively blamed everyone else and was blind to his own problems--his conversations with Freeman were, Olbermann says, "the ultimate act of somebody who lived in terror of being blamed." This may obscure the fact that Olbermann was a moral fixture in a 90s environment at ESPN where rapid expansion into a multimedia corporate empire and residual sexism and rampant sexual harassment in the Bristol subculture seemed to sway the broadcasting colossus to the point where few within it seemed to be guided by much of an independent moral compass. Olbermann's presence was in part a redeeming one--or at least an aggravating one, sometimes nobly so and sometimes not. In his column, he sells himself short.

2) The column confirms what many at ESPN, according to Freeman's book, believed: that Olbermann was a tortured genius, with psychological issues in addition to award-winning talent. But what they assumed to be a matter of insatiable ego may simply have been a case of massive insecurity. I'll leave it to Dr. Phil to do the pop psych--actually, you have to wonder about the appropriateness of publishing this kind of intimate introspection in a forum like Salon--it really sounds like he's on a therapist's couch (and a direct letter to friends and enemies at ESPN would have seemed more sincere). But it is a lesson in how the broadcasting world is a jungle of titanic egos, dizzying stress, complex office politics, all magnified by the lens of the camera.

3) Some are tempted to see the column as an indirect (or direct; Olbermann says he'd like to host a show once or twice a week) plea for a job at ESPN. It probably isn't that simple, and Olbermann has never been that tacky. Still, one can imagine cooler heads prevailing in the next few months or years, given that there's been this much time to cool and that Olbermann for the first time is offering an olive branch. Sentimentality aside, the two parties need each other--ESPN needs more distinctive anchoring after several years of so-what cookie-cutter youngsters and a proliferation of studio shows that has diluted its flagship product. And Olbermann seems ready for a return to visibility. But his letter seems to illustrate just how oblivious outside observers are to the dynamics of broadcasting politics.

Well, this is just the first draft of history. It will be interesting to see how ESPN, particularly ex-partner Dan Patrick, responds to the column, and if ESPN and Olbermann are able to mend fences, or even find, under the rubble, the moorings those fences were in before their, um, intense 1997 parting.

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