Ol­ber­mann-MSNBC split had been brew­ing for a while

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY PAUL FARHI farhip@wash­post.com

A swirl of ques­tions Satur­day sur­rounded po­lit­i­cal provo­ca­teur Keith Ol­ber­mann’s abrupt de­par­ture from MSNBC, the net­work he helped trans­form — by dint of his fiery elo­quence and on-air pres­ence— into the left’s an­swer to Fox News.

For all his skill as a broad­caster and his undis­puted value to the net­work, the Ol­ber­mann qual­ity that ap­peared sud­denly most rel­e­vant was this: He can be dif­fi­cult to work with.

Icon­o­clas­tic and mer­cu­rial, Ol­ber­mann has of­ten clashed with his em­ploy­ers, con­demn­ing — some­times quite pub­licly— di­rec­tives with which he has dis­agreed. His de­par­ture fit a pat­tern that has marked his 32-year ca­reer. He has had fre­quent run-ins with his bosses, most of which re­sulted in Ol­ber­mann leav­ing a job, in­clud­ing an ear­lier flame­out with MSNBC in 1998. His nearly eight years host­ing “Count­down with Keith Ol­ber­mann” was by far the long­est he’s lasted in a job dur­ing his ca­reer as a broad­caster.

Though nei­ther side was talk­ing Satur­day about the events that led Ol­ber­mann to an­nounce his de­par­ture on his show Fri­day night, the split ap­peared to have been long in the mak­ing — weeks cer­tainly, and per­haps months, given his sus­pen­sion in­Novem­ber for cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions that vi­o­lated com­pany pol­icy.

Ol­ber­mann and MSNB Care op­er­at­ing un­der an exit agree­ment, the prod­uct of lengthy ne­go­ti­a­tions, that lim­its each side from com­ment­ing pub­licly, ac­cord­ing to a per­son with knowl­edge of the dis­cus­sions. The agree­ment also ties Ol­ber­mann to a “non-com­pete” pro­vi­sion that will pre­vent him from ap­pear­ing on a com­pet­ing TV net­work for an undis­closed pe­riod.

Ol­ber­mann did not re­turn emails seek­ing com­ment and re­mained silent on Twit­ter, where he of­ten voices his opin­ions.

In an in­ter­view Satur­day, MSNBC Pres­i­dent Phil Grif­fin — a fre­quent tar­get of Ol­ber­mann’s broad­sides within MSNBC — de­clined to talk about the rea­sons for the sud­den loss of his top-rated at­trac­tion. In­stead, Grif­fin ac­cen­tu­ated the pos­i­tive, stressing that MSNBC had a deep enough tal­ent pool to get along with­out Ol­ber­mann (Lawrence O’Don­nell, who hosts the net­work’s 10 p.m. pro­gram will take over Ol­ber­mann’s prime 8 p.m. spot Mon­day).

“We’re in great shape,” Grif­fin said. “. . . I don’t think we’ll lose a beat.” He added: “I love what we’re do­ing, and I love what we’ve achieved as a net­work. I’m con­fi­dent about our fu­ture.”

But in his fi­nal show, Ol­ber­mann in­di­cated that ten­sions with his em­ployer had been build­ing for a long time: “There were many oc­ca­sions, par­tic­u­larly in the last 21/ years, where all that sur­rounded

2 the show— but never the show it­self— was just too much for me.”

His sud­den exit prompted wide­spread sus­pi­cion of in­ter­fer­ence by Com­cast, which is ex­pected to com­plete its pur­chase of MSNBC’s par­ent, NBC Uni­ver­sal, this week. Com­cast de­nied any role in a state­ment Satur­day, and an MSNBC spokesman also said there was no link to the ac­qui­si­tion, which re­ceived reg­u­la­tory ap­proval Tues­day.

One per­son in­ti­mate with MSNBC’s man­age­ment, how­ever, said there were strong in­di­ca­tions that the tim­ing wasn’t co­in­ci­den­tal. With Ol­ber­mann’s pa­tron, NBC chief ex­ec­u­tive Jeff Zucker, no longer part of the com­pany’s lead­er­ship, “ the tim­ing was right” to seek the re­moval of the suc­cess­ful but dif­fi­cult host and an­chor, said one per­son fa­mil­iar with the prin­ci­pal play­ers who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity to main­tain a re­la­tion­ship with the com­pany.

Over the course of his ca­reer, Ol­ber­mann trans­formed him­self into a star po­lit­i­cal com­men­ta­tor af­ter achiev­ing fame as a sports broad­caster. His skills in front the cam­era and be­hind the mike were ev­i­dent early, but so was his di­va­like be­hav­ior. While work­ing for a TV sta­tion in Los An­ge­les in the late 1980s, he broke a bath­room door in anger when the sta­tion aired a pro­mo­tional seg­ment he felt was not up to stan­dards.

Af­ter work­ing his way up through sta­tions in­NewYork, Bos­ton and Los An­ge­les, Ol­ber­mann gained na­tional promi­nence in the 1990s as co-host of ESPN’s “Sport­sCen­ter.”

When Ol­ber­mann left ESPN af­ter five years in 1997, it was clear there were hard feel­ings on both sides. A net­work of­fi­cial was quoted say­ing at the time: “He didn’t burn the bridges here; he na­palmed them.”

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