MSNBC's Olbermann seeks delicate balance

By DAVID BAUDER, AP Television Writer Sun May 6, 1:39 PM ET

NEW YORK - In an angry commentary on April 25, MSNBC's Keith Olbermann accused Rudolph Giuliani of using the language of Osama bin Laden with "the same chilling nonchalance of the madman" to argue that Republicans would keep Americans safer than Democrats from terror.

Eight days later, Olbermann hosted MSNBC's coverage of the first debate among Republican candidates for president.

Olbermann's popularity and evolving image as an idealogue has led NBC News to stretch traditional notions of journalistic objectivity. The danger for MSNBC is provoking the same anger among Republicans that Democrats feel toward Fox News Channel.

The Giuliani campaign privately expressed its concern to NBC News about Olbermann's role in the days leading up to last Thursday's debate.

MSNBC's use of Olbermann as a host for major events predated his "special comments," which began appearing late last summer at the end of "Countdown," his irreverent prime-time newscast. The periodic commentaries often seethe with anger toward the Bush administration and against the war. Spread quickly over the Internet, they've made him a liberal icon and raised his show's ratings.

Olbermann knows to leave his opinions at home when he anchors events, said Phil Griffin, NBC News senior vice president.

"Keith's an adult," Griffin said. "He can tell when it's appropriate to express himself in a commentary and when to be a journalist. That's one of his strengths. He knows exactly the tone and his role when he's doing anything."

He served Thursday both before and after the debate in exactly the position Griffin intended, as the quarterback for coverage. For the most part, he introduced interviews and questioned MSNBC analysts on their own opinions of how the debate went.

In asking about Giuliani's response to a question on Roe vs. Wade, Olbermann asked, "Do you think that's consistent with — let's use the kind word — an evolving position on abortion?"

Similarly, he noted that Giuliani early in the debate appeared to offer an olive branch to Democrats but slipped back into harsher language, including the argument that a Republican president would keep the country safer than a Democrat.

"Did Mr. Giuliani correct course in the middle of the debate?" he asked. "Did someone slip him a note under the door and say, `don't be nice to Democrats under any circumstances?'"

For many years, the rule for journalists was simple: maintain strict objectivity. Even for television hosts unafraid to say what they think — Chris Matthews, for instance — there's still a little mystery about what they'll do inside a voting booth.

Some journalists are such purists that they don't vote at all.

To one critic, Olbermann's actual performance at the debate and in similar situations was less important than the message sent by his presence.

"It's sort of like putting a professional wrestler in an anchor chair and saying `he can do this,'" said Tim Graham, director of media analysis at the Media Research Center, a conservative watchdog. "Well, he can do this. But he's known as a professional wrestler."

Unlike the Democrats who have made a point of standing up to Fox, there's been little public protest among Republicans about MSNBC's use of Olbermann at news events. That doesn't mean it has gone unnoticed. Graham said there's a real debate among conservatives over how to deal with him: should he be ignored or loudly criticized, knowing how effectively Olbermann has turned Bill O'Reilly's attacks into a badge of honor?

The Giuliani campaign would not publicly discuss what it thinks about Olbermann, or whether it had made those feelings known to NBC, a spokeswoman said.

But MSNBC spokesman Jeremy Gaines said a Giuliani campaign representative had called NBC News to complain about Olbermann being part of the debate telecast following his commentary. Olbermann was not told about the protest until after he came off the air Thursday, he said.

Other GOP presidential campaigns have expressed concerns about Olbermann to NBC News, according to a New York political strategist who requested anonymity to protect his clients.

Questions about the objectivity of television news personalities have been around as long as there was a TV set to yell back at. Now we're in an era where anchors blog, they emote, they lift the curtain to expose how their shows operate.

"It's a different world," Griffin said, "and I think Keith has mastered this world better than anybody."

The popularity of Lou Dobbs and Glenn Beck on CNN alone illustrates how opinion has become more important on cable news. A general public that laughs at
Jon Stewart's take on the news has probably become accustomed to a point of view, said Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

"I wonder, candidly, how many people parse the ethics on this anymore, other than people in the industry," he said.

Clearly there's a taste in America for both a partisan and nonpartisan press.

The middle ground is where it gets tricky.

Having Olbermann anchor — as he will continue, with Matthews, for big political nights throughout the campaign — is the MSNBC equivalent of Fox News Channel assigning the same duties to O'Reilly.

Fox has never done that, perhaps mindful of the immediate controversy that would result. Fox has tried to differentiate between its news operation and its prime-time opinion shows, even as its critics believe strongly that's bunk. In this case, MSNBC doesn't try to separate news and opinion people, even as it tries to separate news and opinion.

"We're not hiding from it," Griffin said. "We're saying he can do both."