The New Yorker has a long and worthwhile profile of MSNBC host Keith Olbermann. (Beauty quote: why did he tell President Bush to “shut the hell up” in a special comment this year? “Because I can’t say, ‘Shut the f___ up,’ that’s why, frankly.”) But the nugget of nuggets is that CBS interviewed him as a possible replacement for Dan Rather as anchor of the CBS Evening News.
I’m not sure it’s as explosive a revelation as it first sounds. At the time, CBS News management was under a directive from Les Moonves to totally remake the newscast, and I’m sure they met with any number of unusual possibilities. But it’s an interesting exercise in what could have been. I’ve been critical of Olbermann lately, but he’s still a fresh, distinctive news voice—and was even more so in 2005, when he was reportedly considered—a brilliant wit and a natural broadcaster. (I know he’s not a reporter by the standards of most traditional anchors; I also don’t think that much matters.)
It might have been a really good choice—not just for CBS but for Keith Olbermann.
For CBS, first off, simply putting Olbermann behind the anchor desk would have signaled, and actually achieved, a sharp change in the voice of the evening news. (Much more than Couric, who was really just a different kind of network-news professional, and was restrained to the point of stiffness in her early broadcasts.)
For Olbermann, meanwhile, it would have represented a chance to reshape the future of network news (to the extent that it has one), while giving him an incentive to rein in the bloviation that has helped him stand out in the cable-news competition the past couple years. As Olbermann himself says in the profile, he recognized that taking the job would mean changing the newscast gradually:
Olbermann said that he would, of course, be less freewheeling than he had been at “Countdown,” and that he would redirect the broadcast incrementally, beginning with a three-minute block at the end of each newscast to which he would apply his personal touch. “Maybe in a year’s time, after you’ve given me those three minutes to sort of reprogram, maybe I’ll get four or five,” Olbermann says now. “You don’t go in for the full revolution. You do not come on and do ‘Naked News.’ ”
Olbermann with the skepticism, personality, point of view and humor—but without the vein-popping indiscriminate tirades—could have made for a great newscast. (By the way, I have no problem with his doing special comments or other editorial pieces on MSNBC. It’s when they come so often, and at unvarying levels of outrage no matter the offense, that they start to seem like shtick even if they’re entirely sincere.) The danger with this sort of thing, of course, is that the outsider hire loses what made him special in all the compromises he has to make, but from the sound of it, Olbermann—who was willing to lose his job at MSNBC over his first special comment, on the Iraq War—was probably not the kind of guy to do that.
I can’t believe it will ever happen now, though, even with Couric rumored to be on her way out. For starters, if the attacks on Rather and Couric as supposedly liberally-biased anchors made CBS nervous, the now openly political Olbermann would give them daily aneurysms. And the simple ratings failure of Couric probably assures that the CBS evening newscast—and maybe every network evening newscast—will henceforth be cautious holding actions, aimed at holding as much of the existing, aging audience as possible and praying for advances in human longevity. And it may be that Keith’s happier where he is now, free to largely do what he wants and rewarded for it with high (for MSNBC) ratings. But can you imagine what it would have been like?