Wheels Within Wheels: Is Keith Olbermann Kerfuffle Just a Publicity Stunt?

Amid the white hot coverage of MSNBC’s indefinite suspension of Countdown host Keith Olbermann, speculation furious enough to shame Melle Mel’s collegial quintet has emerged. Is this Olbermann’s Waterloo? Does Keith still have the juice to weather the maelstrom? Does the whole thing scream “Comcastic?”

One wrinkle that hasn’t been explored is an intriguing notion that a colleague of mine floated to me. Could the whole thing be an ingenious part of MSNBC’s re-branding effort, a publicity stunt with the dual purpose of drawing a sharper contrast with rival Fox News? Was 11/5 an inside job?

Deliberately or not, the Olbermann suspension is accomplishing great things for MSNBC. First of all, this thing is generating enough publicity to make P.T. Barnum look like Greta Garbo. But more than that, it also appears to have cleverly enlisted its own enemies in a Tom Sawyer-esque fence-painting exercise. Who would have guessed that liberal bogeygal Rachel Maddow would have been beaten to the punch by Michelle Malkin in pointing out the difference between Fox News’ and MSNBC’s ethical standards?

Unlike Fox News (pay attention, Media Matters Soros-bots), NBC ethics guidelines (yes, they do have them) bar their employees from making political contributions.


Then, there’s the fact that this publicity supernova comes on the heels of the network’s expensive “Lean Forward” re-branding effort, which, for all the fun that’s been had at its expense, has earned the notice of MCNBC’s two chief competitors.

What really makes you go “hmmm,” though, is the fact that, just days before Olbermann’s indefinite suspension, the Countdown host announced the “indefinite suspension” of the “Worst Persons in the World” segment, in an explicit bid to draw just the contrast that his own suspension has. We’re through the looking glass here, people.

Adding fuel to this little can of conspiracy Sterno is the way in which this story broke. Are we to believe that the staff of Politico just happened to be whiling away their lunch breaks on the FEC website, stumbled across Olbermann’s donations, and had the tingling Spidey-sense to wonder if they violated NBC News’ policies?

Or did someone feed the story to Politico on purpose?

My colleague pointed out, though, that lots of organizations employ Google alert-style algorithms that automatically keep a lookout for story seeds across a variety of databases.

That’s the great thing about conspiracy theories, though, isn’t it? Even if someone denies it, or refutes it with logic, hell, that’s just what you’d expect them to do!

Of course, even sane-sounding conspiracies can turn out not to be true. Witness Crooks and Liars, who reluctantly had to throw cold water on its own grassy Keith knoll. Initially reporting that Comcast currently owns MSNBC, and that Comcast’s “chairman,” Phil Anschutz, had donated to an organization that targets Democrats, C&L had to backtrack a little when Comcast released this response:

The joint venture between Comcast and GE has not yet received regulatory approval. Comcast is not in any way involved with decisions made currently by NBC News. We have pledged that when the transaction is concluded, Comcast will abide by the same policies for NBC’s news and public affairs programming that have been in place since GE acquired the company in 1986. Comcast is committed to the independence of NBC’s news operations.

We hope to acquire NBC Universal in the coming months, but by law we play no role in current operations. Mr. Philip Anschutz is not the chairman of Comcast Corporation, nor is he on its board, or in any way involved with the management of the company.

Of course, as Think Progress notes, that only means that “Comcast has no formal control over MSNBC yet.” No formal control. Yet. (Finger placed meaningfully to side of nose.)

As for the bigger question surrounding Olbermann’s indefinite suspension — namely, will he return to the Countdown anchor desk — I believe that rumors of his demise have been greatly exaggerated. While it is true that his Murrow-esque pose and diluted strength in MSNBC’s lineup cut against him, you don’t cut your cleanup hitter loose just because you’ve added a couple of sluggers to your roster.

Besides, NBC’s policy doesn’t require Olbermann’s dismissal, and it is still unclear whether the policy actually applied to him. A hard wrist-slap will sufficiently mollify MSNBC’s legit critics, and might even have the effect of reining in Olbermann’s epic ego. Friday night’s Countdown may have included a clue to Keith Olbermann’s ultimate fate. Ask yourself if there’s any chance that this paragraph from fill-in host Thomas Roberts wasn’t vetted up and down the line at MSNBC:

“All of you are looking forward to Keith’s return, and so are we.

It certainly sounds like Olbermann will be back, stilling the dancing feet of his detractors, and drying the eyes of the faithful. It’s a good thing for Keith, too, because in his role as journalistic scold, he’s been enough of a prick to people in this business to make it tough for him to land elsewhere.

Just in case, though, Olbermann’s supporters should still get themselves a Keith Twibbon. They totally make a difference.

Update: Given MSNBC President Phil Griffin’s announcement that Keith’s suspension ends Tuesday, I am now officially re-dubbing this conspiracy theory “The Olbermann Weekend.”

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