The Pulse: Olbermann walks tightrope


Keith Olbermann sometimes feels as if he's out there by himself on the high wire, a lone (or nearly lone) voice of reason in a world gone mad. Emboldened by the left as the right man in the right place at the right time, dismissed by the right as a Bush-bashing tool of liberal propagandists, the host-anchor of MSNBC's nightly "Countdown" newsmagazine has long been a zealous polarizing force as a journalist who wears his heart in plain sight.

But while using his platform in part to protect what he sees as truth, justice and the American way and its ongoing assault from the Bush administration, Olbermann has suddenly evolved into more than merely Bill O'Reilly's sardonic whipping post. He's morphed before our eyes into the second coming of Howard Beale.

Surely you remember Howard. He was the character (played with Oscar-winning brilliance by Peter Finch) who took on the establishment with his televised "mad as hell" rants in the seminal and prescient film "Network," which this fall marks 30 years since its release.

While Olbermann has fully embodied the Beale zeitgeist more than ever, he has done so with decidedly more clear-eyed focus than the manic rage practiced by that particular fictitious icon. Over the past three weeks, he has crafted and delivered a pair of impassioned, acerbic essays that first slammed defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld (on Aug. 30) and then, on Sept. 11, one skewering President Bush for his politicizing the events of five years before.

An excerpt: "How dare you, Mr. President, after taking cynical advantage of the unanimity and love, and transmuting it into fraudulent war and needless death, after monstrously transforming it into fear and suspicion and turning that fear into the campaign slogan of three elections?"

It was a devastating and lengthy commentary that last week became an immediate sensation in the video download universe (earning nearly 300,000 page views on YouTube alone). Coincidentally or no, Olbermann's household numbers are up 73% in the first two weeks of September from August.

While there is no argument that Olbermann can at times be self-indulgent, somewhat arrogant, over the top and stridently passionate, he is also the most compelling news personality of his generation. Love him or hate him, he is a charismatic, righteously indignant force of nature who is inspiring fervent cheers and detesting jeers in equal measure.

"No voice came to me and told me to do this," Olbermann says. "It's simply the eruption of the need to say something. If this country was founded on anything, it's the fight to the death to protect the right of someone to say that which you disagree with. I just think maybe I'm first in voicing skepticism of the administration that's been irrationally muted."

Unlike Beale, Olbermann maintains that he is not going nuts and has simply been inspired by his senses of history and right and wrong to take to the air with both lungs breathing fire. While he has increasingly become an enemy of the state, the support he's received from his network bosses has been complete. In fact, MSNBC reran his Sept. 11 "Countdown" commentary on Friday night and featured him as a guest on the "Today" show that same morning, which the host obviously appreciates.

"Yet at the same time I actually don't feel I've changed what I'm saying much at all," he maintains. "I believe it's this administration's continued move away from reality and toward rewriting our history that has made what I'm saying finally seem more relevant. That's the truth."