Spin Cycle

04.06.12

Current TV Files a Blistering Countersuit Against Fired Anchor Keith Olbermann

The network excoriates its fired anchor by painting him as an arrogant and uncooperative slacker. Howard Kurtz on the latest round in the legal war.

Current TV filed a countersuit against Keith Olbermann on Friday, charging that it had every right to fire the $10 million–a–year host “rather than continuing to pay a princely sum while receiving a pauper’s performance.”

Video screenshot

Moving a day after Olbermann sued the network for up to $70 million, the suit says that he “completely shut himself off from the rest of the network”—and backed it up with a series of intemperate-sounding emails from its former star.

For instance, after a problem with an unspecified employee during an appearance by Michael Moore on his show, Olbermann wrote Joel Hyatt, Al Gore’s cofounder at Current: “Give me a name so I know which of them to kill with my bare hands.”

After learning that a photo of the Countdown set had been given to the press, Olbermann wrote Hyatt about the leaker: “Can you assassinate him please?”

Even allowing for comedic overstatement, Olbermann’s tone is often harsh. When Current president David Bohrman asked about the unauthorized purchase of a $5,300 desk for the program, Olbermann responded: “When you are prepared to act like an adult you are welcome to contact us again.”

In response, Olbermann said in a statement: “The Mets put Andres Torres on the DL today. That seems to have as much relevance to my lawsuit as the Current counterclaim I just read.”

And his lawyer, Patty Glaser, who won a huge settlement for Conan O’Brien when he left The Tonight Show, said: “No merit, no defense—in our view, no problem. As Keith said, it should be subtitled ‘How to Try to Pound the Table ... and Miss.’”

Olbermann’s side views the counterclaim as little more than an attempt to embarrass Olbermann and is surprised that Current apparently leaked emails from a young Olbermann assistant to the New York Post, owned by Olbermann’s nemesis Rupert Murdoch.

But this is a war in which both sides are rolling out the heavy ammunition. In his suit, Olbermann called Gore and Hyatt “dilettantes” and said Hyatt awkwardly tried to form a close personal relationship with the high-powered host, only to “blackmail” him when Hyatt’s advances were not “reciprocated.”

The Current suit seizes on Olbermann’s line on David Letterman’s show this week that he had “screwed up,” albeit by failing to think through whether Current could handle a show like his. “Mr. Olbermann did, in fact, ‘screw up,’ and did so willfully,” the lawsuit says.

The complaint filed in Los Angeles paints a picture of a mercurial employee who took unauthorized absences, refused to promote other shows, hired a guest host (former MSNBC reporter David Shuster) without approval, and was just plain difficult to deal with. “He arrogantly and falsely calls ‘cheap’ the company that has paid him the highest compensation he has ever received in his career,” the says the suit, which adds that Current paid $50,000 over eight months “to eight different limousine companies because none of the previous seven were able to meet his patrician standards for how to drive him around New York City.”

“Give me a name so I know which of them to kill with my bare hands.”—Keith Olbermann email to Current’s CEO

In another blistering email, Olbermann gave Bohrman his reaction after Current failed to match a competing offer for one of his bookers: “We can only conclude here that you have now moved from unjustifiable egotism and unparalleled incompetence, to outright sabotage of this program.”

The suit cites an email, previously reported by The Daily Beast, that says the host in a fit of anger threw a glass mug on his set, shattering it, although a source close to Olbermann calls that “a gross overstatement.”

If anyone else at Current consistently engaged in such behavior, the lawsuit says, “he or she would be in need of a new job. Mr. Olbermann, however, believes his considerable salary and celebrity entitles him to ignore the basic constraints of acceptable workplace conduct.”

And to think this is only Round 1.