Keith Olbermann Files a No-Holds-Barred Lawsuit Over Firing by Current TV

The fired host unloads on Current TV, accusing Al Gore of being a dilettante and co-owner Joel Hyatt of blackmail. Howard Kurtz on the war over Keith’s firing.

Jason Kempin / Getty Images

Keith Olbermann filed suit Thursday against Current TV, charging that owners Al Gore and Joel Hyatt and their deputies “are no more than dilettantes portraying entertainment industry executives.”

In the lawsuit, promised as a response to his firing last week, Olbermann calls his dismissal “the latest in a series of increasingly erratic and unprofessional actions undertaken by Current’s senior management.” The former host, who lasted 10 months there after a bitter breakup with MSNBC, is seeking $50 million to $70 million in lost compensation and equity.

The suit is nothing if not personal, and at one point suggests a failed bromance. Hyatt “attempted to isolate Olbermann from his professional representatives in an awkward attempt to form a close personal relationship with his new star,” it says. “When Olbermann did not reciprocate Hyatt’s advances, Hyatt reacted by withholding necessary production resources, disparaging Olbermann in the press, denying him contractually guaranteed editorial control over Current’s election coverage and the program website” and “cutting out Olbermann of internal discussions of other programs on Current, and directing Current’s attorneys to harass Olbermann with vague and spurious claims of breach.”

It gets worse: Hyatt “threatened to derail Olbermann’s career” before the show debuted last June unless he banned his manager, lawyers and agents from all interactions with Current. Hyatt, a wealthy attorney, “blackmailed Olbermann into agreeing” to put himself “in the position of “fending for himself without benefit of hired advisors. Olbermann gave into Hyatt’s blackmail for the purpose of saving the premiere of the program and the jobs of those who worked on it. Olbermann left the meeting devastated at having discovered that he was working for a blackmailer.”

Current spokesman Christopher Lehane, a onetime aide to Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign, said in a statement that Olbermann was let go for such breaches of contract as “the failure to show up at work, sabotaging the network and attacking Current and its executives.

“As the old adage says: ‘When the law is on your side, you argue the law. When the facts are on your side, you argue the facts. When neither the law nor the facts are on your side, you pound the table.’…It is well established that over his professional career Mr. Olbermann has specialized in pounding the table.”

In the suit filed in Los Angeles, Olbermann says that Gore and Hyatt promised him “an unprecedented level of control and resources to build a new progressive network.”

But after former CNN executive David Bohrman was hired as Current’s president, “the ratings declined and the program’s production value deteriorated even further ... Current still couldn’t manage, literally, to keep the lights on.”

While many millions are at stake, the litigation also amounts to a public relations campaign in which each side is trying to discredit the other. An e-mail obtained by The Daily Beast describes how Olbermann threw a glass mug on the set and shattered it after getting angry over a satellite problem. Others say he simply knocked it off the desk, and a source close to Olbermann calls the e-mail’s characterization “a gross overstatement.”

In Olbermann’s view, Current’s incompetence damaged the brand of his program Countdown, which he had launched at MSNBC. Numerous technical failings “and the inability to find the program or follow it on the Web caused a precipitous decline in ratings as Olbermann’s loyal audience was shut out and other viewers simply gave up,” the suit says.

Alleging that Current broadcast ads featuring Olbermann without his permission, brought in guest hosts without his approval, and blocked efforts to stream content online, the filing says: “It is both sad and ironic that a channel founded by Al Gore, for the stated purpose of creating an independent perspective free from the control of large corporate interests, restricted the rights of its most celebrated commentator and Chief News Officer to fully broadcast his opinions over, of all things, the Internet.”

Current ignored Olbermann’s advice as chief news officer when he objected to hiring former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm to host the program following his (and which, according to the suit, was originally proposed to be co-hosted by Van Jones, an Obama White House aide who resigned amid controversy).

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And the suit alleges that Hyatt, the CEO, disparaged his star in comments to The Daily Beast and The Wrap. The Beast reported in January that Hyatt had said “that while he’d like to have Olbermann with the network in the future, ‘everybody is replaceable.’”

Olbermann disputes that his absences from work, such as the night before the Super Tuesday primaries, were unauthorized. But in a parting shot, network spokesman Lehane said: “We hope Mr. Olbermann understands that when it comes to the legal process, he is actually required to show up.”