Keith Olbermann’s Late-Night Offensive in His War Against Current TV

He used a Letterman appearance to zing Current TV while admitting to poor judgment. By Howard Kurtz.

Jason Kempin / Getty Images

Keith Olbermann sounded suspiciously like a man taking the blame.

“I screwed up,” he told David Letterman on Tuesday. “I screwed up really big on this.”

So it was all his fault that the Current TV version of Countdown flopped, prompting Al Gore’s channel to fire him last week?

Well …

“It’s my fault that it didn’t succeed, in the sense that I didn’t think the whole thing through.” Intertwining his fingers, Olbermann said, “You know, if you buy a $10 million chandelier, you should have a house to put it in. Just walking around with a $10 million chandelier isn’t going to do anybody a lot of good, and it’s not going to do any good for the chandelier.”

Translation: I am a glittering jewel—an expensive one, at that—and I let myself be put on display in a slum apartment with peeling paint and leaky plumbing. Alas, how could I have been so misguided?

Olbermann’s motive in going on the Late Show was clear: to be a bit self-deprecating, describe Current as a schlock operation, and show audiences he is not the arrogant, work-dodging diva that the channel suggested in bouncing him for breach of contract in less than a year. And the much-traveled host knows full well that he doesn’t get the presumption of innocence after his bitter breakup with MSNBC just 14 months ago, and with ESPN well before that.

Say what you will about Olbermann’s checkered résumé, the man knows how to perform in front of a camera. He played along as Letterman handed him a business card with an adjustable wheel, which flashed his various employers in a little window. From a public-relations standpoint, Olbermann did himself a bit of good.

Perhaps most important, he got Dave as a character witness. Olbermann has always been “a stand-up guy,” Letterman proclaimed, who will “take the high road” whenever possible. At one point the comedian insisted: “You’re being contrite almost to a fault.”

There was a precooked bit in which the guest recalled his Letterman appearance in September—“the last time I had fun on TV”—to read the Top Ten list. One of those reasons now sounds prescient: “Better watch now because things could go wrong in a hurry.”

What Olbermann avoided was a lengthy interrogation about just what it was that went wrong. Dave wasn’t about to grill him on Current’s contention that he failed to show up on key dates and refused to engage in joint marketing events or allow his staff to promote guest hosts for his program. Because that wouldn’t be very, you know, funny.

Instead, Letterman tossed him a softball by saying he could never quite figure out Current, asking: “Do they know what they’re doing over there?”

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Letterman did ask in a second segment about Current’s contention that Olbermann changed car services eight times; he said it was “a couple of times” and that in one case the bill hadn’t been paid. When Letterman asked why he hadn’t shown up the night before Super Tuesday, Olbermann hesitated: “I don’t like airing dirty laundry in public, even though my reputation is that of a complainer.” He then explained he’d been battling throat problems and was following a doctor’s order that he remain silent for five days.

As for Gore, Olbermann was relatively restrained: “He meant well. He wasn’t that involved and it was kind of difficult to get to him.” Indeed, Olbermann said he wrote Gore at least three times but did not receive substantive responses.

Olbermann and his team had a long list of complaints about Current from the start, as detailed in email correspondence reviewed by The Daily Beast. Olbermann’s manager complained that the working conditions were “inexcusable,” “unacceptable,” and reminiscent of “cable access.” When Current president David Bohrman promised that things would improve, he was dismissed as “out of touch.”

On a basic level, Olbermann’s frustration is understandable. Lights would go out in the middle of his broadcast, and cameras once cut away from him in mid-sentence to a promo spot.

But what, exactly, did Olbermann think he was getting when he decamped MSNBC for this tiny channel? Current had never before aired a nightly news program, and it showed. Did he think his big salary, and the fact that a former vice president recruited him, would magically alter the situation?

That is the misjudgment that Olbermann admitted on Letterman, without acknowledging that he had done anything other than chafe under the substandard conditions. Oh, and he intends to get his money: he let slip that his lawyer is the same woman who won a $32 million settlement for Conan O’Brien when he was booted from the Tonight show.

However the litigation turns out, Olbermann has an entertaining advantage against Current executives: he can go out and use his camera-ready talents to needle the network. And unless Gore wants to book himself on Eliot Spitzer’s new show, that is not likely to change.