In an age when controversy is the surest path to ratings success, it’s no surprise that television personalities sometimes overstep the boundaries of good taste in their pursuit of the attention-grabbing comment. And with the ensuing outrage comes the inevitable apology, though the definition of the word has been widely distorted in recent years, with “I’m sorry” being replaced more often with “I’m sorry you were offended,” or “I’m sorry for my word choice.” The most egregious offenders, like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter on the right, and Keith Olbermann on the left, have perfected the art of the non-apology, pushing around blame long enough for the storm to blow over, which is why it’s so refreshing when one of them admits an actual mistake, as Olbermann did on the Late Show with David Letterman last night.
The host took to Letterman’s couch to explain his recent departure from Current TV, which came a little over a year after he parted ways with MSNBC and took his popular Countdownshow to the Al Gore-owned public affairs channel. Surprisingly and suddenly, Olbermann was fired last week, not for any on-air remarks, which have edged over the line at times, but because, as he explained last night, “I didn’t think the whole thing through.” The conflict, in his words, came down to a question of money. Pompously referring to himself as a $10 million chandelier without a house to hold it, he described a working situation that was not quite up to the high-flying standards he kept at MSNBC.
Olbermann has issued a number of sincere apologies before, notably for his transphobic comments about Coulter, but his candor last night was still a surprise. He took time out to thank his fans who went through the trouble of searching him out on the little-known Current TV, and the crew who “put their careers at risk for me,” saying, “I’m so proud of them because the show editorially was never better, but I let them down because the thing didn’t continue.” If complaining about a sub-standard studio and the loss of car service sound like First World Problems, Olbermann deserves credit for blaming his own high expectations and ego rather than the restraints of the network. His performance last night seemed a direct response to Gore and co-founder Joel Hyatt’s statement last Friday that their working relationship with Olbermann no longer reflected the “values of respect, openness, collegiality, and loyalty” the network was founded on. It’s hard to think of words more open than, “I screwed up really big.”