When Washington Post columnist and, until recently, regular Countdown guest Dana Milbank used an edited quote from Barack Obama that was arguably a distortion of the Illinois Senator's words, MSNBC's Keith Olbermann suspended Milbank from appearing on his show insisting Milbank correct his transgression against the Democratic presidential candidate. But if Olbermann's MSNBC bosses held him to the same standard, the Countdown host himself would have been suspended numerous times during the past four years if he were required to correct either distortions of people's words or his reporting of stories that turned out to be inaccurate. But while in Milbank's case the Washington Post columnist's infraction was against a liberal target in Obama, Olbermann has primarily targeted conservatives, as detailed below. Notably, while it is no secret that Olbermann is very pro-Obama as he conducts his show, on the June 26 show, Olbermann came closest to admitting he hopes Obama becomes President as he defended the Illinois Senator's decision to vote for a FISA bill opposed by the left. Olbermann: "If you get as hot about the issue as I have, you would rather see a President Obama prosecuting the telecoms criminally, rather than a Senator Obama throwing away a vote to keep open the civil suits when most of the other Democrats already caved in."
In October 2004, the MSNBC host used selectively edited clips of Vice President Cheney to make it appear Cheney had argued that Iraq was involved in the 9/11 attacks as a justification for the Iraq invasion.
In 2005, Olbermann accused FNC's John Gibson and talk radio host Janet Parshall of sounding like terrorists from "an al-Qaeda show" as Olbermann distorted Gibson's remarks about the American tradition of majority religions tolerating minority religions. The MSNBC host cited the far left Media Matters for America as a source for the transcript and audio of the radio interview. Olbermann: "The Web site Media Matters for America has a transcript and an audio link, and I'm afraid there's no ambiguity whatsoever."
On Jay Leno's show in 2006, Olbermann accused FNC host Bill O'Reilly of defending the Nazis from World War II because of O'Reilly's mixup of the events of the Malmedy massacre. Olbermann: "On the air in the last year, Bill O'Reilly has defended the Nazis from World War II on three separate occasions. ... Yes, I wish I were making this up." Further explanation can be found here.
[Added March 21, 2009: On the August 11, 2008, Countdown show, presumably picking up on an article by the liberal Media Matters for America, Olbermann attacked Sean Hannity for his declaration on FNC's Hannity's America that Obama "can’t point to a single instance in which President Bush or McCain or Karl Rove or Sean Hannity or talk radio or any other major Republican has made an issue of Obama’s race." Missing Hannity’s point that conservatives were not attacking Obama for being black or suggesting voters should be afraid to vote for him because he is black, Olbermann cited quotes from Hannity and Rush Limbaugh which, in the MSNBC host’s mind, proved Hannity wrong. Olbermann mocked Hannity and Limbaugh by concluding that, "What Hannity means when he says nobody has made an issue of Obama’s race is: He and Limbaugh haven’t called him the ‘N’ word." After a brief pause, Olbermann added: "Yet." Olbermann read quotes from Hannity from the past about Obama and the race issue without conveying the context that Hannity was referring to Obama’s links to the Reverend Jeremiah Wright and Louis Farrakhan, who are known for espousing racist views.]
This past July, Olbermann picked up on an incorrect account from a liberal blogger which claimed that O'Reilly accused Democratic Congressman Robert Wexler of trying to evade the state income tax of Florida, with O'Reilly being embarrassed at being corrected by his own guest, conservative columnist John Fund. In reality, O'Reilly had not made this accusation at all, as the FNC host had actually pointed out that Florida has no state income tax, and that Wexler was using Florida as his address for tax purposes even though he lives in Maryland. The liberal blogger in question corrected her account of the exchange on her Web site, but Olbermann never corrected the error on his show.
Also in July, Olbermann used a sloppily worded statement about Islamic terrorism by an 83-year-old decorated veteran, retired Colonel Bud Day, a John McCain supporter, to paint McCain as agreeing with what the MSNBC host referred to as Day's "racism and religious hatred."
Olbermann slammed McCain: "And you heard him [Day]: John agrees with him. As of tonight, John's campaign has refused to repudiate Day's racism and religious hatred. Maybe John needs to get rid of this clown but fast. Bud 'The Muslims are Going to Kill Us' Day, today's 'Worst Person in the World.'"
Olbermann did not inform viewers that a McCain campaign spokesperson, as was reported that day by Fox News, "said Day intended to say 'Islamic extremists' — an important distinction as some Muslims feel inappropriately discriminated against since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks."
[Added November 16, 2010: Between September 16 and October 3, 2008, the MSNBC host on four occasions misled his viewers by repeating accusations that originated with the far-left Think Progress that Palin had cut the Special Olympics budget, without informing viewers that Palin had not only increased spending on special education, but had even approved a 10 percent spending increase for the Alaska Special Olympics, as Olbermann used the story as a gimmick and repeatedly claimed that he would donate $100 to the Alaska Special Olympics for every lie Palin told on the campaign trail. Even though NewsBusters reported early on that Palin had increased state spending on the program, Olbermann was still repeating his version of the story on October 3 after the vice presidential debate.]
[Added November 16, 2010: In January 2010, Olbermann made attacks on Massachusetts Republican Senator Scott Brown and a few days later defended his attacks by insisting that some of the incorrect claims he made were true when, in fact, two were factually without merit while the third represented one of the Countdown host's typical episodes of distoring the words of a target.]
In December 2006, the MSNBC host, likely picking up on a report by the liberal Media Matters for America, seized on a date mixup by O'Reilly to accuse the FNC host of lying about comments O'Reilly had made in the aftermath of the Iraq invasion from April 2003.
O'Reilly bragged that he had voiced the need for tough martial law early on to keep order in Iraq, but had misstated the date of his prediction as "the night that Saddam's statue fell" when, in fact, it was a mere two nights later (April 11, 2003, instead of April 9). But instead of entertaining the possibility of a date mixup, Olbermann called O'Reilly a "holy-you-know-what-liar."
Olbermann has also hinted that O'Reilly's concerns about a "War on Christmas" by secularists are motivated by anti-Semitism, once joking about O'Reilly supporting a "war against Hanukkah." In December 2006, while reporting on the controversial decision of the Seattle-Tacoma Airport to remove its Christmas trees from public view rather than display a Menorah, Olbermann joked: "Generalissimo O'Reilly remains upbeat. Look not on this as a defeat in the war on Christmas. This was a dramatic victory in Billow's new war against Hanukkah." Ironically, less than 20 minutes earlier on The O'Reilly Factor, the FNC host had spoken approvingly of displaying a Menorah at the airport as he interviewed the rabbi who had requested it.
In September 2006, Olbermann condemned President Bush for an awkwardly worded, off-the-cuff remark made by the President during a news conference that it is "unacceptable to think" the actions of America can be compared to those of terrorists. Not catching on to the President's likely meaning that it is "ridiculous to claim" the actions of America are similar to those terrorists, Olbermann blew it out of proportion as if the comment were an attack on the right to think, and therefore a grave threat to democracy. Referring to a favorite topic of his, George Orwell's 1984, he attacked Bush's words as "chilling." Olbermann: "'It's unacceptable to think.' Sounds like something straight out of George Orwell's 1984. Instead, it was something straight out of George Bush's mouth. ... And not only issuing those chilling words, 'It's unacceptable to think,' but doing so in answer to the call to conscience from his own former Secretary of State, Colin Powell."
In January 2006, after O'Reilly complained that the "network newscasts" had ignored the story of a Vermont judge who initially sentenced a child rapist to only 60 days in jail, Olbermann argued that because his Countdown show on MSNBC had covered the story, that O'Reilly's statement was false, even though "network newscasts" would only include ABC, CBS and NBC newscasts, not cable news.
In November 2005, after Vice President Cheney gave a speech charging that the Associated Press had misrepresented an earlier speech in which he had attacked Democratic Senators who had accused President Bush of lying about pre-war intelligence, Olbermann characterized Cheney's complaint as "vitriol" toward the media. The Countdown host proceeded to distort Cheney's words himself, even editing the Vice President's words in mid-sentence, to prove his contention that Cheney's complaints about the AP were unfounded.
Time and again, Olbermann has demonstrated his unwillingness to let facts get in the way of a good hit job.
A similar double standard can be found in whether Olbermann chooses to defend or portray negatively a clumsily worded statement made by public figures depending on whether the MSNBC host agrees with the speaker ideologically. In October 2007, when much of the media attacked Rush Limbaugh over his comment about "phony soldiers," Olbermann jumped on the bandwagon portraying Limbaugh's words as an attack generally on soldiers who oppose the war, rather than giving consideration to Limbaugh's contention that he was referring to actual "phony soldiers" like one who had recently been exposed by ABC News. The inspiration for the media attacks on Limbaugh was a Media Matters article which can be found here.
Olbermann similarly went after O'Reilly over comments the FNC host made in September 2007 about his experience having dinner at a predominantly black restaurant, as he went along with the mainstream media contention that O'Reilly was expecting to see uncivilized behavior from the black clientele, when in reality O'Reilly was complaining about the media's negative portrayal of blacks and using the restaurant case to point out the difference between media portrayal and the more positive reality. The Media Matters article which first brought media attention to O'Reilly's comments can be found here.
But in November 2006, after John Kerry made a joke interpreted by many conservatives as an attack on the education level of American troops, as the Massachusetts Senator contended that if you don't study in school, you end up "stuck in Iraq," Olbermann came to Kerry's defense, arguing that the Bush team were "stupid" for not seeing Kerry's comments as an attack on the President. Olbermann: "Kerry called them stupid, and they were too stupid to know he called them stupid." And in a "Special Comment" rant the next day, Olbermann claimed that the "context was unmistakable," and that Senator McCain had "lied" about Kerry.
One notable case in which Olbermann did correct himself after misquoting comments made by former presidential candidate Rudolph Giuliani featured the MSNBC host then following up his correction by mocking Giuliani as "Worst Person in the World" over the accurate version of Giuliani's comment.