Keith Olbermann has a mean streak: We watch, because we’re paid to

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Almost every night on “Countdown,” Keith Olbermann names three “Worst Persons in the World.” He also wrote a 2006 book with same title. (The fact that the cover bears a huge photo of its author always cracks me up.) One night in February, he grandiosely announced that he was discontinuing the “Worst Person” segment in favor of a “Hall of Shame” — and, surprise, he has a “Hall of Shame” book coming out in October — but soon enough he returned to naming Worst Persons. This week provided a good opportunity to look at the Worst Person segment in depth. It’s as mysterious and maddening as the man himself.

FRIDAY, APRIL 23: Olbermann came out swinging tonight, naming media scion James Murdoch one of the Worst Persons. Murdoch’s crime: storming into a newspaper office and yelling about a headline that displeased him. Heavens! It’s pretty ballsy for Olbermann to get upset about this during the same week in which it was widely reported that he threw a temper tantrum forcing a fellow MSNBC talking head off the air.

He also had to correct a previous Worst Person designation. The AP had reported that New Jersey governor Chris Christie’s staff was earning $2 million more per year than his predecessor’s staff, which Olbermann had pounced on. (Three guesses about whether he would have cared about this if Christie were a Democrat.) In fact, the difference was $440,000.

Now, it’s not Olbermnann’s fault that the AP got the story wrong. But his so-called apology was typically obnoxious: He explained the new figure, and dismissively said, “Like THAT’s OK.” He also didn’t mention the fact that the $440,000 includes Christie’s salary, which the governor’s gazillionaire predecessor Jon Corzine had declined. When you factor everything together, the average Corzine staffer earned $71,440 a year, while Christies’ staffers make $75,726.

I guess Olbermann’s point is that employees shouldn’t be paid well when their organization is going through tough times. If that’s the case, maybe he should take a pay cut in response to MSNBC’s ratings.

MONDAY, APRIL 26: Olbermann named a Thai restaurant in Australia on of the Worst “Persons” in the World tonight. The less said, the better.

Meanwhile, he also suggested that Sarah Palin had committed perjury during the trial of the young man accused of hacking into her e-mail account. His exact words: “In testifying that she did not conduct gubernatorial business that way, she may have committed perjury.”

Unfortunately, guest Dave Weigel soon joined him to throw cold water on that idea. “You seem to be having a good night and I hate to wreck it for you,” he said. “But it doesn’t sound like she actually trapped herself in anything here.” Whoops! Good thing Keith himself isn’t legally bound to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

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TUESDAY, APRIL 27: Tonight, the Worst Person in the World was a woman who presented a fake drivers license after being pulled over for a traffic violation in Florida. The second-worst person in the world was Glenn Beck. The third-worst person in the world was Venezuelan tyrant Hugo Chavez.

As Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up.

This gives us a sense of Olbermann’s finely tuned sense of proportion, and also a glimpse into the baffling logic of who exactly can become a Worst Person. Clearly, there’s room for people Olbermann has long-standing vendettas against. Beck, Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh have been on the list more times than I can count. But he also picks on small-time criminals, a handy opportunity to show off his mean streak.

Once in a while, he will include someone who actually IS one of the worst persons in the world, but completely misses what makes him terrible. In this case, Olbermann was upset at Chavez for, um, joining Twitter. “This guy goes on radio and TV for like eight hours at a stretch every Sunday, just him, blah, blah, blah,” Olbermann taunted. “And he is going to do 140 characters at a time?” Keith, just a reminder: you have tweeted almost 1,500 times since signing up just a few weeks ago, and your big orange face is on television for three hours each weeknight. So, let’s review. In Keith Olbermann’s universe, these are the guidelines:

Worst Possible: Using a fake ID at a traffic stop.
Pretty Bad: Hosting a popular talk show.
Not Really That Bad, But Worth Mentioning: Oppressing millions, restricting free speech, being the “best friend” of Iranian dictator Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Also, joining Twitter.

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 28: It should be clear by now that Olbermann needs to take a special-education course in moral logic. Tonight, he made fun of Laura Bush for a terrible accident in which, at age 17, she ran a stop sign and caused a car accident that killed a classmate. It’s hard to imagine a more difficult burden and, by all accounts, she writes about with real sensitivity in her new memoir. Olbermann’s response: mockingly accusing her of blaming the stop sign. Keep it classy, Keith.

THURSDAY, APRIL 29: Tonight, the Worst Persons in the World were the PR department at Fox, a guy who posted his friend’s bail using counterfeit bills, and the organizers of a mean Facebook page. Two of those are not “persons” at all. The other one is a misguided fool bumbling around in the world with no idea what he’s doing or why it will eventually, inevitably get him in real trouble — a figure almost more deserving of pity than outrage. Remind you of anyone?

Previous columns:

Keith Olbermann is a giant baby

Keith Olbermann is highly literate

Keith Olbermann says, ‘Follow me’

Keith Olbermann, lather up

Keith Olbermann is back. Hallelujah!

We miss you Keith Olbermann, Dylan Ratigan makes no sense

Keith Olbermann, look out! Dylan Ratigan is on your tail

Keith Olbermann is not the worst person in the world

Keith Olbermann dislikes Dick Cheney

Keith Olbermann is a funny, funny man

Keith Olbermann is a serious journalist

Keith Olbermann understands important things

Keith Olbermann is incredibly smart

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