The tragedy of Keith Olbermann’s enormous ego

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I’ve watched with some amusement the self-destruction of Keith Olbermann this last week or so, as he was fired from yet another network for being a self-important, overblown, arrogant ass.

My first response was, “You mean Current TV didn’t know that before they hired him?”

Then I remembered that the network was founded by Al Gore and realized those qualities were probably considered resume enhancers.

I further reflected that it would take an ego of truly galactic proportions for a network founded by that same Al Gore to find you impossible to work with.

A week or so in, I find the thing sad in a way.

Olbermann was a truly talented sportscaster both for Fox Sports and for ESPN. When I say talented, I mean destined-to-be-mentioned-in-the-same-breath-as-Howard-Cosell-and-Bob-Costas talented.

It’s perhaps understandable that he wanted out of sports to play with the “cool kids” in the newsroom. I started my career in sports, not so much because I was a huge sports fan — though I do like boxing and baseball and am partial to motorcycle road racing — but because it was where I could find a job.

In most newsrooms the sports guys are looked down on with a bit of contempt and condescension as the guys who couldn’t make it in real news. The “cool kids” in the newsroom also look at the sports guys’ erratic hours and generally more casual dress and figure they write sports because they can’t find real jobs.

It doesn’t help that most sports writers are the geeky guys who loved sports in high school but were not athletic enough to play — so they settled for writing about it as a way to be close to something they loved. The reality is, in most newsrooms, the sports guys are not only the most talented writers in the plant but also the hardest working, routinely putting in 60-hour weeks — more during basketball season.

All this is to say, I understand Keith’s desire to be taken seriously by the network talking heads everyone looked up to. The better paycheck would have been an incentive as well.

I also see a huge streak of self-destructive behavior in Keith. While he was working at ESPN, he referred to that network’s Bristol, Conn., headquarters as a “Godforsaken place.” He’s had very public feuds with his bosses everywhere from Fox Sports to MSNBC. And let’s not even get into his alleged refusal to get out of the bath to cover the Monica Lewinsky mess during the Clinton administration.

Look, I know a thing or two about self-destructive behavior, having torpedoed a couple jobs and more than one relationship myself over the years, and Olbermann strikes me as a deeply unhappy man. Being one of the best sportscasters in the country was never enough for him, being one of the top personalities at MSNBC was never enough for him. He’s been seeking fulfillment in everything from his job to the adulation of a crowd since he hit the big time and it’s never been enough.

It never will be enough. I suspect that in his heart of hearts, Olbermann believes he’s an untalented hack. He’s constantly trying to measure up to a standard he can never reach. He could host the CBS Evening News and be declared the second coming of Walter Cronkite and it wouldn’t be enough for him. He knows, deep down, that he’s a petty little man, with inflated ideas of his own importance. The sort of ego and arrogance Olbermann has displayed time and time again are a defense mechanism. He’s trying to convince not just the public but himself that he really is talented, that he really is good at his job — that he really is a good person.

Until he can break out of the cycle of self-destruction and take a hard, critical and impartial look at himself — his flaws and his strengths — and realize he’s sabotaging himself, he’ll never be the legend he could have been, had he just stuck to what he was good at.

And he’ll never be happy.

Patrick Richardson is a long-time veteran of the community newspaper business and blogs regularly at www.otherwheregazette.com.