Olbermann Suspended After Penn State Twitter Dust-Up

Keith Olbermann

Keith Olbermann image courtesy of ESPN

Olbermann Suspended After Penn State
Twitter Dust-Up
| published February 25, 2015 |

By Thursday Review staff

Keith Olbermann now joins the new elite club of recent media personalities in the doghouse for bad commentary and bad behavior, but, unlike his immediate predecessors Brian Williams of NBC and Bill O’Reilly of Fox News, Olbermann’s sin is not exaggeration or murky memories, but harsh language.

Olbermann is on a one-week suspension (with pay) by ESPN after engaging in a Tweet battle with students and alumni of Penn State. In response to a social media campaign in which students and faculty members will raise money for pediatric cancer research, Olbermann called Penn State students “pitiful.” The exact exchange is crucial, since it shows how easily things can spiral out of control when context is lost.

A student named Lisa at Penn State tweeted “We Are!” as part of the media campaign for the fundraising. Olbermann quickly responded with “…Pitiful.” Snarky, sarcastic, even mean-spirited perhaps (welcome to 21st Century journalism at its best, or, um, worst), but not, Olbermann says, a repudiation of cancer research for children.

Nevermind the nuances and fine points of grammar when sarcasm is involved; the Twitter battle quickly got ugly and escalated into a semantic war over what was meant by what words. Words like “moron” and “idiot” were lobbed, back and forth, and pretty soon things got really nasty. Olbermann attempted to slam the door on further discussion by tweeting “again, get your $ back, you didn’t learn how to read. PSU students are pitiful because they’re PSU students, period.” Olbermann may have thought he was simply completing a fragmentary thought left hanging midair, much as the snarky commentators might do on old episodes of Mystery Science Theater, but the exchange drew a lot of attention and got Olbermann in hot water with the execs at ESPN.

The anti-Olbermann hue and cry grew worse, and by Tuesday his suspension was official. He’ll only be gone for about one week, long enough, ESPN hopes, to let the furor draw down.

EPSN released a statement late Tuesday.

“We are aware of the exchange Keith Olbermann had on Twitter last night regarding Penn State,” the press release said. “It was completely inappropriate and does not reflect the views of ESPN. We have discussed it with Keith, who recognizes he was wrong. ESPN and Keith have agreed that he will not host his show for the remainder of the week and will return on Monday.”

Penn State’s event to raise money for cancer research is called THON. Its website says it is the largest student-run philanthropic organization in the world, raising more than $177 million for pediatric cancer research since the event’s formation in the 1970s. Among other activities, the fundraising festival includes an Pan-Hellenic dance marathon (hence the name THON) which runs for several days, usually in February.

Olbermann’s grievances against Penn State go back to January when he railed on air against the decision by the NCAA to restore victories previously stripped from Penn State and football coach Joe Paterno in the wide wake of the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse scandals. In January Olbermann called Penn State “the world’s worst in sports” and chided the NCAA for succumbing to political and financial pressure to restore Paterno’s long streak of wins.

Related Thursday Review articles:

O’Reilly’s Falklands War Experiences Challenged; Thursday Review; February 24, 2015.

NBC News: Credibility Versus Commerce; Thursday Review; February 10, 2015.