Legal Analysis and Commentary from Justia

Did Keith Olbermann Blow His Lawsuit Against Current TV By Saying “I Screwed Up” on Letterman? Absolutely Not!

At the end of March, Keith Olbermann was terminated from his position as the anchor of “Countdown With Keith Olbermann” and Chief News Officer at Current TV.  A few days later, on April 3, Keith appeared on David Letterman’s “The Late Show,” where he talked about his departure from Current TV.

When discussing his decision to join Current TV, Keith explained to Dave, “I screwed up.” This comment became the headline that emerged from their visit, appearing, for example, here and here.  During his conversation with Letterman, Keith also suggested that he was going to pursue a lawsuit. Two days later, on April 5, that action was filed.

I am a friend of Keith’s, and I’ve been a regular on-air guest or contributor to “Countdown” for over a decade.  Thus, I received a large number of Twitter comments regarding Keith’s termination.  Some of the comments—from attorneys and others—were to the effect that Keith had blown his lawsuit against Current TV when he made his “I screwed up” comment on The Late Show.

Initially, I ignored these comments, because I thought that the people making them either had not heard what Keith actually said, or had merely read a headline that caused them to reach that erroneous conclusion.

Then, on April 6, when Current TV filed its technical legal answer and a more media friendly cross-complaint, I had second thoughts about responding, and decided to correct the error that some commenters had been making.

Current TV’s Claim That Olbermann Admitted to Screwing Up

The opening paragraph of Current TV’s cross-complaint against Olbermann reads as follows: “On April 3, Keith Olbermann told David Letterman and a national television audience that his termination by Current TV was ‘my fault’ and that ‘I screwed up.’ Two days later, he apparently forgot what he said, filing a frivolous complaint riddled with falsehoods and distortions in which he refused to take any responsibility whatsoever for that termination.”

When I watched the clip of the program that was released by CBS, I could understand where the Current TV attorneys had obtained their information.  But the clip did not comport with my memory of the exchange, and when I replayed it, I could see that it had been conspicuously edited.

Soon, I found a clip of the full Olbermann interview on YouTube, and that clip was very different from the CBS clip, and from the contention in Current TV’s cross-complaint.  When I realized this, I was relieved that I was not losing my memory.  To the contrary, just as I had recalled, Keith was not talking about the reasons for his departure. Instead, Keith had told Dave that he had “screwed up” by joining Current TV in the first place.  Here is the video clip, and if readers click on this link, they will find the key statement, put in its original context, as part of a transcript I prepared.

The Transcript of Olbermann’s Interview With Letterman

The Olbermann segment opens with an introduction, and a brief discussion of basketball.  During this discussion, Letterman is holding a small white card in his hand. Letterman changes the direction of the conversation by asking Keith to tell his story.

“Ah, how much time have you got?” Keith quipped.  This is a set-up for a joke Dave has prepared.  Keith feigns confusion about all of these jobs in television, and Dave gives him an adjustable business card reading: “Keith Olbermann, News Anchor.”  The card features a small window.  Behind the window, it is possible to see part—but only part—of a wheel.  Depending on which setting of the wheel is chosen, the card shows either “MSNBC,” or “Current TV,” or “ESPN,” or CNN.”  When Dave spins the wheel, with the spin and its result shown by a close-up camera, the audience laughs and applauds.

Letterman then reports that “a lot of people were skeptical” when Keith decided to join Current TV because Dave said he didn’t know what they did at Current TV, so he figured it was “going to be fantastic or it’s just going to be nothing, and it turned out to be—.”  Keith finished the sentence with a stage whisper: “Nothing.”

David asks, “First of all, do they know what they’re doing over there.  Because you know what you’re doing.” Keith thanks him for that acknowledgement.  Then Dave proceeds: “All right, so do they, the Current TV people, know what they’re doing?  It’s former Vice President Al Gore.  Does he know what he’s doing on TV?”

Before proceeding further, Keith says, “I screwed up.  I screwed up really big on this.  Let’s just start there. I thought we could do this. Ah, it’s my fault that it didn’t succeed in the sense that I didn’t think the whole thing through.  I didn’t say, you know, if you buy a ten million dollar chandelier, you should have a house to put it in. Just walking around with a ten million dollar chandelier isn’t going to do anybody a lot of good.”

Dave agrees, “No.”

Keith then continues, “And it’s not going to do any good to the chandelier. And then it turned out we didn’t have a lot to put the house in, to put the chandelier in, or a building permit. And I, (audience laughter), I should have known that. And it’s, it is, it is my fault, at, at heart. Ah—

“You’re the chandelier?” Dave asked.

“I’m the chandelier,” Keith acknowledges and the audience erupts with laughter and applause. “You are always pointing out how big my head is, so I think it’s a suitable analogy,” Keith adds.

“But, but, now,” Dave interrupts, “I’ve been in situations in my lifetime where the second I agreed to something, I got that sinking feeling in my stomach, and I said to myself on those occasions—

“Yeah—,” Keith agrees.

“Holy goodness, I’ve just made a huge mistake. Did that happen to you?” Dave asks.

“It did,” Keith says.  He adds, “And we even joked about it, if you recall, last September when I came out and did a Top Ten List.” Here, Keith is setting up another joke for Dave, who recalls the prior visit.  And soon Dave is rolling the video of Keith doing the Top Ten list of “Reasons to Watch the New ‘Countdown with Keith Olbermann’,” with Keith reading #2: “Better watch now because things could go wrong in a hurry.” The audience laughs again.

Plainly, the exchange between Dave and Keith is all about Keith’s mistake in joining Current TV—a decision that, as the taped video shows, Keith suspected early on might not have been the right one.  (This fact is spelled out in his complaint.)

The transcript reveals (as will watching the video segment) that there was no discussion whatsoever about Keith’s termination, or about Keith’s screwing something up being the reason for his termination.

Inaccurate Pleadings Are The Norm Today, with Current TV’s Pleading in the Olbermann Case No Exception

Charges and countercharges have been flying back and forth between Keith and Current TV, in their respective pleadings.  In reading Keith’s complaint, and knowing him to be scrupulously honest, I have no doubt that what his attorneys have stated is the truth. Keith would not allow them to file a pleading that contained anything less than the truth.

While there may be an innocent explanation for Current TV’s opening misstatement of fact in its cross-complaint, that misstatement nonetheless shows a lack of due diligence, for if Current TV had attempted to confirm the statement that they claim Keith made on Letterman’s show, such confirmation would have been impossible. No such claim was made.  This apparent lack of due diligence is a bit disconcerting. However, it is not an unusual thing when it comes to pleadings nowadays.  Nor is it likely that Current TV will go back and correct its error.

Today, pleadings merely give notice of the claims and contentions of the parties, and they are too often riddled with errors.  While attorneys must represent to the court that they believe the statements they make to the court—including the statements they make in their pleadings—are correct, I have never seen an attorney actually correct an erroneous statement in a pleading. Nor do judges want to get involved in ensuring that these documents are accurate.

Suffice it to say, contrary to the mistaken impression of many who are following this litigation, Keith did not blow his lawsuit on Letterman’s show.  And Current TV appears to misunderstand what Keith did, and did not say, on Letterman’s show.  If the case moves from the pleadings stage to the discovery stage, however, the evidence will reveal that the claim that Keith blew his lawsuit by admitting error is entirely baseless.

John DeanJohn W. Dean, a Justia columnist, is a former counsel to the president.
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  • http://twitter.com/hotincleveland Truly S.

    Thanks so much for writing this. Current’s claim that Keith had “admitted” to “screwing up” and thus had no grounds for his lawsuit was such a transparent lie on their part that I thought surely it must be easy for anyone to see. They, like the headline writers the day after the appearance, cherry-picked the words “I screwed up” and placed them in the context THEY wanted to, rather the context in which he said them. Amazingly enough, that seems to have caused some people to conclude that Keith “screwed up” his lawsuit as well. Nonsense. Thank you for spelling it out to people who needed it spelled out.

  • Shellee

    You are a smart man, sir, and a good & loyal friend to Keith. Thank you for clarifying this mis-assumpion

  • Shellee

    You are a smart man, sir, and a good & loyal friend to Keith. Thank you for clarifying this mis-assumpion

  • Shellee

    You are a smart man, sir, and a good & loyal friend to Keith. Thank you for clarifying this mis-assumpion

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_LJJL7YUEGHHUIFLT6AYWY5CC4E Dbeez1252

    Is John Dean readmitted to the bar association somewhere? He was disbarred, and I believe he then went into banking as a second career. If he has been readmitted to the bar, is he speaking here as Olbermann’s counsel? I have no opinion on this case between KO and Current, but I do have an opinion of both Mr. Dean and Mr. Olbermann. Dean’s a convicted criminal, so I really don’t have a great deal of respect for him personally, and he’s also thoroughly discredited in terms of his veracity in this and any other subject. Olbermann exhibits all the traits of malignant Narcississtic Personality Disorder, which is precisely why, it appears, no one, not even his liberal associates in the media, can stand him.  He lies, distorts, and destroys with reckless abandon, and he has the temerity to accuse others of engaging in exactly the same conduct he does and always has. For his part, Dean is not credible. He’s a bitter old man who wasted a promising career as a lawyer because he didn’t have the strength of character to simply leave the Nixon administration when he first learned of the criminal activities going on in the Nixon White House. His political turn to the far left makes sense only when you understand the depth of his bitterness and hatred that caused him to believe HE was a victim, and not a perpetrator of, the Watergate scandal. BTW, I have no dog in the fight between KO and Current and couldn’t care less who wins this lawsuit.    

    • Lance

      Good man!   Would love to have a beer with you.

    • historylover

      So explain where has KO lied, I did not know calling out people that think hate speech and lies and hypocrcracy was what lying is. I guess you love it when Bill Oreilly and the other conservatives bash Obama and tell you he a socilist, when Lymbaugh says hateful crap aka what happened to Sandra Fluke. ALso how do you know that KO ‘s has a mental disorder. I guess wanting the money that is owed you after being fired shows that you have a mental disorder. Keep showing that you have no idea who KO is or Dean for that matter. YOu just make me love and repsect KO more and more.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_LJJL7YUEGHHUIFLT6AYWY5CC4E Dbeez1252

    Is John Dean readmitted to the bar association somewhere? He was disbarred, and I believe he then went into banking as a second career. If he has been readmitted to the bar, is he speaking here as Olbermann’s counsel? I have no opinion on this case between KO and Current, but I do have an opinion of both Mr. Dean and Mr. Olbermann. Dean’s a convicted criminal, so I really don’t have a great deal of respect for him personally, and he’s also thoroughly discredited in terms of his veracity in this and any other subject. Olbermann exhibits all the traits of malignant Narcississtic Personality Disorder, which is precisely why, it appears, no one, not even his liberal associates in the media, can stand him.  He lies, distorts, and destroys with reckless abandon, and he has the temerity to accuse others of engaging in exactly the same conduct he does and always has. For his part, Dean is not credible. He’s a bitter old man who wasted a promising career as a lawyer because he didn’t have the strength of character to simply leave the Nixon administration when he first learned of the criminal activities going on in the Nixon White House. His political turn to the far left makes sense only when you understand the depth of his bitterness and hatred that caused him to believe HE was a victim, and not a perpetrator of, the Watergate scandal. BTW, I have no dog in the fight between KO and Current and couldn’t care less who wins this lawsuit.    

  • Anonymous

    If the public needed you to explain Keith’s comments..Then  we have a lot of not so smart people walking the Earth  :(

  • Anonymous

    If the public needed you to explain Keith’s comments..Then  we have a lot of not so smart people walking the Earth  :(

  • Anonymous

    If the public needed you to explain Keith’s comments..Then  we have a lot of not so smart people walking the Earth  :(

  • Anonymous

    I thought Keith Olbermann did a wonderful job of setting up Current TV by expressing himself the way he did. Now that Current TV has stepped into Keith’s trap with both feet, I expect Olbermann will wind up being a muc richer man.

  • Anonymous

    I thought Keith Olbermann did a wonderful job of setting up Current TV by expressing himself the way he did. Now that Current TV has stepped into Keith’s trap with both feet, I expect Olbermann will wind up being a muc richer man.

  • Anonymous

    I thought Keith Olbermann did a wonderful job of setting up Current TV by expressing himself the way he did. Now that Current TV has stepped into Keith’s trap with both feet, I expect Olbermann will wind up being a muc richer man.

  • http://shanenj.tripod.com/ shanen

    I like the idea of Current TV, but the more I observe it, the more clearly it seems to be failing as a business model. (Then again, I’m an advocate of charity brokerage in the form of reverse auction charity shares.) As I started thinking more about this article, I started wondering if Al Gore’s apparent lack of business acumen would have counted in his favor if the SCOTUS hadn’t intervened and if he had become president?

    I’m increasingly convinced that the skills needed to manage a business successfully are QUITE different from the skills needed in government service. My feeling is that the better presidents were generally indifferent businessmen, whereas some of the worst presidents were pretty good on the business side.

    Yes, I’m speculating about Romney as a possible president. I really think the combination of lies, money, and MORE lies is liable to turn the trick. It’s actually an aspect of the confusion of correlation with causation. Yes, most of the winners do spend more money on their campaigns–but most of the donors prefer to donate to the candidate who is most likely to win, so the direction of causation was probably pointing in the other direction. At least that’s how it was before the divisive travesty of so-called Citizens United.

    • http://www.facebook.com/ShellinayaL Shelly Leit

      If Current TV does fail as a business model, it will be because Keith Olbermann sued it into oblivion. 

  • Lance

    This is one hilarious piece of lawyer spin.  Trouble is, it sucks — it takes a long look at a totally unimportant aspect of the evidence.   Keith is going to lose not because he said he screwup — he’s going to lose because he DID screw up.   Why Mr. Dean thinks that one quote is the fulcrum of the case is beyond me.   I’m not aware of Mr. Dean’s reputation as a lawyer, as opposed to a rat-faced-cum elderly wind-bag who feels the Call to weigh in on everything that reminds him of the glory days, when he operated conscience-free in the belly of the beast.   
    Anyway, that’s my take.   Keith is done, and is heading for some mighty unpleasant days and nights ahead.

    • historylover

      Lance
      Where did KO screw up, I read both the couter-suit and the lawsuit and i hate to break it to you, KO is not going to lose because I see no evidence that shows that he screwed up. He was promised that he was going to be CN and Current never deines it, they even let the PRess lie and say that he was in hiring Cenk, showing that they put him in charge of programming. That means that Borhem should never have been hired without KO’s consent. Gramholm and Cenk should have never been hired without KO’s concent. So explain how KO screwed up. KO said that Current blackmailed him and his staff for a quto that his manger was suppose to have told the Hollywood report. I just looked and I do not see anything that Hollywood put out that shows that KO bashed them, praising his staff and work even with the conditions that is not bashing. The car serive story is not even true, the driver said that he never drove KO around. KO suit has ciations and email dates, Current’s only have accutions that the lawsuit proves are not true and that counter-suit cannot refute. Even the Wall Street journal shows that Current was the one that realesed info of the salary and they were the ones that talking about primary stuff while KO kept mostly quiet, so explain how is KO going to loose. This is not a minor, this shows just how dishonest CUrrent has been because they know that they evidence shows that they abused KO and broke his contract and that they just do not want to pay him what he owed for his wrongful firing. Keep lying about what went down, you show why I lvoe KO and have made me love and respect him more and why I sad that he got abused by that company. Also I do not believe a CEO that has fired someone with AIDS. KO keep being yourself and you will always be perment on my wall, ipod and ipad and I will follow you anywhere and trust you and watch, you keep showing why you are this generations Murrow, love you faults and all. THanks Lance for showing why Current has no case and just how badly they broke his contract.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/C4LGZ6AN77YP63BZF4RXJ6BEPU geralds

    John Dean is a naive child in love with DALAW & LAWYERING.
    Lawsuit is a fraternity game & complaints are filled with fluff, foo-foo, distortion, , & fun accusations, as any observer can see.
    Get the fight going, frat boys & girls – then collect your fees.

    Wake up John boy – you are part of an elitist extortion racket.
    Truth has nothing to do with it.

    • histoylover

      Geralds
      That lawsuit is not fluff, KO is doing the right thing by suing. So you I guess if you were wrongfully fired you would take it lightly. I do not think so, again thier is no evidence that shows that KO broke the contract, this article is just one piece of proof that Current broke the contract and have been dishonest about everything that has happened. I just recetly read a tweet by another person who was a guest and almost always on the set with KO, that basically is saying that Current abused KO and unjustily fired him. Moonsayred even says that she could even tell that KO was sick. Again Current never deines that KO gets to have days off to recover when he’s sick. Seder who KO even tweeted was going to be on, showing that he was more than willing to have other subs beside Shuster and that he was only mad that Current put Spitzer and Press on without his approval which in the couter-suit they never deny, they just put out made up crap that his staff was never allowed to tweet, when they were the ones that were tweeting who would be on when he away. Current never deines that the reason that they could not tweet was because they were giving wrong info. I would not let people tweet if they were confusing my fans about who going to be on and what segments that I would have. That also shows not only how disorganized Current is but also that do not respect fans of his like me. The conditions he worked are not even suited for living habtiation and would have tents thrown out. That is how badly Current treated KO. That company also needs to tell the truth they are not corporate independent you do not make people do commericals which they do not deny and say that you are corporation aka AT&T and say that you are corporate independent. Again KO I will be pissed if you do not get the justice that you so rightly deserve for being unjustily fired at Current, that channel will always be harmful to progressive community. Keep being yourself and you will always have a fan in me. LOve you faults and all.

  • Oh The Humanity

    Great spin by the convicted felon known for deception.  I mean, Dean is best capable of fining the finer nuances of “I screwed up” and making a case that says “I screwed up” can really mean anything.  If a lawyer puts his mind to it. I find it laughable that the libs on this site drool over the screed written by a man who, in the early 70’s, would have been stoned to death by the rabid libs of that generation.  I guess when you lose your law license in Watergate, the best internal props you can give yourself is to go all “hater” and far left winger.  After all, the alternative is to realize that your own poor judgement and criminal mentality destroyed your first career. 

    • historylover

      Where in that post, do you refute what Dean is saying. Bringing up his past does not show that he lying about what was said on Lettermen. I watched that show and I saw that KO only talked about scwering up in signing with Current, it there in black and white.

  • Anonymous

    I’m confused.  Has John Dean joined the legal team representing Keith Olberman?  Or is he simply trying to try the case in the court of public opinion, as the saying goes.  In either event, the article is pointless.  The fact is that Olberman joined a small start-up TV group and knew exactly what he was doing.  Why did he join Current?  Because he got fired from msnbc and, as I recall, from CNN before that.  Were there any wealthy suitors courting him at the time he signed with Current?  I doubt it.  The real mistake here was made by Current, in paying such an outrageous sum (reportedly $50 million) to a man with the apparent inability to get along with any boss.

    If Keith Olberman wants to run everything, he needs to get put in charge of the whole network, or buy his own television station.  I like him, but let’s get honest about this.  He fights with all his bosses, and this is no different.  I used to watch his show, and became aware of the many unexplained absences beginning earlier this year at a time when he apparently (so we learned after the fact) had begun complaining to management about miscellaneous issues.  So he just stays home?  That’s not professional — it’s childish.

    And now in an election year, Olberman decides to publicly attempt to destroy the one television network that tries to present progressive voices?  He would apparently beat them down and pull the plug to get more money for himself, destroy the network, throw lots of other people out of work, because they fired him.  It seems to me they had what anyone would call just cause to fire him.

    Olberman made a mistake in going to work at Current?  Then he should be glad it’s over.  Now he can go out and get that big contract from a major network, which he apparently thinks he deserves.  I’ll wait to see where he lands.  I hope somewhere on his path he realizes that he is talented and a good on-air commentator, but he’s not running the show.

    People need to keep in mind that Olberman was not let go because of a political dispute.  This is not a case of someone trying to silence him.  The essence of the dispute is that he complained that the limousine driver the network provided for him spoke to him — that’s right — spoke to him.  A limousine.  Most of us drive, walk, or ride the bus, but Keith is complaining about the quality of the limousine servants he received.  This is an overpaid self-absorbed on-air mouthpiece who has confused his role in life.  He reads lines, that’s it.  I’m surprised John Dean would lower himself to act in this silly role of trying to get the public inappropriately involved in this stupid lawsuit.  Keith Olberman filed it.  He’ll probably get money, but I doubt he’ll ever have a career again. 

    • historylover

      Keep lying about KO’s past. KO never got fired from MSNBC or CNN. What part of mutal agreement do you not get. I want you to explain how is being sick a unexcued absence. He got bronchatis in November and still continued to work, he than got lygantsi and still continued to work. I want you to worek with all those illnesses and than tell me that he had unexcsued absences. I want you to be promised to be in charge of the news department and not get it. Current says that was not the case, but they never deined and did not even revoke people like Christopher when he made up that Cenk was being hired by KO beause he said they will get back to you, when that phrase has nothing to do with weither you are getting a interview, job or if you are liked by the interviewer, but it makes KO’s case that he was in charge of the newsdepartment which shows how hypocritical and why Current has no case and how the broke his contract. I want you to explain why was Spizer being interviewed which CUrrent does not deny in November to supposely take KO’s job, KO was around doing Countdown all of November, which they never deined. I want you to explain how is that Gramholm can do Meet the Press but KO does Lettermen and other talk shows and he was not promoting his show.This is how dishonest Current is being and why they have no case. Also I should believe the word of a CEO who fired someone with AIDS. So keep lying about who KO is. Also that limo story is not true, why is it that the driver admited that he never drove KO, why was it that KO said that he started not to get picked up because they had failed to not pay the drivers. KO said that he was never in limo, so I suppose to believe Current with article that has been proven false over KO. You show why CUrrent has no case against KO and why Current abused him. Thier is no evidence that shows that KO’s at fault thier is no evidnece that shows that KO’s ego was to blame. I want you to work with all the set problems and than tell me that KO was lying. Also if KO has such a hard time with staff why are their members that work for him that follow him from place to place. I sorry but I believe people that know KO like Dean who have worked with him over a blogger that lies about KO’s past. Explain why was KO hired back at MSNBC and ESPN if he so hard with mangement all the time. Keep lying and showing that you have no idea who KO is. Keep making me love and respect KO more and show why he this generations Murrow. I am sorry but I take Dean’s word on KO over yours.

  • Shellinaya

    So if he thought things could go wrong in a hurry did he just join Current TV so he could then SUE THEM for $50 MILLION ?

    KO = what an ass.

    • historylover

      So in your view KO should not be able to get what is owed to him in his contract. Keep showing that you are a hypocrite, I doubt that if you got wrongly fired that you would not demand your boss to pay what is owed you. Keep showing that you have no idea what respect means.

  • Shellinaya

    No, he’s not. We just thought he was.  He’s really an egomaniac with an anger management problem.

    • historylover

      So you would rather believe media and others that do not know KO, over someone that has worked with KO and is his friend, wow. You are showing that you are no fan, All evidence shows that KO was abused over at Current and all you can do is name call him. Keep showing why his millions and fans and growing are behind him and that you were never a fan.

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