The Olbermann Era

Tuesday, 25 January 2011 08:11 By William Rivers Pitt, t r u t h o u t | Op-Ed | name.

The Olbermann Era
Keith Olberman in Washington, DC, in 2009. (Photo: afagen)

A quick confession that might not sit well with many Truthout readers: I was, on a personal level, quite ambivalent about the loss of Keith Olbermann's show, "Countdown," when he announced his exit last week.  If "Meh" can sum up an emotion, then that's how I felt when I heard the deal went down.

Don't get me wrong here: I was, and remain, a great and devoted fan of Keith Olbermann and the work he did at MSNBC. I have been a devotee of Mr. Olbermann since his old-school moustache days anchoring the ESPN show “Sportscenter” during the golden age of that program. But I have spent the last several years experiencing his “Countdown” work in text form, i.e. reading instead of watching, and in ten-minute online video snippets, because I avoid all cable “news” programming the way cats avoid water. All of it, even the stuff I tend to agree with.

When "Countdown" first began in 2003, I watched it almost every night - the only cable “news” show I consistently tuned in to - but quickly soured on the whole experience. I just can’t stand it, any of it. I can’t stand the emotional manipulation that comes with all forms of televised “news,” and have for many times many a day now refused to let them in my head. I also never saw the point in getting all riled up at eight o'clock at night. What was I supposed to do with all that rage after nine? Punch the walls and kick the cat, maybe indulge in a little firebombing? Didn’t seem prudent.

The production of "Countdown" - the flashes, the music, the jump cuts - made me feel like I had rocks rolling around in my head. This was not solely an Olbermann problem for me; all cable “news” programming leaves me feeling the same way, which is why I swore it off years ago. If CNN or MSNBC played footage of puppies playing with baby pandas next to a pile of bunnies and kittens, it would still give me a headache. It wasn't Keith's fault. I'm just allergic to the medium itself, and have largely avoided it for more than a decade.

All that aside, there is no doubt that Mr. Olbermann’s “Countdown” was something very special. In a polluted sea of corrupted corporate “news” brainwashing, his was a voice of loud, angry reason. He paved the way for the excellence of Rachel Maddow to make its own impressive mark on the TV “news” landscape. He spoke a great deal of truth that had not been heard on the airwaves for far too long. By modeling himself and his show after Edward R. Murrow, even going so far as to use Murrow's iconic "Good night, and good luck" sign-off at the end of every broadcast, he gave us a daily reminder that the "news" was not always like it is today, and that it can - nay, must - improve for the good of the republic.

His very existence became a thorn in the side of the corporation that owns his network, and the corporations behind all the other networks. He kicked some cash to a few Democratic candidates - Rep. Gabrielle Giffords being one - and it turned into a nine-day wonder of a debate about broadcasting standards and the hypocrisy of MSNBC's upper management. It still cracks me up when I think about it: here were these corporate network owners who scream bloody murder about money equaling speech, but when Olbermann exercised his constitutional right to participate in the political process by way of that particular brand of "speech," he got a two-day rip and a public scolding. The whole charade shamed his bosses deeply and publicly, and probably had more than a bit to do with his eventual departure from the network he pretty much single-handedly put on the map.

To me and so many others, he was a beacon of sanity during the bleak darkness of the Bush years. Remember the timeline here: the 2000 election catastrophe was followed by a ceaseless cable “news” refrain of, "This is an orderly transition of power, nothing to see here, go back to bed," which infuriated everyone who knew that particular game had been fixed. This was followed by the push for war in Iraq ballyhooed by every cable network - "Navy SEALS rock!" - until the bullets started flying and the IED's started going off. All throughout, the myriad scandals and crimes of the Bush administration went largely ignored and unreported...until Keith came along, reminding us that, "Today is the 521st day since the declaration of 'Mission Accomplished' in Iraq."

Mr. Olbermann was one of the only voices in broadcasting who openly discussed the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame by the Bush administration. When the 2004 election results in Ohio were corrupted by brazen manipulation and vote fraud, it was Olbermann who raised the loudest televised cry. It was Olbermann who, day after day, hammered the awful truth about the invasion and occupation of Iraq. And it was Olbermann who pounded home the fact that the Bush administration was little more than a deranged criminal enterprise that threatened the very fabric of the nation.

For me, Mr. Olbermann delivered his most memorable, impassioned and important "Special Comment" in 2006, in the aftermath of George W. Bush's press conference in the Rose Garden, in which Bush played the Nazi card and essentially implied that anyone who disagreed with him and his policies was an ally of al Qaeda. That night, Mount Olbermann erupted:

It is to our deep national shame - and ultimately it will be to the President's deep personal regret - that he has followed his Secretary of Defense down the path of trying to tie those loyal Americans who disagree with his policies - or even question their effectiveness or execution - to the Nazis of the past, and the al Qaeda of the present.

Today, in the same subtle terms in which Mr. Bush and his colleagues muddied the clear line separating Iraq and 9/11 - without ever actually saying so - the President quoted a purported Osama Bin Laden letter that spoke of launching, "a media campaign to create a wedge between the American people and their government."

Make no mistake here - the intent of that is to get us to confuse the psychotic scheming of an international terrorist, with that familiar bogeyman of the right, the "media."

The President and the Vice President and others have often attacked freedom of speech, and freedom of dissent, and freedom of the press.

Now, Mr. Bush has signaled that his unparalleled and unprincipled attack on reporting has a new and venomous side angle: the attempt to link, by the simple expediency of one word - "media" - the honest, patriotic, and indeed vital questions and questioning from American reporters, with the evil of al-Qaeda propaganda.

That linkage is more than just indefensible. It is un-American.

Mr. Bush and his colleagues have led us before to such waters.

We will not drink again.

And the President's re-writing and sanitizing of history, so it fits the expediencies of domestic politics, is just as false, and just as scurrilous.

"In the 1920's a failed Austrian painter published a book in which he explained his intention to build an Aryan super-state in Germany and take revenge on Europe and eradicate the Jews," President Bush said today, "the world ignored Hitler's words, and paid a terrible price."

Whatever the true nature of al Qaeda and other international terrorist threats, to ceaselessly compare them to the Nazi State of Germany serves only to embolden them.

More over, Mr. Bush, you are accomplishing in part what Osama Bin Laden and others seek - a fearful American populace, easily manipulated, and willing to throw away any measure of restraint, any loyalty to our own ideals and freedoms, for the comforting illusion of safety.

It thus becomes necessary to remind the President that his administration's recent Nazi "kick" is an awful and cynical thing.

And it becomes necessary to reach back into our history, for yet another quote, from yet another time and to ask it of Mr. Bush:

"Have you no sense of decency, sir?"

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The manner of Mr. Olbermann's departure remains shrouded in mystery; the man himself has made no comment on the matter, which may have something to do with the deal that was cut to end his contract two years early. Many have opined – correctly, in all likelihood - that the looming Comcast takeover of NBC Universal played a large role. As Buzzflash Editor Mark Karlin wrote over the weekend:

According to James Wolcott of Vanity Fair, the chairman of Comcast Spectacor, Ed Snider, is funding a right-wing cable channel/Internet site called "RightNetwork." Wolcott sniffs at "RightNetwork" as a "pseudo-populist operation" starring an array of right-wing freaks.

Ominously, Wolcott notes "that it was Snider who invited Sarah Palin to drop the hockey puck at the Flyers' season opener in 2008, and Palin's been dropping pucks ever since."

There's little reason to doubt that Olbermann's abrupt exit from MSNBC was the first puck to drop as Comcast slap shots MSNBC away from being a progressive beachhead.

In one man we find the confluence of so many pressing issues. Mr. Olbermann stands at the center of the dire need for – and dire lack of – progressive voices within “mainstream news” broadcasting; he threw his shoulder against the wall of corporate hypocrisy; he stood and bellowed against the misdeeds of those in political power; and, ultimately, he stands today as the likely victim of the continued right-wing domination of the “news” media.

People are understandably outraged and disturbed over his abrupt and ill-defined departure from MSNBC…so how, in the face of all this, can I justify my “Meh” reaction?

Well, I already explained the first reason.

The second reason is simple: Keith Olbermann is not dead. He was not beamed to Neptune, never to be seen or heard from again.

Write it down, carve it in stone, make a note, and bet the farm:

Olbermann will be back.

Somewhere, somehow, some day, in one form or another, Mr. Olbermann will be with us again. We will hear or read his own words on the matter of his departure, and then we will hear him again, and again, and again. Giants do not fall easily, and this particular era of political commentary is not over by a long chalk. Edward R. Murrow had his own troubles with management in the darkness of the McCarthy days, and it did not keep him down or silent one iota. So shall it be with Mr. Olbermann in these dark days of corporate hegemony.

Same as it ever was.

Giants do not fall easily. Count on it.

In the meantime, good night, and good luck. 

Last modified on Tuesday, 25 January 2011 09:21