On the Media

God Bless You, Keith Olberman

Keith Olberman has got balls.

Consider that in 2003 MSNBC cancelled Phil Donahue's show, it's only liberal show, just prior to the invasion of Iraq. This seemed like an odd move given that Donahue’s show was the network’s highest rated program.

A leaked document would later reveal that the show was cancelled out of fear that the show would offer anti-war views. Norman Solomon Reports:

"MSNBC canceled Phil Donahue’s talkshow after an internal memo (leaked to the All Your TV website, 2/25/03) argued that he would be a “difficult public face for NBC in a time of war. ...He seems to delight in presenting guests who are anti-war, anti-Bush, and skeptical of the administration’s motives.” The report warned that the Donahue show could be “a home for the liberal anti-war agenda at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity.”

Such behavior illustrates that subtle (or not-so subtle, in this case) pressure to censor political dissent is indeed alive and well, and not merely the talking points of the “loony left” as many conservative pundits who like you to think.

And you can damn well bet the Keith Olberman, host of Countdown and former ESPN anchor, understood this before he went on the air and took a bold risk with his new “Special Comments.”

I will explain his Special Comment for the uninitiated: Olberman uses the last segment of his show to make pointed, bold and unwavering criticism of the most egregious acts imposed by the radicals controlling the White House and Congress.

His prose is powerful, passionate, sad and inspiring; his logic is solid and devastating.

He offers them only occasionally. He went after Rumsfeld and Bush for questioning the patriotism of anti-war Democrats. He lamented the ABC docudrama, that portrayed a blatantly false portrayal of the events leading up to Sept.11, 2001, and recently he gave an inspiring and sometimes hilarious comment on the Military Commissions Act, and its destruction of our basic rights. Take a few minutes and watch a few on You Tube.

It would be easier and far less risky for Olberman to refrain from this public dissent. For starters, it takes incredible courage to volunteer to speak truth to power in front of millions of people, and not sound saccharine or self-absorbed. But somehow he manages to succeed without seeming like a rip-off of Edward R Murrow. What he does seems more like a tribute to Murrow – and to the open discourse that Murrow believed in engaging in with the American people – and they have become You Tube sensations.

The show has become a hit. His ratings are up 67 percent in the last year according to Hollywood Reporter. Meanwhile Olberman’s arch nemesis Bill O’reilly and his Fox News Brethren are losing their audience (which has a mean age of 64). In the last quarter their ratings have dropped considerably. (I note that despite the losses, Fox News still holds a sizable ratings advantage over CNN and MSNBC.)

And despite the obvious success of Olberman’s feisty declarations, some still fear for his job. Jeff Cohen, founder of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, (FAIR) a progressive watchdog group, said :

"But MSNBC is still owned by GE's conservative bosses, and managed by NBC's ever-timid executives. Olbermann knows this reality as well as anyone; six months ago on C-SPAN, while expressing confidence that good ratings would keep them at bay, he remarked: ‘There are people I know in the hierarchy of NBC, the company, and GE, the company, who do not like to see the current presidential administration criticized at all.’”

MSNBC: Finding its voice?

MSNBC has improved dramatically over the last few months. On June 12, MSNBC announced that Dan Abrams of The Abrams Report and Phil Griffin Senior Vice President at NBC NEWS would oversee the 24-hour news channel. They immediately revamped the nightly schedule. They dumped the horrendous Live and Direct at 9 p.m.; the moved Tucker Carlson show from 11 pm to 4 and 6 pm, ands Hardball also runs twice at 5 pm and 7 pm.

The victim of these moves seems to be Joe Scarborough, who used to cover beltway politics every night, and has since been placing a much closer focus on celebrity news. Just recently they teased his show with a story on Dustin Diamond (Screech from Saved by the Bell) going into porn)

While Tucker Carlson and Chris Matthews have their flaws, they are both smart guys and tolerable to watch. Matthews’s coverage of the Connectictut. primary was leaps and bounds better than the competition. (not saying much by today's standards) Tucker actually went to Lebanon during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the coverage was decent, and less marred by the obvious pro-Israel spin that dominates most American outlets. He is principled, unafraid to attack Bush for his spending, and unmarried to a political party.

These changes have made MSNBC the best 24-hour news channel in America. (And yes, I know that isn’t saying a whole lot.)


Jeff said...

I like Olbermann's general message, but I can't say I agree with your praise. He cloaks himself in the same showy graphics and camera angles as any other 24 hour talent (or pundit, as they say). I have a strong feeling that he takes into account the poise and popularity of Murrow (especially after Good Night and Good Luck), and may use it to his advantage in a more superficial manner than you give him credit.

Mostly, I dislike his melodrama. I think it encourages people to look at our nation's problems in an overly fantastical manner. The entertainment value of his rousing criticism caters directly to the anti-bush base without attempting to sway those in the middle (which is absolutely necessary right now). He needs to stop proclaiming and start speaking, that's how Clinton beat the snot out of the Republicans for eight years running.

Then again, he's a HUGE step in the right direction for the left. He actually appears strong enough to provoke reaction from the right and thus frame the debate, whereas typically it worked the other way around.

But that also implies an "if you can't beat em, join em!" mentality that I just don't like. One of the innate flaws I see in punditry is a power of speech that supercedes the mind's ability to learn or compromise. These characters have to be so strong and vigilant in their views that they're forced to dismiss all arguements againt them, no matter how reasonable ("CUT HIS MIC!"). Please don't get me started on Tucker. He strikes me as an embodiment of this problem almost as much as O'Reilly.

Beacon Opinion said...


Good points all. Let me start by saying where we agree -- or can at least find common ground. (I should also note that wheter one like Olberman, I think the Donahue memo shows that what he is doing is bold and that there is a conservative, or at least a pro-power bias in the media.)

There is no doubt you are right that he takes Murrow into account. Its a very risky move, as I said, as it makes him look preachy. I am impressed that he does it without looking silly, but I think he does. And what Murrow-esqe moves he is pulling/ripping off he does with grace, and in humble tribute.

The graphics et al ... well good or bad, that cant be put on the host but the network. And frankly, I think television news is near useless. Which, again is why I admire Olberman.

But I am a little hazy on what you mean by the middle. For example, Olberman was vehemently opposed to the Military Commision Act which took away habeas corpus, and sanctioned torture.

By your logic, the smart move would be to take a measured approach to the middle. (IE a compromise between allowing "alternative methods" but giving the prisoners some right, just not to the full extent of the geneva conventions). In which case the middle, much like they were in 2002 when they voted for Iraq, is actually supporting a very radical position. Can you at least see what I mean by that? The 50-yeard line has moved so far to the right in the last 40 years of post-Goldwater thinktanks, that what is the middel today would have been viewed as radically conservative in the 60s or 70s.

I dont think what is viewed as the middle (somewhere in between Democrats and Republicans) represents a measured, rational approach all the time or even often; sometimes it represents unconstitional, repugant behavior. That is how far gone our government is today.

I am not saying that "moderates" should not have shows. but why not have an unapolgetic anti-athoritarian, and yes vehemently anti-Bush such as Olberman.

I would also add that there are so many far-right pundits, that why not have one on the left. It is not two wrongs making a right. It is just another viewpoint, and it so happens it one that is often ignored.

And lastly, since the right is in charge of everything right now -- COngress, most courts, most governerships, the WHite Hosue, talk radio etc...-- that staunch, even "melodramatic" opposition needs to be heard. not to change everyones mind, than but to widen the debate.

There are many people in this country who find the place where our government is to be radically conservative, and find Olberman to be moderate and principled I am one of them.

Wow, I just typed a lot really fast -- sorry for the ramble.

And thanks as always, for engaging us. We appreciate it.

Michael Corcoran

And again you

Jeff said...


It's my pleasure, I'm always searching for a good outlet for civic debate.

But I think you misunderstood what I meant. I don't think Olberman's message is what turns moderates away, on the contrary, I said I liked it. It's his delivery. With regards to habeus corpus, he paints the issue as though habeus corpus was being suspended for all American citizens, whereas the bill clearly states "Alien enemy combatants" and there has yet to be a single case that I'm aware of where its provisions applied to an American citizen.

This isn't me trying to defend the legislation, I think it's awful. However, Olbermann makes statements along the lines of "the end of America as we know it". It's those statments that make anyone anywhere that has even the slightest affection for anti-terrorism legislation or the actions of the Bush administration immediately skeptical.

What my ideal newsman would do is criticize the legislation for what it is, and keep the fiery anti-Bush rhetoric to a reasonable minimum. This would provide a much more convincing arguement for people who don't necessarily hate Bush. To those people, Olbermann is "Just another lefty after Bush", instead of someone making arguements that raise serious questions about their beliefs.

Beacon Opinion said...

I dont think its Bush hatred; I think it is justified discontent with his policies. If you note, Bush opposition was rare for years fater 9-11 in Mainstream media.

Quick clarification: it is indeed enemy combatents, but Bush gets to choose who is labeled as such with no checks. It gives Bush the unfettered power to determine who an enemey is -- and "domestic radicals" (IE dissenters, protesters etc...)were spied on for years under Nixon, and during Cointelpro. So it is not a stretch to think Bush, or toher presidents would detain someone who say, engage in counter-recruitment activities. It has happened before with leaders far less radical than Bush.

So I guess its just a matter of intepreation. I think Olberman, however fiery, is giving an entirely measured attack on Bush. And these attacks ahve been in short supply in mainstream outlets until recently. Olberman is calling a spade a spade in my view.

If the Bush hatred(though as I said its not hatred of Bush but of his his draconian policies that are more the work of Cheny and rumsfeld who have been doin g this for every president since Nixon) was unjustified, than it owul dbe one thing.

As far as deliviery. Martin Luther King had overdramtic delivery; so did Eugene Debs, so does Hitchens, so did Twain, so did members of the abolition movement, so did the labor movement as they fought for the weekend, so did FDR as he gave us the new deal.

I suppose its a matter of taste, but I think the delivery is appropriate given current realities.


Patrick Boyle said...

If I may add my two cents:

I like Keith Olbermann. I certainly think he's as entertaining as any of these silly network news shows and he's right more frequently than the others. However, he is basically, as Jeff is suggesting, an O'Reilly for the left.

That's fine, but I do find it interesting that in so many of my poli com classes, people treat him like another Murrow (which yes, I do think he desperately wants) or, more accurately, like another Jesus Christ.

If Bill O'Reilly had a "worst person in the world" segment, and consistantly named Keith, then he'd be a strict entertainer, a loudmouth, and not contributing to the substantial national dialogue. So why is that not true the other way around?

Michael Corcoran said...

There is no moral equvilency between Olberman, and O'reilly.

For starters, if I had ten minutes I could document at least 10 blatant lies that O'reilly has told. (And I will, if you want me to)

I am not sure I could find any in researching Olberman. Secondly, Olberman waited until things were beyond terrible to turn it up a notch. Where as O'reilly has been constantly questioning the patriotism of everyone--Cindy Sheehan, the entire left, the ACLU--for the duration of his career.