TKO: Lessons from the Trial of Keith Olbermann

As controversial commentator Keith Olbermann returns to his desk tonight, his suspension provides us with a few object lessons in the value of impassioned cable news commentary.

by Scott Daniel // November 9, 2010

I began watching Countdown with Keith Olbermann on MSNBC in the fall of 2006 to evoke nostalgia. Back in 1993, before his rise as a progressive pundit, Keith was my best friend every morning as he and Dan Patrick tag team hosted SportsCenter. Never mind that he once sported a vicious white-collar mullet; Olbermann was a familiar voice and face. I had undergone a recent and drawn-out political metamorphosis from right to (center) left, and I needed a rallying point in my new camp.  A friend turned me on to Olbermann’s borderline incendiary attacks on the wrongs effectuated by the Bush Administration, and I was hooked. Snarky and condescending as he was, he provided something that I believed America desperately needed: a voice of reason infused with passion to counter the neo-conservative spin emanating from the microphones of Limbaugh and Hannity.

While not infrequently irksome and hyperbolic, Keith has been a worthy companion on weeknights at 8 p.m. That companionship was temporarily suspended when NBC executive Phil Griffin pulled the plug on Keith indefinitely last week for donating a sum total of $7,200 to three Democratic Congressional candidates without prior network approval. The suspension didn’t last long. Keith will host Countdown once again tonight.

Though the suspension lasted less than a week, Keith’s “trial” of sorts should serve as a cross-cutting object lesson, an extempore opportunity for information junkies to engage in some meaningful reflection on the role of an advocacy journalist like Keith in American media.

Keith’s campaign donations technically violated NBC’s conflict of interest standards for TV anchors. As a news organization, MSNBC ostensibly aims to create the appearance of political objectivity in its on-air talent. Certainly a worthy goal in theory, but let’s face it: the cable news network’s night-time lineup is avowedly and unashamedly liberal. You can look hard, but you won’t find an Alan Keyes or Michael Savage in this bunch.

Which brings me to the first lesson…

Objectively Speaking, There is No Such Thing as Objectivity

The ceaseless pursuit of a truly objective news outlet is the definition of trivial. Trust me. You’re better off reclining on a rainbow awaiting the arrival of a dispassionate unicorn than anticipating the delivery of an unbiased broadsheet on your doorstep. Even media objectivity watchdogs themselves, like Media Matters, NewsBusters and FAIR, aren’t free from the influence of partisan stalwarts. They can’t help it. There is simply no such thing as purely objective journalism.

The non-existence of objective journalism does not, however, belie the existence of truth. Certain things are true. Other things are false. But it is impossible for human beings to relay the things that are true and false without coating them in a layer of bias, intentional or otherwise. Journalists and commentators will betray their predilections through emphasis of certain aspects of a story over others, through word choice in describing the story, or through overt expression of opinion or preference. This is why Bill O’Reilly’s assertion that his primetime show is a “No Spin Zone” is so laughable.

Let’s cut the pretense. There has always been bias in news. In fact, two of the earliest American newspapers, the Gazette of the United States and the National Gazette, were each subsidized by the original Federalist and Republican parties, respectively. In 1841, Horace Greeley established The New York Tribune, purportedly to provide honest reporting not otherwise found in the sensationalist New York Sun and New York Herald. The Tribune ultimately served (rightly) as a sounding board for abolitionism, later added Karl Marx and Frederich Engels as correspondents and ultimately became the de facto official newspaper of radical Republicans during the Civil War.

And of course, there is William Randolph Hearst, whose provocative and politically motivated headlines in his New York Journal dragged America into war with Spain.

So Keith Olbermann’s foray into clandestine campaign contributions, while certainly misguided and poorly executed, was not surprising in the least. Believe it or not, Olbermann is equal parts journalist and advocate. He is both a chronicler of events and a champion of causes. His bias may be more blatant than that of others, but at the very least, the reasonable viewer should have fair warning as to the vector and trajectory of his commentary.

Of course, there is a decided difference between bias and sheer hackery…

We Can Stop Equivocating: MSNBC and Fox News Are Not Created Equal

All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.

Orwell here encapsulated a recurring dystopian theme under tyrannical regimes in his classic novel, Animal Farm. I admittedly apply it out-of-context here. I first heard of Olbermann’s suspension on Facebook through a conservative friend, who gloated over his metaphoric corpse like a munchkin dancing on the legs of the Wicked Witch of the East. I commented that, if true, MSNBC had effectively done its duty of maintaining both its own internal standards and some semblance of general journalistic integrity. If only Fox News had done the same.

Then along came Rachel Maddow, advancing the same argument. Sister? Amen.

Bias is one thing. Partisan shilling is quite another. The difference is not one of degree, but of kind. A biased journalist may consciously or unconsciously put a spin or slant on the events she covers. A journalist deep in the pocket of political partisans, however, runs afoul of federal election law and qualifies as a prime suspect for active distortion of the facts.

Fox News employs a number of anchors and contributors with deep connections to the Republican Party. Former non-witch Christine O’Donnell bragged that she had Sean Hannity “in [her] back pocket.” Glenn Beck (hereinafter, “Voldemort”) raised thousands of dollars for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which in turn contributed heavily to Republican midterm election efforts. Fox majority shareholder Rupert Murdoch himself gave $1 million to the Republican Governors Association.

And that’s without mentioning Sarah Palin, Karl Rove or Ohio Governor-Elect John Kasich.

It is for these reasons that many of us do not view Fox News as a legitimate news organization. Fox is more akin to the partisan newspapers of the 19th-century than a bona fide news outlet in the 21st.

The partisan hackery, of course, is just the tip of the iceberg with Fox. There are myriad other reasons why Fox takes the garden variety bias you might see at CNN, MSNBC or NPR and amplifies it exponentially. Chief among them are the weak  liberal straw men, like the hapless Alan Colmes, installed to stack the deck for more muscular conservative analysts. Even admittedly liberal MSNBC boasts a legitimate conservative morning host in Joe Scarborough and a forceful paleo-conservative commentator in Pat Buchanan. Let’s also not forget the rushes to judgment that result from gross incompetence, as reported here at Two Cents Richer.

So while Jon Stewart may see Keith Olbermann and Fox News as part and parcel of the same “conflictinator”, the truth on the Sesame Street is that one of these things is not like the other.

Warts and All, America Needs Commentators Like Cantankerous Keith

When Olbermann re-claims his seat at 30 Rockefeller Plaza tonight, we may see fire or ice. We may see defiance or contrition. Olbermann, a man of passions and contradictions, is capable of both. Former co-workers tell frequent tales that Olbermann is impossibly arrogant and difficult to work with. For some sins, though, Olbermann can and will do penance.

Either way, I’m thankful that he’ll be back.

My views on Olbermann have fluctuated since he and I became re-acquainted four years ago. As a younger liberal in my mid-20s, I gave him a wider berth. Over the last couple of years, my fondness for him has tempered significantly as I have become more cognizant of some of his more sweeping generalizations and unnecessary ad hominem attacks. I will not pretend to love, like or even superficially respect right-wing bomb-thrower Michelle Malkin. Neither will I idly stand by in support while Olbermann calls her a “lipsticked meatbag“. She may evoke those feelings in some, but, sometimes, some things are better thought than said.

Keith’s weakness is also his greatest strength, however. His hot temperament really is like fire. When he allows it to rage uncontrolled through the house, it destroys. When confined to the hearth, it inspires and illuminates. I’ve learned to live with Keith’s snark because its spark ignites from the same place that dared to challenge Newt Gingrich’s attacks on free speech; that dared to rebuke the White House for linking media dissent with terrorism; that dared to put Hillary in her place when her primary campaign against then-Senator Obama took a surprisingly nasty turn for the vicious.

Keith Olbermann is Keith Olbermann. In spite of Meghan McCain’s assertions to the contrary, he is both journalist and commentator, equal parts analyst and pundit. To appreciate him and learn from him, you have to treat him for what he is and take him with a grain of salt. Just know that he is not now nor has he ever been the worst person in the world.

Because if you learn to parse his words, you’ll find that behind his inflammatory rhetoric lies the force of undeniable logic.

Photo depicted is common domain.

UPDATE (Nov. 16, 2010): Respected journalist Ted Koppel of Nightline fame recently weighed in on the subject of the new partisan media in Sunday’s edition of The Washington Post. I don’t agree with all of his conclusions, particularly his lumping of mild-mannered Rachel Maddow into the boisterous mix of Olbermann and O’Reilly, but it’s a worthwhile read. He and I are in agreement about one thing: that it is a “reasonable perspective that absolute objectivity is unattainable.”

Add your two cents…


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  1. #1 by Mike Daniel on November 9, 2010 - 10:57 am

    That was a good read, but both the left & right media have there own bias and agenda so the truth normally lies somewhere in the middle. At least we can hope…

  2. #2 by Scott Daniel on November 9, 2010 - 12:29 pm

    I’d argue that the truth doesn’t really lie anywhere on the political spectrum, left, right or center. The truth is politically neutral; its discoverers are the ones who put their own gloss on it. And yes, you’ll find bias everywhere, but bias alone is not a major concern of mine. Material conflicts of interest that lead to active distortion of the facts themselves are of greater concern.

  3. #3 by Will Hull, MPA on November 9, 2010 - 7:41 pm

    Great post Scott. I can see your desire to become a writer shining through here. I do have to agree with your synopsis laid out here. However, for those watching notice Scott’s prose, syntax and use of words that are not common vernacular usage. This signifies that if he is like anyone who watches Olberman’s show there is an educated audience on the other side of the screen watching and listening to him. An audience that can discern Olberman’s point logically. Makes me wonder if the same can be said of those who watch Fox News or listen to Limbaugh? Sometimes I often hear conservatives regurgitate talking points from these sources as their own and they don’t have any logical foundation in their reasoning. I am not overtly praising Olberman here. I want to make that clear. What I am saying is that one must think for themselves when watching this type of news-based show.

    Again Scott; great post.

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