Pop Culture

Keith Olbermann’s Final Countdown

I wish someone would just tell me how to feel about Olbermann’s sudden, contract-rending departure from MSNBC. Currently I’m torn between thinking the Hillary-demonizing, Assange-defending narcissist had it coming, and being genuinely saddened that lefties have lost the largest, shiniest jewel in their commentating crown.

Keith Olbermann was liberals’ answer to Rush Limbaugh, and when you consider that Limbaugh’s had a nationally syndicated talk radio show since 1988, it’s clear that Olbermann, or some Messianic figure like him, was a long time coming. When he began hosting on MSNBC in 2003, Olbermann was not only filling that huge gap in left-wing punditry, but was pioneering a hybrid form of televised, political commentary, one that combined the fire-breathing rhetoric of Glenn Beck with the painstakingly sourced, intellectually challenging footwork of Pat Buchanan.

In short, Keith was perfect for an audience that was dying to hear someone pointedly indite the rabble-rousing members of the right, but didn’t want to sacrifice quality journalism for empty speechifying.

Below, you see Olbermann at his best–calmly refuting hysterical, bigoted assertions with eloquently stated facts, common sense, and historical context–when addressing the Park51 “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy:

Unfortunately, he wasn’t always like that. In my limited experience, in fact, he was rarely that contained.

While I was never a righteous Olber-wonk, I often watched his segments online, usually holding my breath with a mixture of awe and trepidation as I waited to see whether he would even-handedly dismantle right-wing dogma or bloviate about tangential issues with such obvious, self-congratulatory winking that I’d have to quit the useless clip halfway through.

Most of the time, however, I kept watching. I watched when Keith voted Bristol Palin “Worst Person in the World” (Worst Dancer in the World, maybe), when he embarked on innumerable, raving digressions, including proclaiming, sans all but the most tenuous connections, Scott Brown a racist, even when listening to him prompted my fact-distorting-über-bias meter to go off at nearly the same frequency it does when I’m forced to listen to Dr. Laura “The N-Word Can Only Offend You If You Let It” Schlessinger.

Before today, I hadn’t seen Olbermann’s extreme distortion of a comment Hillary Clinton made during the 2008 Democratic primaries, but there’s a good chance that, had I seen this back when it first aired, I would have soaked it up like a milk on a sponge, uncomfortable but unwilling to look away:

In addition to the above hatchet job, Olbermann spent much of the 2008 Democratic primary ripping into Ms. Clinton, even going so far as to imply that someone beat her and/or kill her:

Guest Howard Fineman: “…some adults somewhere in the Democratic party [need] to step in and stop [Hillary’s presidential run], like a referee in a fight that could go on for thirty rounds. Those are the super, super, super delegates who are going to have to decide this.”

Olbermann: “Right. Somebody who can take her into a room and only he comes out.”

This is a frankly outrageous comment, the inappropriateness of which was seized upon by Huffington Post blogger Rachel Sklar, among others, but which Olbermann never apologized for, nor even addressed. It takes a rather large amount of chutzpah, to use a kind synonym for “mind-numbing audacity,” to get on national television in the wake of the Tucson shooting and call for an end to violent rhetoric which you yourself have spread and endorsed.

So why did I and so many others continue to watch Keith Olbermann bastardize liberal views with increasingly shoddy journalism and barely-contained personal bias?

My theory is that it simply felt amazing to have a loud voice on “our” side, even if that voice belonged to a sometime-bully. Hearing him rip into the same people who constantly rip into liberals, and usually in far more personally offensive, name-calling, Constitution-abusing ways, was pure schadenfreude.

[pullquote]It simply felt amazing to have a loud voice on “our” side, even if that voice belonged to a sometime-bully.[/pullquote]

But ultimately, the very reasons why so many liberals in this country initially worshiped at the altar of Olbermann–his unwavering support for the liberal agenda, his take-no-prisoners tongue-lashings, his refusal to cede even an inch of ideological ground–soured those same followers against the man.

Calling Scott Brown a racist, while it is possibly true, does nothing to further discourse about Brown or the Tea Party’s agenda. Saying Tea Partiers want to evoke Jim Crow laws is simply too generalized, too far-fetched, to have any impact. Naming teen mom Bristol Palin the “Worst Person in the World” besmirches what was already a fairly malicious segment. Blindly endorsing an accused rapist over his alleged victims and spreading misinformation about the same makes your female viewership, at the very least, question your loyalty to the feminist cause and to general decency.

As Olbermann strayed more often towards character assassination, he created straw man arguments his opponents can easily defend against, sacrificing coverage of  important issues for schoolyard bickering.

And you can only ingest that type of smug opinion, propaganda-like in its supposedly iron-clad presentation, for a limited time before either succumbing to the blinders of solipsism or waking to its arrogance and becoming so disgusted that its mouthpiece, in this case Olbermann, becomes discredited.

I will miss Keith Olbermann and his silver tongue–there’s no denying the man has a gift. Within a few months, he’ll surely pop up on another network, voicing the same liberal disquiet and sticking it to the many buffoons who think they can sell Americans down the river with pretty words and empty promises. I’ll probably watch his videos online and lurk around his Twitter feed. I might even consider some of his segments “moving.”

But if Olbermann continues to indulge in the bombastic rhetoric and poor journalism that defines the very buffoons he likes to skewer, he’ll lose my viewership and, hopefully, that of most progressives. He may be loud and powerful and commanding, but many of us have come to realize we don’t need a left-wing version of Rush Limbaugh. We need(ed) Keith Olbermann to be bigger than that.

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