Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Keith Olbermann

Keith Olbermann
A year ago, President Obama referred to the cable news networks and political blogs as creating an “echo chamber” that “amplifies the most inflammatory sound bites.” Some people seem to think that’s just fine because they love hearing their own voice reverberating around them.

A look at the first episode of Current TV’s revival of “Countdown With Keith Olbermann,” which aired last night at 8 p.m., suggests that the host, like too many commentators on both the left and the right, is chiefly interested in comforting those who agree with him and angering those who disagree with him. The goal is to get sound-bitten and linked to by both sides.

As was the case when “Countdown” aired on MSNBC, left-leaning people may enjoy spending time with someone who’s as unabashedly liberal as the average Fox News commentator is conservative. But viewers who hope to have their intelligence engaged or their assumptions challenged will feel left out and, worse, will be bored.

After previewing the stories he would be covering in the upcoming hour-plus (the show ran long), Olbermann smirked slightly and said, “As I was saying….” Even older viewers would have to Google the phrase to realize that he was paying homage to Jack Paar, who made the same joke after quitting the “Tonight” show for several weeks back in 1960.

Olbermann spent most of the episode talking with his new regular contributors. It turns out they’re all people with whom he couldn’t agree more. First he and the documentary filmmaker Michael Moore discussed the current war in Libya.

Olbermann introduced the segment in the typically baroque prose he uses when reading from a script: “What was the only echo of disasters past still missing from an unauthorized, possibly illegal, morally murky war in which the presumed good guys keep accidentally dropping bombs on their purported allies? Correct, the endorsement of Rove and a Cheney.”

Apparently, Olbermann was outraged by Karl Rove and Liz Cheney’s call for fellow Republicans to say that the president wasn’t doing enough in Libya. But Olbermann hesitated to call for the end of our support of the bombing there, perhaps because that would align him with the most conservative voices in the Republican party.

Moore seemed equally befuddled, offering neither insight nor new information. He criticized the Supreme Court for expanding presidential powers and Congress for not asserting its war powers, but then he agreed with Olbermann that Congress would probably support the war if asked to. They both agreed as well that Obama’s intentions were good.

Since neither of them had a strong opinion or a fresh angle, and since both of them seemed terrified of saying something that might make conservatives happy, they probably should have picked another topic.

Moore, like all the contributors who followed him, ended by saying how great Olbermann is. They must be getting paid to be on the show, so a cynic might question their sincerity.

Next, in his “Special Comment” section, Olbermann stated the show’s purpose: “This is to be a newscast of contextualization, and it is to be presented with a viewpoint: That the weakest citizen of this country is more important than the strongest corporation. That the nation is losing its independence through the malfeasance of one political party and the timidity of another. And that even though you and I should not have to be the last line of defense, apparently we are.”

Since pomposity is part of Olbermann’s shtick, it’s probably better to let that slide and simply note that someone on the opposite end of the political spectrum could utter the same platitudes.

An odder contributor, the Watergate conspirator John Dean, discussed the recent revelation that a wealthy conservative has been making large contributions to causes supported by Justice Clarence Thomas. Dean made a specious comparison to the legal troubles of a Supreme Court justice nominated by Lyndon Johnson, Abe Fortas, whom the Nixon administration had tried to oust. This supported Olbermann’s previous claim that Democrats are too timid.

Olbermann and Dean agreed that the majority in the recent Supreme Court decision about class-action suits was voting to protect corporations and weaken the little guy. No one discussed the constitutional arguments for or against the decision.

Olbermann then interviewed a reporter, Kenneth Vogel, the author of a Politico article that Olbermann had previously touted as “conservative souls for sale,” adding, “I know you’re shocked. Not that they’d sell them, but that they have them.”

In fact, the story seemed to be saying that conservative talk-show hosts sometimes present on-air commercials for right-wing causes or groups without clearly indicating that they’re doing commercials. The reporter said that some sales executives also promise favorable coverage for advertisers, but he didn’t provide any proof of that on air.

Olbermann mocked one talk-show host for having a high voice. Later, he would accuse a Republican politician of dyeing his hair. 

The “Worst Persons” segment, another holdover from the MSNBC show, criticized Sarah Palin for trying to trademark her name for certain uses, including educational materials. This is funny if, like Olbermann and his audience, you assume that she is stupid.

An editor at what Olbermann calls “Fix News” and “Fox Noise” was singled out for deleting a moment in Jon Stewart’s appearance this Sunday in which Stewart accused a Fox executive of giving “marching orders” to correspondents.

And the winner was a woman in a viral video who was told to lower her voice while talking on her phone on a commuter train; she responded by telling the conductor, “I’m not a crazy person. I’m a very well-educated person.” As if that weren’t humiliation enough, Olbermann named her and quoted mildly ironic things from her LinkedIn profile.

A purportedly lighter segment called “Time Marches On” reported on the actress Debbie Reynolds’ sale of movie costumes and the development of a robot that can run and jump. Olbermann’s commentary wasn’t funny.

Another regular contributor, Markos Moulitsas, the founder of the liberal web site the Daily Kos, headlined a segment called “Inside the Republican Cult.” He trashed a few possible presidential contenders and then offhandedly accused Republicans of trying to deliberately “tank the economy” so they can win the presidency in 2012.

Moulitsas went on at length about how he had supposedly been banned from MSNBC, including Olbermann’s show, after getting in a Twitter war with the channel’s morning host, Joe Scarborough.

Moulitsas smiled fixedly throughout while telling this anecdote and then ridiculing Scarborough for “crying” and being thin-skinned. He seemed to think that getting in a spitball fight with another commentator was an accomplishment.

Both Olbermann and his contributors all seem to have been caught up so long in polemics that they’ve forgotten what they’re supposedly fighting for. Olbermann will doubtless be scanning the cable spectrum and the blogosphere this morning to see if anyone has responded to his attacks on their straw men or if anyone has attacked the straw men he set up. With luck, his commentary will inspire commentary that he can comment on.

Jon Stewart basically killed CNN’s “Crossfire” when he went on the show and said that its fake arguments were “hurting America.” Moulitsas, by contrast, told Olbermann, “I believe you’re a national treasure.”

They’re both wrong. Left or right, shows like “Countdown” aren’t part of the problem, but they’re definitely not part of the solution.