First of all: A necessary disclosure that most long-time readers of my Philadelphia Daily News blog Attytood already know, which is that more than three decades ago, I went to high school with Keith Olbermann; in fact he was the first editor, on our school newspaper, that I ever worked for (I'm about 10 days older than Olbermann, but he had skipped two grades ahead of me -- even his enemies have never said the guy isn't smart!). So we knew each other somewhat, way back when, and then about seven or eight years ago we became occasional email buddies; I've also been a guest on “Countdown” twice. So when I watched Olbermann on MSNBC, there's always been an element of “I knew him when” pride, and when people talked about his foibles like his mercurial disposition, I was never that outraged as some folks were, because it was pretty much just the same guy I remembered as a teenager...Keith being Keith.
Today, and at least for the near future, Keith being Keith means being unemployed. I was just as shocked as everyone else when I flicked on CNN Friday night and saw the large breaking news chyron that Olbermann was suddenly “out” after eight years at MSNBC in which he went from moderately known ex-sportscaster to icon of a new liberal media that might not have existed were it not for him. Both the supersized breaking news coverage on rival (and thus not so disinterested) CNN on Friday and the inevitable discussion panel yesterday on that network's “Reliable Sources” with Howard Kurtz occasionally touched on a “talking point” certain to drive progressives crazy -- which is that Olbermann has been the perfect left side of a mirror image with angry conservative Fox hosts like Bill O'Reilly or Glenn Beck.
Well, they all can be loud and take strong points of view, but otherwise the comparison is more than a tad ridiculous. Olbermann's list of worst transgressions would be headlined by an over-the-top rant about Sen. Scott Brown -- which he quickly apologized for! -- and violating a policy he said he didn't know existed by giving money to three Democratc candidates. Compare that to the unapologized-for sins of Beck -- explicitly using violent rhetoric like last summer's "shoot them in the head" comments or claiming that President Obama has "a deep-seated hatred of white people" -- or O'Reilly's frequent harangues against "Dr. Tiller the baby killer," who was later murdered by a right-wing zealot.
Beck's words have not only inspired death threats against an elderly female professor but actual gunmen like Pittsburgh's Richard Poplawski, who bought into the host's conspiracy theories before killing three cops. I challenge anyone to find an act of Olbermann-inspired violence or threats (and while you're searching, check out his record as host of “Countdown” in supporting charitable causes).
The irony here -- and it's a big one -- is that one of Olbermann's best contributions to our political dialogue was going after the bogus idea of false equivalency, that people on the left and the right are always equally bad in equal proportions while only centrists are the possessors of beauty and light and truth. Ironic because no one has been a bigger victim of false equivalency than Keith Olbermann himself.
But then, Olbermann's odyssey as a journalist has always been grossly misunderstood, not just by the right-wing haters but even by the media critics who are paid six-figure salaries to know more than they do. The naysayers have tried to portray him as a kind of “Manchurian candidate,” a hard-core doctrinaire leftist who must have been some kind of community organizer in a past life if he didn't emerge directly from the Politburo. What balderdash! I can tell you certainly that in high school the only “left” that Olbermann cared about was who was in left field for his beloved Yankees. Which may explain why he so focused on his future career...in SPORTScasting! He was just not a particularly political guy.
Which also explains the true meaning of Keith Olbermann. He became a hero to so many TV viewers (and saved MSNBC, which was really in its proverbial “last throes” ) in the mid-2000s because his journey was not that of a liberal ideologue but simply an American citizen who was appalled at the lies coming from the Bush White House and increasingly looked for ways to use his platform as a national journalist to relate something he came to see as not just a news story...but a threat to the Republic.
Olbermann alluded to this odyssey when he signed off MSNBC on Friday night:
The show gradually established its position as anti-establishment, from the stage craft of Mission Accomplished, to the exaggerated rescue of Jessica Lynch in Iraq, to the death of Pat Tillman, to Hurricane Katrina, to the nexus of politics and terror, to the first special comment.
It was a gradual thing, indeed. My clear sense as a regular viewer of “Countdown” during those mid-2000s years was that Olbermann's initial outrage was not that of a partisan but that of a journalist, that he was incensed that the government was lying over matters like the Lynch and Tillman cases. It was only several years into it that he realized that -- with George W. Bush and Dick Cheney ensconced in a second term and lingering talk that "real men go to Tehran" -- he needed to do more. And so was born 'the special comment" -- his first one coming in August 2006, rebutting a speech that then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had delivered to the American Legion.
Said Olbermann that night:
The confusion we -- as its citizens— must now address, is stark and forbidding.
But variations of it have faced our forefathers, when men like Nixon and McCarthy and Curtis LeMay have darkened our skies and obscured our flag. Note -- with hope in your heart — that those earlier Americans always found their way to the light, and we can, too.
People who try to define Olbermann's significance as “finally a liberal came along as a counterweight to Fox News Channel” totally don't get it. Olbermann started the 2000s not as a liberal but a guy who still wanted to be a sportscaster. Things changed because he registered his disbelief at things that so many other regular Americans also could not believe were happening -- that America has pre-emptively invaded another country on false pretenses, that a country founded on civil liberties was now promoting torture and indefinite detention, that the government was not capable of responding to the disaster that was Hurricane Katrina. There was a time when so many citizens who saw these things and were appalled by them did not have any voice in the mainstream media -- until Olbermann spoke up.
And if you're thinking that Olbermann's move to the left was a shrewd career calculation...it wasn't. Around the time that MSNBC was hiring Olbermann, it was also firing its top-rated host at the time, Phil Donahue, because at the tme the network thought liberal views like Donahue's were out of step with post-9/11 America. Again, I would ask you to contrast Olbermann with Beck, who went from pony-detailed pro-choice and anti-death-penalty libertarian in the 1990s to political conservatism because he was a failed “Morning Zoo” jock who emulated guys like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity who'd become multi-millionaires through their right-wing blather . Olbermann, in contrast, was not just copying but going well beyond a guy, Donahue, his bosses had just canned.
But people responded because after several years of Cheney and Bush, Olbermann was telling them they were not crazy, and they were not alone. Olbermann empowered others in the media to be more brash in reporting on the abuses of the Bush years, and eventually the pessimism of that era dissipated for a new emerging American majority that elected a more forward-thinking Congress, for a time anyway, and a more progressive (we can argue how progressive some other time) president in 2008.
As someone in the media who -- on a much, much smaller scale -- was also radicalized by the war in Iraq, the massive failure of our profession in exposing that war's faulty underpinnings, and other Bush-era outrages, I can also understand why -- leaving aside the role of personality conflicts and the looming arrival of MSNBC's Comcastic new management -- Olbermann might have felt that now was the time to go. What he inspired during Bush's presidency was nothing less than a revolution, and it's often hard to adjust when the romance of revolution fades. I doubt that covering the ups-and-downs and occasional broken promises of the Obama White House had the same thrill as exposing Obama's thoroughly corrupt predecessors.
Ironically, Olbermann's tenure at MSNBC may have really ended because of something very much like the thing that he rightfully ridiculed Bush for more than anything else, the words that he reminded his viewers about night after night after night.
Maybe he really left because of a Mission Accomplished.