Not long after Barack Obama was elected President in 2008, I punched the off-button on MSNBC pundit Keith Olbermann’s Countdown show for good.
Olbermann has the ideal personality of the old-style avuncular anchorman, of which Cronkite was the avatar. Cronkite’s large presence and resonant voice made him appear authoritative without being judgmental and reassuring without being sentimental; he tried to stick with the facts of a story the best he could (especially within the crude limits that “Uncle Walter” and the other newscasters back then had to work with); he was dispassionate without coming across as crusty or calloused.
There was a man behind the suit, but that man was never the story, unless he had to. Whatever their limits and inherent biases, Cronkite and his contemporaries took their jobs just seriously enough—newscasts are no stage for grandstanders. (Cronkite once dismissed praise for his trustworthiness, saying that he could be sitting behind his news desk with his pants off for all we knew.)
But here we are in the high-tech, media-saturated 21st Century now and bellows of personality-driven punditry seem to loom larger than the news itself. What FOX/MSNBC says about a war means more than the war with its death and waste.
On the right wing of this goofy-looking media-plane dance O’Reilly, Hannity, Limbaugh, (or O’Hannabaugh) and the increasingly freakish Glenn Beck and Ann Coulter (or CoulBeck, both like characters out of a Tod Browning or Fellini movie, but lacking a certain substance).
On the Left—where I sort of lean, depending on which of my ox’s are being gored—there’s MSNBC and the big, booming dreadnought known as Keith Olbermann.
Once I started watching Countdown, the scales quickly flaked away. First off, Olbermann called it—and, I’d guess, still calls it—a “newscast,” but I heartily snickered at the idea. It was an opinion show and nothing else.
One of the first things I noticed—and liked—about Olbermann was that he’s an excellent interviewer: He asks good, pertinent questions, stays focused and on topic. He’s quick on his feet, witty, non-bullying, knows how to get his subjects to talk and seems fairly tolerant of other viewpoints—but that tolerance only applies within the framework of the interview itself.
The guests, however, rarely struck me as particularly distinguished—mostly other Beltway Echo Chamber, quasi-liberal reporters, of pleasing personalities but of no particular expertise, except for Jonathan Alter who might lay claim to be a legitimate historian of the New Deal. Every once in awhile, there’d be an occasional worthwhile-sounding activist or two, often from veteran’s groups.
As I watched Olbermann’s interviews, I dared to imagine him on something like the PBS Newshour. His smarts just might fit in with their wonky, button-down, high-minded gravitas, while adding a little bit of wit and energy to their fossil-dry presentation. Would they have to put a leash on him? Sure. That’s exactly what a guy like that needs.
Another thing I liked about Olbermann was that when he made a misstatement, or committed some factual error, he would openly and forthrightly apologize, no weaseling. That may have been the main reason that I tolerated him as long as I did.
As for the rest, I have little nice to say . . . but I’ll say it anyway.
I despised the fluff celebrity segments at the end of every program, with their relentless snicker-age of Paris Hilton et al and unfunny interviews with B-list comics. (For me, the most tragic aspect of Anna Nicole Smith’s passing was Olbermann et al’s inability to shut up about it.). Since Olbermann came from sports news, I thought, why not devote a daily segment to that instead of . . . . that?
Olbermann-watchers will also note the obsession with O’Hannabaugh, especially in the “Worst Person in the World” segment, a section I found only fitfully amusing and only relevant when highlighting some genuine miscreant other than the O’Hannabaugh (but never a genuine real-world monster, like Kim Jong Il. Why? Because, I guess, the bastard isn’t funny. It’s clear that the ’Hannabaugh-Olbermann feud’s sole purpose is to gin up MSNBC’s seemingly anemic ratings.
Not long after I started watching, Olbermann launched his “Special Comments” segment: Twice a month or so, Olbermann hijacked his own microphone to furiously inveigh—in his inimitable Nixonian boom—against whatever outrage was unfolding in Washington that day.
And so, Keith Olbermann had, at last, revealed his Inner Blowhard. Instead of me yelling at my TV, my TV set was yelling back at me.
Now, I must stop here and ask forgiveness for the following teaspoonful of autobiography (cue TINY VIOLIN)—my boyhood household was a tempestuous and sometimes dangerous place, populated by bellowing, chronically angry, short-fused males, given to pounding dinner-table harangues about the “greatness” of um certain historical figures (such as this one).
Yes, you have guessed correctly: Keith Olbermann’s Special Comments started giving me flashbacks to the worst episodes of my childhood. I’m trying to remember if Walter Cronkite ever gave me cause to worry about his mental health or my physical safety. (I come up with “no” but if you remember a moment, I’m an ear).
There’s more to it, though. If Olbermann really hopes to evoke comparisons with Edward R. Murrow and Cronkite, he’s getting it all wrong. Murrow—to my knowledge—spent a lot of time as an on-the-ground investigative reporter, while Cronkite only once made any kind of special comment when he turned against the Vietnam War. Meaning that when they took their stands, when they stepped outside their usual framework, it was for an important reason that mattered to concerned Americans. Because this so rarely happened, when it did, it counted. It had an actual impact. (Their high ratings during this much-less fragmented media era didn’t hurt either. The signal-to-noise ratio was on their side.)
Meanwhile, Keith Olbermann’s very large head bursts with lava, oh, two or three times a month. Like that street-corner Fundie you always steer around on the way to the grocery store. Like O’Hannabaugh. “Oh, there goes that dog again. When are the neighbors going to do something about it?”
Here's a decent question: did Keith Olbermann (et al) influence in any fashion the outcome or conduct of the Iraq War? Will he (et al) be anything more than a footnote to scholarly cinema articles examining the cultural influence of Howard Beale and Network?
“We’d better get to work on climate change or else Olbermann will yell.”
A large number of viewers—large enough for cable, I guess--like this self-indulgent barstool bellowing for reasons that are too convoluted and mysterious for analysis here. But I feel compelled to say to those of you do, you are really wasting your time (let the flaming begin).
But I really want to ask, what’s to be gained—morally, politically, spiritually, practically--from this pompous fury? For awhile, it felt kinda good to watch someone with a big voice angrily voice opinions similar to mine about issues of genuine urgency and concern. But the appeal eventually eroded, as my discomfort gnawed like the rats who, until recently, made a home in the attic. How do these rants make the world a better place? How does it help deal with problems or contribute to the health of the Republic? Where is this glory I have been promised?
The scenes I recall most from election night 2008 were the crowd pouring into Chicago’s Grant Park to hear Obama’s acceptance speech, and Stephen Colbert’s brilliant parody-persona of Olbermann et al cracking and weeping
on The Daily Show. I drifted by MSNBC and there were Olbermann and Chris Matthews sniping at each other like geriatric kindergartners—“Children! Children! Behave yourselves! Keith! Take that finger out of Chris’s eye right now!” I probably hurried right to TCM.
Shortly after Obama took office, Olbermann launched in another pompous Special Fume about former President Cheney and I growled “Who the fuck-hell cares!” in my best Al Swearengen voice. I haven’t watched cable news since, no, not even Rachel Maddow, who’s another one of those “news anchors” who might do better elsewhere than trying to be Olbermann: the Sequel.Since then, I get my TV news mostly from PBS and BBC America.
So: what contribution does PundiTV make to free speech or democracy anyway? Some of you will say “none.” But for those of you who watch, why do you watch?
To me, some of these pundits (though NOT Olbermann) exhibit the qualities of textbook sociopaths—the extravagant self-regard, the passionately conscious disregard for facts, the cheerful manner in which they go about beating on those weaker than themselves. But whether they’re mentally ill, criminal minds, or merely high-minded hotheads, they should all be turned off, ignored, left in their bubble to breath their own fetid air.
Enough with the screaming already. The TV stays blank most of the time these days. I deeply wish things could be quieter for a little while, because it’s in the quiet, patient—sometimes plodding--voices where the truth is found and where the hard work of managing our always conflicting interests is done.
(Photo by author; Re-edited 9/4/10)
My contemporary Dracula novel, Dragon’s Ark is scheduled to be out at the end of the year from Ambler House. More essays and other ephemera can be found at the Red Room website for writers, while my comic screenplay Whackers can be downloaded at Smashwords.com. I can also be followed on Twitter (ThomBurchfield) and Facebook.
Causes Thomas Burchfield Supports
The Nature Conservancy; Africare; Capitol Public Radio