A Pox On Both Their Houses

Keith Olbermann was a lightning rod of sorts when he hosted Countdown on MSNBC.  A judgmental liberal firebrand, Olbermann left MSNBC early last year under curious circumstances and promptly moved Countdown to Current TV, a network founded in part by former Vice President Al Gore.

Then Olbermann dropped off the face of the Earth, because no one watches Current TV.  Countdown averaged 177,000 viewers a night — a miniscule fraction of the total audience in a nation of hundreds of millions of rabid TV watchers.

It was predictable that Olbermann and Current TV would part ways, and probably not in an amicable fashion.  That has turned out to be the case.  Olbermann has sued the cable channel for millions of dollars, claiming that its production capabilities were akin to those found on local community access channels.  Current TV has counterclaimed, contending that Olbermann didn’t show up for work, promote the network, or perform other purported contractual obligations.

It’s hard to believe that anyone — even the 177,000 or so people who watched Countdown on Current TV, for reasons known only to them and their deity — care about this dispute or the fact that Olbermann is off the air.  Who needs another “point of view” cable channel or egotistical broadcaster eager to castigate those with different viewpoints?  We’ve got quite enough of both, already.

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Olbermann Is Out

Last night MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann had his last broadcast as host of the show Countdown.  The end of his show and his career at MSNBC was unexpected — so unexpected that the network continued to run a promo for his show 30 minutes after he announced his departure on air.

We’ll hear a lot about Olbermann’s departure from the pundits, the broadcasters, and the blogosphere in the next few days, with many people calling him a fearless advocate for progressive views and many others saying good riddance to a shrill voice.  I don’t really care much either way, because Kish and I stopped watching Olbermann’s show years ago.  If you wanted to view events from a consistently liberal perspective, you could watch Countdown — but no one who wanted to actually get the news, in any semblance of unbiased form, would tune in that show.  And, for us at least, Olbermann’s tiresome interactions with the pundits who always appeared on his show and shared his viewpoint, and Olbermann’s smug, absurdly self-important and self-referential commentaries, just became unwatchable.  His show not only was not objective, it also was bad TV.  Countdown wasn’t watched by many Americans, and I think that was why.

TV news needs to return to basics and get away from the kind of advocacy programming that has come to dominate the “news channels.”  The end of Olbermann’s show may be a step in the right direction.

A Stunning Assault On The Citadel Of Media Objectivity

Today MSNBC indefinitely suspended Keith Olbermann, the host of the cable network’s Countdown program, after it learned that Olbermann had made contributions to three political campaigns — all for Democratic candidates.

I applaud MSNBC management for acting promptly to safeguard the network’s hard-earned reputation for objectivity and balance in its coverage of American politics.  It is hard to believe that Olbermann, who is one of the paragons of temperate commentary and unbiased reporting in the new media, would not have understood that contributing money to political candidates was grossly inconsistent with MSNBC’s high standards of journalistic integrity.  After all, it is not as if the network would allow news show hosts to routinely describe political figures of particular viewpoints as “the worst person in the world,” or to regularly launch harshly worded, mean-spirited attacks in an effort to drum up better ratings.

I’m sure that MSNBC’s other prime time news show hosts, Chris Matthews and Rachel Maddow, have never provided any support, financial or otherwise, to any political party or movement.  Both Matthews and Maddow are universally recognized for their even-handed treatment of political news and have contributed tremendously to high esteem which every rational person must feel for MSNBC and its fair and credible treatment of opposing viewpoints.

A Damned Good Idea

At his meeting with the House Republican caucus on Friday, President Obama said that some Republicans had misrepresented his health care bill as “some Bolshevik plot.” The Republicans in the audience responded with good-natured laughter. There was a lot of laughter at the event, actually. I joined in when Obama called Republican Illinois gubernatorial candidate Paul Ryan “a pretty sincere guy” then quickly added, “by the way, in case he’s going to get a Republican challenge, I didn’t mean it.”

It’s nice to see Democrats and Republicans laughing together at how ridiculous partisan politics have become in this country. Public dialogue between the two parties has reached a new low. Better we all find humor in it than be overwhelmed with frustration and spite.

One party makes a big deal out of a supposedly bombastic statement made by a member of the other, usually taken out of context. Guests on TV news channels blame their ideological opposites for refusing to compromise. Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly and Keith Olbermann warn us that certain politicians would steal America’s soul if they had their way. The media, which loves drama as much as any reality tv show producer, stokes the fire.

All this bickering helps explain why Congress had so much trouble getting anything done in 2009. As Obama said at the caucus, the Republicans spent so much time demonizing his health care bill that any Republican who wanted to support it would fear the ire of his constituents and would become a pariah within the party.

Friday’s meeting was a welcome break from this mayhem. No one accused Obama of trying to force elderly Americans in front of “death panels” or asked him to provide a birth certificate. There were no shouts of “you lie!” Instead, the tone was friendly. A handful of Republican congressmen politely criticized the President, who actually admitted to some mistakes – like that he should have done a better job of keeping his campaign promise to put meetings between health care interests on C-SPAN. Like I said, there was lots of joking: the transcript I linked to above indicates 22 breaks for laughter. The President and his audience disagreed a lot, but always in a civil fashion.

It just shows what is possible when all that separates the two parties is a microphone cord. The other party doesn’t seem so bad when everything they say and do isn’t filtered through the bloodthirsty media and party leaders who want to demonize them as much as possible before the next election.

The New York Times notes that Britain has a tradition similar to Friday’s meeting. I’d like to see this become an American tradition. I don’t know if any compromises will come from it, but it’s certainly better than the way things are. At the very least, political dialogue will distract less from the real issues.

Fear Of August (III)

I think UJ’s post below raises a fair question: how do we know whether anything we see on TV, or on Youtube, is real, as opposed to staged? My belief is that everyone should approach these kinds of things with a skeptical attitude, a willingness to listen to both sides, and the confidence to reach their own decision.

When I apply this kind of analysis to the Keith Olbermann broadcast posted by UJ, the piece seems like pretty thin gruel to me. The underlying theory of the piece is that all of the people who have shown up at the town halls that are depicted on various Youtube videos have been put up to it by some vast right-wing conspiracy devised by an organization headed by Dick Armey, and therefore those videos should be discounted. What’s the evidence for this broad assertion? A memo that is shown but not quoted, speculation that some of the attendees were bused to the meetings, a statement that Congressman Doggett’s District is one of the most liberal in the country and therefore would not be expected to include people who would oppose health care reform, slo-mo of a video showing that one of the people who attended a Pennsylvania meeting carried a Bible and said it had the answers, an effort to equate the health care town hall meetings with the “tea party” protests during the spring, and the comments of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. I just don’t find this “evidence” very credible or persuasive. If people were bused in from other areas by outside organizations, why didn’t any of Congressman Doggett’s staff — who undoubtedly were there — see the buses or other methods of transportation and speak up about it? Are we honestly to believe that the young woman with the stroller and the older people who were there were mercenaries dragooned into attendance by some conservative conspiracy? Does the fact that a district is liberal mean that some people in the District — even if a minority — cannot conceivably be concerned about what is happening with health care reform efforts? I don’t think I’d bring a Bible to a political meeting, but does the fact that one person did mean that all of the other people in attendance were not legitimate citizens who cared about what was to be discussed? And how does Senator Sanders have any relevant first-hand information about any of this?

Isn’t it much more plausible to believe that the people who are shown on these videos are, for the most part at least, local voters who simply want to be heard on an issue of importance to them? After all, whether a particular person has choice and control over their health care, and the health care their family receives, can be literally a life and death matter. Other people may well be legitimately concerned about whether any plan passed by Congress will raise their taxes, or increase the budget deficit, or cause them to lose existing insurance arrangements which they find satisfactory. The interpretation that many of the people attending the meetings are authentic constituents is supported by the public opinion polls, which show that a large number of Americans have significant concerns about the speed at which Congress is considering restructuring the health care system and the cost, and ultimate impact, of the approaches Congress is considering.

It’s hard to find balance these days, where the “news” consists largely of point-of-view “reporting” and talking heads spewing talking points prepared by one faction or another. I think this National Journal article does a pretty good job of presenting the political issues in a balanced fashion and reiterates what I have been saying — August will be a very interesting month, as Members of Congress try to figure out what their constituents and likely voters, as opposed to media talking heads, party operatives, or advocacy groups, really think about health care reform.