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Constructive Criticism for Keith Olbermann, A Hero of Mine

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Dear Mr. Olbermann,

It may be no exaggeration to say that I am one of your biggest fans. For your courage and eloquence in standing up, when virtually no one else of your prominence was doing so, to denounce in plain language the dark evils of the Bushite regime, I regard you as an American hero. For a while back then you were about the only news show I could bear to watch, as the others all made me feel like I was in an "Emperor's New Clothes" fairy tale before the kid piped up to tell the truth. And my practice of taping and watching your shows, which began nearly six years go, continues: I've probably seen 95 percent of the programs you've broadcast.

But I come here not merely to praise Olbermann (though also not to bury him), but to encourage you to make a few improvements in your program. I do so in this open letter format, posted in public places, in the belief that by this means my thoughts have a greater chance of actually reaching you and those around you who might be able to put them to good use. Some years ago I made some efforts to communicate constructive criticism via your program's website --I urged you to dump Dana Milbank, for example, a couple of years before you did so, because I thought his smirking cynicism was directed not only at the dark doings you also attacked but also at the values your program strove to advance-- and I never felt any confidence that my words reached a level where they might have been useful.

One of your great strengths is that you are such a versatile performer-- capable of straight, serious, analytic discussion one moment, and then biting satire, and then impersonation using a whole tool-box of voices. I believe that it's your one-man band alterations of mood and form that make you such an enduring pleasure to watch, and that this explains why I swallow your programs whole, while the equally brilliant but less multi-talented Maddow I only watch about a half hour a night.

In one thing in particular you are a virtuoso: mockery. I've got no problem with your mocking the hypocrites and evil-doers of the right, people like Rupert Murdock and Dick Cheney and the rest of that disgraceful band of liars and thugs. But I don't like it when your righteous anger gives way to meanness, and that's when you mock people who really don't deserve it. Lisa Minelli may well be a mess, to take an example from a few years back, but she doesn't deserve your making fun of her: a child of a famous mother who committed suicide, her self-destructive ways --which are not part of any systematic assault on the integrity of our nation-- call for our compassion more than for our contempt.

You see, I want my heroic spokesman to be, as much as possible, an exemplar. While perhaps as a teenager you were one of those who cruelly taunted the kids with limps or speech defects, I would really like for you to keep that baser part of your impulses under wraps and use your satiric gifts only as an instrument for that righteousness of which, for the most part, you've been such a stalwart defender during these dark years of American history.
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It is not, after all, "progressive" values that are most fundamentally endangered in our times. It is virtue itself. That's why it is important not that "our side" should win in a battle of propaganda and lies, but that truthfulness and intellectual integrity themselves should win. And likewise for FAIRNESS.

The right-wing forces --the mouthpieces like Limbaugh and Beck, the sword-carriers like George W. Bush and Cheney, the manipulators like Rove and Fox News-- have absolutely no regard for fairness. Any attack on their enemies they will embrace, if it helps them draw blood.

The America they are working to create is one in which the long-established American value of "fair play" has been hacked to pieces. The fight against these forces, therefore, calls upon us not to emulate in any way their methods --to win dirty-- but to defeat them while also upholding the values they would destroy.

That's why it disappoints me when you --a hero of "our side"-- fail to practice "fair-mindedness." It happens probably a handful of times every week: I'll be watching you go after our common foes, enjoying seeing you in the arena with your skill with all those weapons at your disposal, and then you ruin it for me by landing a blow that is not fair. "Oh come on, Keith," I'll say to my TV screen, "that's a cheap shot."

One recent example was your making Bill O'Reilly into the day's "Worst Person in the World" because, just after he noted that most Americans cannot name the nine justices on the U.S. Supreme Court, he himself, in naming the Court's more liberal justices, misspoke and said "David Souter" when he meant "Stephen Breyer." You impaled him for failing his own test, as if this demonstrated that he himself did not know who was on the Court. To me it seemed like a mistake anyone could make, including you or I: it seemed clear that he knew full well that Souter wasn't on the Court any more, but that in that instant the wrong name had come up.

Your "gotcha" on O'Reilly in that instance did not seem fair-minded. As you've demonstrated over the years of your campaign against O'Reilly, he presents plenty of legitimate openings for the stiletto of your satire. Cheap shots only reduce your margin of victory.

There's one more area where I'd like to make a suggestion. This one isn't about the moral dimension, but about the aesthetic. As one artist speaking to another, I believe I perceive one aspect of your artistic process that may be lacking: knowing when it's time to drop an element of the pattern and move on to a new era.

This seems to me crystal clear in the case of your continuing practice of closing the show by stating how many days it has been since George W. Bush declared "Mission Accomplished." We're over 2500 days, now, and I ask you: what's the point? It was an apt way of criticizing the then president for a long while. But what does it achieve now? If you ask me, that daily statement no longer serves to evoke any important thoughts or ideas in the minds of your viewers. Let it go.

Since you've been doing it for so long, it may be necessary to say some official good-bye to it, rather than just suddenly cease to repeat the old, worn-out line as you make your daily hand-off to Rachel. But one way or another, you should stop doing something that seems to endure only because it's two-thousand plus days since the tired ritual began.

One other place where I find myself worrying that you're not going to know when to quit: it's your weekly "Fridays with Thurber" component.

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Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District. He is the author of various books including The Parable of the Tribes: The (more...)
 

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KO's words at that time dispersed the fear that wa... by Aurora on Monday, May 24, 2010 at 3:39:20 PM
Nice article. I agree that Keith has been our grea... by Jim Prues on Monday, May 24, 2010 at 6:58:00 PM
☼ I agree with all this. However, I might add Ke... by iamjmb on Tuesday, May 25, 2010 at 1:12:14 PM
"Keithcutting back on seemingly using Democrat tal... by Andrew Bard Schmookler on Tuesday, May 25, 2010 at 1:33:32 PM
The use of "Democrat" vs. "Democratic" is itself a... by Amy Fried, Ph.D. on Wednesday, May 26, 2010 at 10:51:18 AM
Amy, not in this case! ...I knew that was a proble... by iamjmb on Wednesday, May 26, 2010 at 11:09:54 AM
Glad to hear it. If you capitalize, then the disti... by Amy Fried, Ph.D. on Wednesday, May 26, 2010 at 11:18:56 AM
For me, Keith's coverage of the Republican theft o... by Perry Logan on Wednesday, May 26, 2010 at 8:02:58 AM
Funny, I was just thinking about writing some cons... by Amy Fried, Ph.D. on Wednesday, May 26, 2010 at 10:48:08 AM
☼ Amy, I agree about Rachel, and I agree about K... by iamjmb on Wednesday, May 26, 2010 at 11:48:59 AM
I guess we can agree to disagree on Keith's Democr... by Michael Bonanno on Wednesday, May 26, 2010 at 12:24:53 PM
☼ Michael, I agree with all of this. And, I also... by iamjmb on Wednesday, May 26, 2010 at 7:37:11 PM