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Keith Olbermann: Crazy Like a Fox?

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Chairman Rupert Murdoch of Fox News once said of his former sportscaster Keith Olbermann, “I fired him. He’s crazy.” And when MSNBC’s Senior Vice President Phil Griffin hired Olbermann for his new “Countdown” show in 2003 he agreed “The guy is crazy” but “he is made for this.”

According to a revealing profile about Olbermann by Peter Boyer in the June 23 The New Yorker titled “One Angry Man”: “Fox News still dominates the cable competition, and MSNBC over all continues to lag behind second-place CNN. O’Reilly’s audience is more than twice as big as Olbermann’s, which airs in the same prime-time period. But Olbermann’s ratings grew by nearly 75% the year he began doing Special Comments, and the show is making money, a rare hit in MSNBC’s twelve-year run.”

 Lately, though, Olbermann is scoring new gains on leader O’Reilly.The Huffington Post reported last June 10th, that  “Countdown” beat out “The O’Reilly Factor” in the key Adults 25-54 demographic “for the first time ever last week.” “Countdown” averaged 477,000 viewers in that group compared to 472,000 for O’Reilly, marking “the first time that MSNBC has beaten Fox News in O’Reilly’s 8pm time slot since June 2001.”

Boyer quotes Griffin as saying, “All of a sudden, he (Olbermann) took off. In ways that MSNBC never had a show take off.” Likely this is because there is a growing army of Americans thrilled by Olbermann’s tongue-lashings of the Bush regime.

“Keith went into sports and changed sports and now he’s doing that in news,” Griffin told The New Yorker.“What cable emphasizes, more and more, is opinion, or even advocacy,” Boyer quotes the late Tim Russert, host of NBC’s “Meet The Press,” as saying. “Whether it’s Bill O’Reilly or Keith Olbermann or Lou Dobbs, that’s what that particular platform or venue does.”

Cable news seems to be evolving a new genre of opinion columnists--sort of like the glamorous dueling aviators of World War I dogfighting over the trenches while their partisans in the trenches below cheered them on. Industry folks say these new media stars benefit from “cocooning,” when people tune in to a personality that tells them what they crave to hear. So it shouldn’t be surprising that as President Bush’s popularity plunges, more and more people will tune in to “Countdown” to hear Olbermann blast Bush, Senator John McCain, and Republicans in general. 

 The difference between cable news and network news is the difference between a newspaper’s editorial page and its regular news columns.  Cable is remarkable, though, in that its news commentators today enjoy the kind of unlimited freedom of expression Baltimore Sun columnist H.L. Mencken would have relished when he took Germany’s side in World War I---only to have the publisher suspend his column.

Fox’s decision to dump Olbermann was fateful, especially for Fox star O’Reilly because “Countdown” is a show he may wish he had never heard of. Olbermann comes over as simply brighter (if you compare the questions the two men ask news sources) than O’Reilly. Plus, Olbermann has assembled a supporting cast  that make his show more intrguing than its Fox competitor.

 Among them Air America Radio’s Rachel Maddow, obviously headed for a great future on video; Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson, and Newsweek’s Chief Political Correspondent Howard Fineman.

MSNBC is a 24-hour cable offspring of staid NBC news, where reporters are careful to preserve their objectivity. NBC may do “interpretive reporting” to explain the meaning behind breaking news events but its journalistic code requires its reporters to keep their personal opinions strictly to themselves. CBS-TV and ABC-TV reporters follow a like policy. 

 But the world of cable news is far different and Olbermann, crazy or not, has a lot to do with shaping why it is different.  None of the cable news shows displays the objectivity of the traditional network news broadcasts.

 However, Fox TV’s claim that its reportage is “fair and balanced” is ludicrous. Fox gives scant air time, for example, to news out of Iraq that reflects poorly on the Bush administration, whose wars are supported enthusiastically by owner Murdoch. Fox also found reasons to run the remarks of Obama’s pastor Jeremiah Wright long after the other news media discarded the story as old news.

“Countdown” doesn’t call itself “fair and balanced” probably because it can’t. Night after night Olbermann flagellates the more contradictory comments of Senator McCain better than any handout from the Democratic National Committee.  Let a Republican member of Congress make some dumb remark and it’ll be featured in Olbermann’s “Worst Person In The World” segment. Let a Fox headline writer misspell “education” and  it  will get promptly ridiculed. Olbermann made the most of former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan’s disclosure that the White House sent Fox broadcasters “talking points,” literally using Fox as its private press conduit. And his sidekick Maddow added: “(Government) propaganda is supposed to be illegal." 

Where Olbermann breaks new ground is with his longish tirades that may be the next evolutionary step in cable TV editorializing. One, excoriating Bush, was clocked at 12 minutes in length; another, blasting Senator Hillary Clinton, dragged on for 10 minutes. These inevitably conclude with Olbermann’s trademark: tossing his script at the camera in a gesture of defiance. It’s pure showmanship but so far neither the “The O’Reilly Factor” or “Lou Dobbs Tonight,” produced by Cable News Network(CNN), has come up with anything to match it.

As for Dobbs, The New York Times reports he is prone “to combine factual reporting with editorializing” and faults him for never admitting that he presented wrong information. On one occasion, he claimed that a third of all Federal prisoners are illegal aliens when, in fact, the Justice Department’s  figure is about six percent.  The overbearing Dobbs is also in the habit of not giving guests he disagrees with time to spell out their positions before he shouts them down.  It’s a practice that only builds sympathy for those he attacks and makes Dobbs look petty.

Getting back to Olbermann, according to Boyer he ignited the feud with O’Reilly in 2003 with a wisecrack on “Countdown.” Olbermann later amplified and multiplied the anti-O’Reilly digs on “The Worst Person in the World” segment in which Boyer writes (charitably) he depicted O’Reilly as a “pompous buffoon.”

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Sherwood Ross worked as a reporter for the Chicago Daily News and contributed a regular "Workplace" column for Reuters. He has contributed to national magazines and hosted a talk show on WOL, Washington, D.C. In the Sixties he was active as public (more...)
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