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November 12, 2008

Olbermann Bombshell: "I Don't Vote"

By Amy Bernstein

Keith Olbermann doesn't vote? Say it ain't so. Hiding behind the mantle of "objective journalism" just doesn't cut it.


MSNBC superstar talk-show anchor Keith Olbermann told the ladies of The View on sister network NBC this week that he does not vote, ever. He calls his act of non-participation "a symbolic gesture"- and suggested that by abstaining, he may lay claim to journalistic objectivity.

Now, we do not know whether Olbermann has never voted in his adult life; he didn't say. But I find his admission, which he seemed to make freely and easily to Barbara Walters, Whoopi Goldberg and Company, disturbing and even off-putting.

Let me say for the record that I am a big fan of Olbermann. I readily forgive him his occasional sophomoric excesses during his 8 p.m. perch on MSNBC, owing to the truly incisive and well considered commentarie--essentially, long think pieces--that he reads on air, and which circulate widely on the Web. His commentaries helped many of us weather the last half of the Bush Era by serving as our personal anger-ventilation machine. Came in very handy, I can tell you. Thank you for that, Keith.

Olbermann is what we fondly refer to as a "foamer,"- meaning he is passionately committed to the things he cares passionately about, and he doesn't care who knows it. What's more, he's not afraid to appear slightly ridiculous (I credit him with at least a modicum of self-aware showmanship) in order to get your undivided attention in service to whatever point he is trying to make.

So now that we can agree that Olbermann is generally nifty and we're glad to have him around, let's cut to the chase. I don't care who you are, exercising the right to vote is arguably the single most important thing you can do as an American citizen. Yes, it is a civic duty. By abstaining, Olbermann undercuts the fairness doctrine he professes to uphold. Let's be clear here. Olbermann doesn't appear to view abstention as a phantom vote, of sorts--which is the line you hear from some Americans who argue that not voting is a consciously valid choice and an appropriate alternative to voting for candidates they do not believe in.

That's not Olbermann's take here, at least, not as I understand it. He seems to be making the case that  in order to practice journalism by his own lights, he should unplug from the machine altogether. I really don't get it. Olbermann is clearly partial to the liberal mainstream Democrats' view of the world. He may actually be a centrist, or perhaps a more left-leaning liberal. But labels are beside the point here.  He's in the business of ridiculing, criticizing, and just generally bashing idiotic politicians, Joe Sixpacks, and everyone in between. So if he specializes in skewering everything and everybody, who cares how he votes?

Now, if this guy were gunning for Tim Russert's job, I could see him perhaps making the claim that by not voting, he's holding himself apart from, or above, any partisan fray. I don't think even in that situation the claim would hold water, but I can see where he'd be coming from.

But gee, Keith, are you really a journalist in the good old-fashioned sense of the word? I think you're a gadfly, in the glorious H.L. Mencken tradition. It was Mencken who wrote,  "After damning politicians up hill and down dale for many years, as rogues and vagabonds, frauds and scoundrels, I sometimes suspect that, like everyone else, I often expect too much of them."- There's plenty more cynicism where that came from--but Mencken voted. I checked.

Sad to say, I think this is a cop-out on Olbermann's part. He's a guy who's always out on a thin limb, and by not voting, perhaps he thinks he's found a safe harbor where he can shield himself from the winds rocking the bough.

But Olbermann is a tax-paying American citizen first, and a gadfly or pundit or however he styles himself, second. It's the cumulative votes of the American electorate, propelled by the conditions of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, which allow him to sit in that chair every night.

The least Olbermann could do would be to celebrate his success by exercising that fundamental right. So Keith, please reconsider. . . get registered. . . and march into that booth on the very next Election Day. We promise not to think less of you. In fact, quite the opposite. Your commentaries will carry the added weight of a citizen who cares enough to do more than just talk.

Authors Bio:
Amy L. Bernstein is a full-time executive speechwriter and a former award-winning print journalist, public radio reporter, and editor. Author of two books, one celebrating Baltimore's bicentennial, the other a novel for young teens. She has a Master's Degree in Cultural Anthropology from the Union Institute/Vermont College.