Thursday, January 27, 2011

"And now, for a Special Comment..."

The swift and unexplained departure from MSNBC of Keith Olbermann last week is a major loss for those of us who were hooked on his program and, I would argue, for the TV audience in general, since I viewed Keith as a “corrective” to the fact-less, spiteful, and tunnel-visioned bunch on the Fox News Network.

His commentary-based Countdown was a pundit-laden show like the Fox shows and it had a clear political bias like the Fox shows, but it was predicated on facts, open to correction, and used Keith’s strong, often strident, commentaries to contextualize the news as well as help people in need — particularly those without healthcare, which continues to be our national tragedy and the way in which the U.S. is most like a third-world nation (run by fat, deliriously happy capitalists).

I can’t honestly say I’ve been moved by many news anchors or pundits ever, but the segment below of an episode-length show Keith did on the health care debate, and how important it is to Americans, moved me greatly (read: the *real * healthcare debate, the one to get nationalized medicine, the one that President Obama abandoned in order to play politics-as-usual, we’ll-amend-this-mess-later).

This editorial moved me not just because Keith was reflecting on his father’s imminent death, but because of his inclusion of a story about a baseball-card-collecting friend whose daughter was suffering in the ICU. I cringe when I am confronted by sentimental, Spielbergian art and entertainment, but this editorial touched me:

On the other side of the coin, I will readily admit that Keith has an in-your-face quality that is abrasive. I agree with a good deal of his stances, and so I didn’t find it to be “too much” — perhaps the only thing I thought was pretentious was his decision to close out each show with Edward R. Murrow’s signature “Good night, and good luck.” I can easily counterbalance this, though, with the fact that he has great taste in vintage comedy (Bob and Ray, Sid Caesar, the Goons) and worships the Pythons, Rod Serling, and Bill Hicks — can’t find much wrong with that.

So why is Keith now off the air? He had the highest-rated show on MSNBC, but he was “let go” last week for most likely one of two reasons (or both): a personal conflict with the heads of his network, which he had had in several of his previous high-profile jobs as a sportscaster; or the merger of NBC with Comcast empire. The merger was already seen as a possible threat to Keith’s freedom of speech on MSNBC late last year, when he was suspended for having contributed to the campaigns of three Democratic candidates (including Gabby Giffords). The heads of Comcast are “staunch GOP supporters,” and while each host on MSNBC (except Joe Scarborough) takes on the Republicans, Olbermann did so with a particular relish, focusing in particular on Fox News’ unabashed support for the party.

So it is assumed by both well-respected trade mags and bloggers who don’t care for Olbermann that he was edged off the air by the merger. What did we lose as an audience? A talking head who certainly displayed intelligence and verbal dexterity, but also a conscience, a willingness to admit when he was wrong, and an ongoing acknowledgement that President’s quixotic and ridiculous quest for bipartisanship wasn’t just a big disappointment to his “base,” but was ultimately dangerous and foolhardy.

Whatever the case may be, MSNBC was very willing to dispense with its highest-rated program. Some websites proclaim with assurance that the NBC-Comcast merger had nothing to do with the break and Keith left to create his own "media empire" a la Arianna Huffington, but then the question remains: why the “gag order”? If he left of his own volition, it’s highly doubtful the network would make him remain silent about it, if only to stifle the rumor that they bounced him.

So that leaves those of us Lefties who still watch television with three alternatives:

the “harder Left” shows like Democracy Now and GRITtv, which dispense facts ignored by the MSM and also offer actual video journalism, but lack Olbermann’s sense of visible outrage (and acknowledgment that a little dash of entertainment is never a bad thing)
— the remaining MSNBC hosts, who will continue to espouse liberal beliefs, but will never be as openly challenging as Olbermann was. I can’t fault them for wanting to keep their jobs, and have already stated how much I love Rachel Maddow as a host (although: bring back Kent Jones!). And Chris Matthews’ adamant moments of disbelief are indeed wonderful. The Mediaite website (coincidentally run by ex-MSNBC host Dan Abrams!) hit the target, however, by noting that not only was Olbermann the most engaging/enraging host on the nework, his show was also just as the best show that MSNBC had, hands down
The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Those who want to perceive the political situation in a simplistic fashion go for this option. On the comedic level, both shows range from shticky to immaculately funny, but the “can’t we all just get along?” ideology espoused by the former (and playfully struck down by the latter) strikes me as extremely naïve, and also fascinatingly mirrors Obama’s hopeless longing for bipartisanship. The comedy is excellent, but the shows are not news or even news commentary, as the hosts readily admit in interviews (casting aside for a moment Jon Stewart’s “climatologist” remark to Maddow).

Thus, there is a big hole in my weekday viewing habits now that Keith is gone. I do not have a DVR, so for me television is either “preserve it” (something I will watch again or want to collect), catch it at the time it’s on, or miss it.

Whatever the reason for the break with MSNBC may be, I’m sure that Olberman will return, in one format or another. The chances of getting him back in prime-primetime are slim, but if CNN wanted a real reboot — and could honestly admit that Parker Spitzer (even the name, guys!) was a dire idea — perhaps there could be a really viable alternative to the agony of Fox News once more….

In the meantime, there are indeed the clips from the past. First, the moment I knew I loved Keith’s way of slamming public figures, a “Special Comment” about Rudolph Guiliani, the horrific and repellent ex-Mayor of New York City:

The most famous Special Comment found Keith telling Bush to “shut the hell up!” Seen as “too much, too far” by many liberals, it really was needed. Someone needs to be saying these things to the Right:

To show that Olbermann was indeed fair-minded and was willing to call “our guy" on the carpet for slowly sacrificing important points, a commentary about one of the first times Obama did something to mitigate the atrocities done by the last administration (which earned him no “brownie points” among the Repubs):

To end on a humorous note: Although the best-seen impression of Keith was the one Ben Affleck did on SNL, this gentleman does a quieter, more perfect rendtion of the outraged Special Comment Keith:

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