August 26th, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

Has Countdown with Keith Olbermann "Jumped the Shark"?

I hate to say it, but watching my favorite newscast has turned into a chore over the last few weeks. It's not because of the events in the news. It's because of the show. When it debuted, and for several years after that, there was no newscast anything like MSNBC's "Countdown with Keith Olbermann." Olbermann, for those of you unfamiliar with his story, came to this show with incredible credibility ... not because of what he'd covered in the past, but because of what he'd refused to cover. In his previous gig with MSNBC back in the late '90s, he was eventually assigned to cover the Clinton impeachment case, which was a job he was just fine with. But as time wore on and there wasn't any actual daily news to report, his producers at MSNBC kept giving him the Monica Lewinsky story to report on ... every day. One day, he says, after three straight days of speculation about Monica Lewinsky without any new facts, just talking heads bloviating about the same things that they'd been bullshitting about at tremendous length for months, he put his foot down: make me cover this story without any new facts one more time, and I quit. They did, and he did. He went back to sportscasting, and figured his career as a newscaster was over.

But there eventually came a point where someone at MSNBC news, probably a fan of his occasional columns for Salon.com, must have realized that Olbermann had been right and they had been wrong. So they hired him back and gave him his own show. His plan for that show? To treat almost all of the stuff that regular newscasts obsess over as the trivia that it is, mocking it in one or two sentence dismissals. Instead, Keith would take the five most actually important news stories of the day and report on the facts of the stories. And because journalism almost never allows the journalist to express any views of their own or state any facts that they personally observed (especially not TV news anchors), that meant (as it does on every such show) finding talking heads to provide the analysis. And the thing that drew me to this news show, above all others, to the point where it is the only TV news show I ever watch, was the immensely greater quality of the analysts. By the time you got to the end of a five minute segment on Keith Olbermann's show, any mistaken preconceptions you came into the story with had been thoroughly debunked and replaced with honest, fair, expert-quality information.

Would that it were still so.

Keith doesn't even show up half the time. Yes, I know that one of his longer leaves of absence was to deal with his oral cancer. But given that I watch this show for Keith Olbermann's credibility, I am really sick and tired of hearing, "I'm (somebody else), in tonight for the vacationing Keith Olbermann." How many vacation days a year does this guy get? 50? 100? Nor does it improve my mood that none of the people they've had standing in for him can do what Keith Olbermann does. None of them have his skepticism about what other journalists are claiming to be big news. None of them have his breadth of knowledge in history and politics. None of them work as hard as he obviously works to find out enough about each subject to ask intelligent questions. Most of them are, sad to say, total lightweights. His longest-lasting fill-in was Allison Stewart. Now, she's a competent television news anchor by the standards of some shows and networks. She'd be the perfect person to do a morning news show, perky and cheerful and bubbly and ebullient. But as for her actual journalistic qualifications, well, I call your attention to what she did when they promoted her and gave her a show of her own: she takes her list of what stories are important enough to cover out of search engine results and online polls. Not only does she lack Keith's depth and dignity, she makes no claim to having any confidence in her own ability to spot what's important in the news. And she was the best one yet. OK, that's not entirely true, but MSNBC hasn't got the guts to gamble on the one person who's come closest to filling Keith's shoes when he's gone -- features reporter Monica Nevotny, who co-anchors at least one story a week with Keith when he's there. The've let her fill in for him a couple of times, and she's done remarkably well. But the network doesn't want her to anchor, even on a fill-in basis; they want her to be MSNBC's younger version of CNN's Jeanne Moos. And we wouldn't even have this problem if Keith would just show up to work more often.

Keith's got new favorite talking heads, and they stink. We used to get topic experts who were among the best in the world, with Keith asking them pointed and coherent questions to help them explain exactly what we needed to know. Now we get the same three talking heads so often they might as well co-anchor, and I'm sick of all three of them. The Washington Post's Dana Milbank hasn't had anything actually informative or interesting to say any time that I've seen him. But at least he's pleasant and he's at least trying to report on actual news (although he usually fails), which is more than I can say for the Village Voice gossip columnist Michael Musto and so-called "comedian" Mo Rocca. Both are the kinds of celebrity-obsessed morons that I used to watch Keith's show to avoid. Both are also just completely grating and unpleasant to listen to. And so far as I can tell from listening to both of them, both of them are as dumb as a post.

MSNBC went back on their word. There's a phrase that we've heard about four nights a week for the last year: "a story my producers are forcing me to cover." That's Keith's standard excuse whenever he has to devote five minutes or more to the exact kinds of stories that MSNBC originally promised him he wouldn't have to cover except with the kind of snarky one-liners that (for example) Tucker Carlson uses when he's reporting on real news, when he "has to" cover celebrity gossip and notorious crime news, especially when it's a "story" that doesn't change perceptibly from one day to the next. If I wanted salacious crime news, I'd watch Nancy Grace or Greta van Sustern. If I wanted celebrity gossip, I'd watch Entertainment Tonight. I watch Countdown for the real news, and real news seems to make up a smaller percentage of the broadcast every night. Keith could, if he had the imagination, rescue those segments -- by bringing in cultural analysts, criminologists, sociologists, and journalism experts to talk about why other viewers and other TV shows care about these non-stories, but it hasn't happened yet. And Keith can't blame his producers for all of the time that's wasted on non-news, because the other thing that's taken over an intolerable percentage of his show is one of Keith's own obsessions that, frankly, I'm sick and tired of:

Keith's completely obsessed with right-wing commentators, and I don't just mean his direct competitor over at Fox News, Bill O'Reilly. On any given average night, Keith Olbermann devotes anywhere from a minute to 15 minutes to just how stupid Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, and any random right-wing talk radio personality from even the smallest markets are. Take, for example, Keith's nightly segment entitled "Worst Persons in the World," where he nominates three particularly villainous people per day for that title. I'm not crazy about it, but it's an idea that's not without merit. But in a world where CEOs are indicted for stock swindles almost every day, where public officials are caught taking bribes at least once a week, where cops beat or shoot someone needlessly on videotape at least once per month, where war profiteers steal money from our own troops every day, where dictators around the world imprison or intimidate at least one journalist or activist per week, and where unimaginative government officials ruin people's lives somewhere in this country every day through strict interpretation of rules that don't apply, Keith nominates on average at least one, and frequently two, right wing journalists per day for the terrible evil of saying something dumb. Yawn. You care way too much about what the right thinks, Keith.

If it doesn't turn around soon, I'm giving up on it. Which'd be a shame; yet another person who used to have integrity and skill, ground down by the TV journalism machinery.
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