The Vacuum Olbermann Leaves

The sudden announcement Friday night that Keith Olbermann would be leaving his nightly program “Countdown” on MSNBC sent his largely-progressive, ferociously-loyal viewers into shock. Amid the sadness, confusion and anger, though, there is a consolation: over eight years Olbermann has already succeeded more than many could have been imagined. He has demonstrated that brash, charming, progressive commentary could succeed on cable television. He has dented the armor of the overpowering Fox News. And he has ushered in a series of dynamic hosts whose voices are critical in today’s discourse.

The show — which had become, in the words of Olbermann’s departing comments, “established as antiestablishment” — had become an anchor for many liberals in the stormy sea of mostly conservative cable TV. The loss these viewers felt was on display immediately after his surprise announcement. The Twittersphere erupted with a mix of heartfelt thanks and farewells to a man whose forceful commentary shaming the Bush administration brought him national prominence. In the era of Obama, he continued to challenge those in power, condemning the actions of the new administration as forcefully as he had exposed the wrong-doings of its predecessors.

The loyalty of Olbermann’s supporters is already legend. Over 200,000 signed a petition in November demanding MSNBC reinstate him after he was suspended for political donations that may have crossed MSNBC’s corporate policies. This same devotion was on display across Facebook pages and blog comment threads throughout the night.

In addition to the words of praise and wishes of continued success for his future endeavors, Olbermann’s fans also seethed with anger (and profanity) as they speculated as to why the highest-rated show on MSNBC, a show that had served as the flagship for the “Lean Forward” lineup of progressive-bent talk programs, would be canceled. The “F**Comcast” hashtag on Twitter offers one common explanation.  “RT if you think it is absolute [expletive] that Keith Olbermann is off the air” was one common message accompanying the hashtag. Other comments railed against media consolidation, seeing this as the result of the Comcast purchase of NBC, the parent-company of MSNBC, or against corporate titans who control media more generally. One conservative chimed in: “If Olbermann being out has anything to do with Comcast, I may include a donation with my next bill.” 

The right-wing glee at this turn of events points to the power Olbermann had attained in his program, one more reason for which it will be missed. But even without his nightly commentary, his eight-year run already succeeded in shaking the dominance that Fox had held over cable discourse.

Commentators like to point to MSNBC’s line-up — and Olbermann and Rachel Maddow in particular — as an equivalent to Fox News on the right. Even Jon Stewart aggravated his own liberal fans by making that equivalency at the Rally to Restore Sanity, including Olbermann clips in a video montage that demonstrated the insanity of our national discourse. There are, though, some critical differences. For one, Fox News provides such a distorted perspective of current events that those who watch it as their primary news source rank among the least informed Americans. Secondly, Fox’s relationship to the Republican Party is far different than MSNBC’s to the Democrats. As Frank Rich and others have noted, almost every major Republican presidential hopeful, except for the self-funded, are on Fox’s payroll. As fellow MSNBC host Ed Shultz has pointed out, when Bush and Cheney wanted to get their message out, they’d appear on a Fox program; Obama and Biden do not do the same with MSNBC. 

Third, most critically, and most unfortunately, is viewership. Fox News has a far larger market share than MSNBC, and even during their most heated exchanges, Olbermann never overtook O’Reilly’s ratings. Fox’s role in perverting our national debate is unparalleled by other media outlets.

Which is part of what made Olbermann so critical. While he couldn’t overtake Fox in numbers, he could take them on directly. His jousting with O’Reilly got so heated that Fox and G.E. execs stepped in to broker a truce. But it had its impact. More people are starting to see O’Reilly, Beck, Hannity and other Fox mainstays as unreliable at best and destructive at worst. While they have their own loyal followings, to be sure, fewer independents trust what’s coming out of Fox. If Olbermann’s lambasts played some role in reshaping that popular understanding, he served an important public function. And if, at times, he allowed himself to be skewered as their counterpoint on the left, he did so for the good cause of putting Fox “News” in a new context.

Olbermann’s other lasting contribution is in avenue he opened for his fellow MSNBC hosts. Rachel Maddow is a forceful, intelligent, unapologetic and progressive voice that found its megaphone in part due to Countdown’s success. Ed Shultz brought his progressive populism to a wider viewership as MSNBC recognized the value in a progressive brand and audience. Cenk Ugyer climbed from an independent web video program to become a national cable host. Dylan Ratigan has found a platform for calling out the excesses and unaccountability of corrupt corporate culture.

To varying extents, they all owe Olbermann for helping enlarge the market for progressive anchors…and they are all going to continue their important work in the years ahead.

We can’t know yet whether it was the Comcast deal, fear of Olbermann’s antiestablishment approach, frustration with his temperament, or his own aggravation at being second-guessed by management that led to his departure. That story will shake out in the days and weeks ahead. What is clear, though, is that he has had his impact.

That impact will continue. It will continue every time Rachel Maddow opens a program. It will continue as Olbermann’s supporters continue to challenge MSNBC and its new owners at Comcast. And it will continue wherever Olbermann ends up next. He may have said, “Good night and good luck,” but we don’t believe he’s retiring for the evening…not just yet.

Justin Krebs is a political organizer and writer based in New York City. He is the founder of Living Liberally, a nationwide network of 250 local clubs that create social events around progressive politics, and author of "538 Ways to Live, Work and Play Like a Liberal."