The Vacuum Olbermann Leaves

Saturday, January 22, 2011 - 02:35 PM

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."


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Comments [14]

Natalie from Brooklyn, NY

I agreed with what KO had to say more than the way he said it. Some of his segments, like worse, worser, worst, were too schticky for me. Regardless, I often listened to him and regret that MSNBC has lost him. If he gets a time slot elsewhere, I will certainly listen to it. It is suspicious that his departure comes so close to NBC's takeover by ComCast. Media monopolies should concern us all.

Jan. 24 2011 12:07 PM
Marcello from Brooklyn

@ Solomon Kleinsmith.
I think that, in general, the emergence of a more diverse political environment that includes a “centrist” project such as yours could be good thing for a deeply polarized country like this.
However, there are signs that are not reassuring to me. If I understood you correctly, you seem to be happy to see KO go. Why is that? So that the barrage of right-wing propaganda coming from Fox and the talk-radio universe can have one less counterpoint? The diminishing of that diversity of opinion that you seem to advocate hardly seems like a good thing to me.
But what worries me even more is that your posts might imply some sort of “symmetry” between Fox and Msnbc; between the Hannity and Beck crowd on one side and Olbermann and Maddow on the other. Olbermann and Maddow are definitely opinionated, left-leaning journalists (and I personally cannot stand this whole style of American tv journalism...) but they are journalists nevertheless. Hannity Beck etc. are corporate mouth-pieces who spread lies and disinformation in perfect Soviet-style propaganda (such as Hannity showing the now famous clip of Obama talking about “raising taxes” until Jon Stewart exposed that, when seen in the whole speech, his comments were referring to something else entirely...). So, you see, one thing is to promote a centrist point of view another is to try to depict the two sides as “equally” wrong or ideologically bent. That, can look like expediency.

Jan. 24 2011 10:45 AM
Justin Krebs from NYC

Hi Folks -

Thanks for all this commentary. Sorry I didn't weigh in sooner, but was offline for most of the weekend. (Will have to learn how to engage in the Comments thread from a mobile device...)

It's too soon to say why Olbermann left. Today's Times goes to great lengths to say it was mutual -- -- and to note that it's part of a trend in his work. Not sure if that was a G.E./NBC spin job or if there's truth to it.

I think the bigger point I was trying to make was in the Times piece: that Olbermann is a "tent pole" that held up the slate of programming on MSNBC. It's not that he ever got numbers as big as O'Reilly, but he helped build a brand -- that's part of a larger movement -- that created an easy contrast to Fox, as the larger public began understanding Fox to be propaganda, not news after all.

In that regard, Olbermann's project was hugely successful.

Jan. 24 2011 10:12 AM
Solomon Kleinsmith from Omaha, NE

"Fox does nothing but scare and pander to old white people."

This is as asanine a thing to say as "MSNBC does nothing but scare and pander to young and foolish people."

Are old people somehow less important because they're old? I don't like either MSNBC *OR* Fox News, but I don't stoop to generational prejudice to attack either.

Jan. 23 2011 06:00 PM
Solomon Kleinsmith from Omaha, NE

Will certainly be interesting to see where he ends up. Not a smart move for MSNBC I don't think, but I wont say I'm sorry to hear it.

Jan. 23 2011 05:56 PM
Jack Jackson from Central New Jersey

I don't know why KO quit MSNBC but it came so quickly that I lean heavily to the view that KO intended to do a 'Special Commentary' on the recently approved ComCast/NBC-Universal deal. [A deal that will eventually be found to be in restraint of trade - and therefore ComCast will be forced to divest - just as the film studios were forced to divest their movie theater chains in the Forties.]

Anyway, KO was told by existing mgmt "No you're not" and KO's only response to this prior restraint on the part of mgmt was "OK. I quit".

There will be lots of supposing around this issue but there you have it in a nutshell. KO will continue because the country needs him. He is sometimes a little too partisan for the left but considering the b*ttf*cking the American middle class has been getting from the GOP for the last 40 years, I'm happy that somebody I agree with is standing up for what they see is right.

Jan. 23 2011 01:00 PM
Jim from St. Louis

Everyone wants to say that Olbermann's show was somehow inferior to anything on Fox. All you have to do is look to the demographics. Fox does nothing but scare and pander to old white people. Who sits around and watches political shows on weeknights with their TV dinners because they have nothing better to do? Old bitter white people. That doesn't mean they represent the bulk of middle America. They are just scared old farts who don't know any better and thus don't want change of any kind, even if it is in their own best interest.

Jan. 23 2011 02:28 AM
frenfro from NYC

you really have no idea what you're talking about

Jan. 22 2011 06:46 PM
Bryce Carlson from San Francisco, CA

What a great day for America and real Americans! Keith Olbermann is nothing but a bitter, so-called "progressive" socialist of limited ability, and even more limited judgment. His one great talent is for ignoring and twisting facts to suit his sick ad hominem attacks and socialist vision for America. Amid the weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth by his fellow-traveler fans, real Americans are smiling ;-).

Jan. 22 2011 05:26 PM

David Cohen: The fact that you would blame the Jews for Keith Olbermann's ouster says way more about your prejudiced view of the world than it does about Comcast. That's one of the most bizarre conspiracy theories I've ever read, right up there with alien mind control.

Jan. 22 2011 04:35 PM
Stephen Nettles from Atlanta,GA

You are an excellent writer. However, Keith's leaving is of no consequence. As for his putting a dent in Fox, I don't see that either. His ratings never exceeded the ratings of the lowest rated fox show. So, where's the dent?

Jan. 22 2011 04:35 PM
David Cohen from USA

"Jewish TV network finally arrives ... if you have Comcast". Keith Olbermann's remarks about Zionist's top brass Joe Lieberman's leaving the senate is the reason. Lieberman is one of the strong pillar of Zionist's AIPAC and their cohorts. It took a constant effort by ADL and AIPAC to keep Lieberman in power to advance the causes of Israel and what Keith Olbermann said about Lieberman got him in hot waters.

Jan. 22 2011 03:57 PM


Jan. 22 2011 03:37 PM
Karol from NYC

Good piece. I'm not sure I agree that Olbermann dented any armour, though. He was 3rd in his time slot (that's of 4) on cable news. While I'm sure his audience is loyal, it's fairly small in size. No matter that Olbermann was doing, how "anti-establishment" he was, or how many people he offended, I think we can both agree no one fires someone #1 (or even #2) in ratings.

Jan. 22 2011 03:36 PM

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