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A Premature Defense for Olbermann.

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Eric Kohn February 9, 2011 at 3:15AM

Tim Goodman is wrong. I think.
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Tim Goodman is wrong. I think.

In a recent piece for The Hollywood Reporter, the TV critic ascertains that recently deposed MSNBC news host Keith Olbermann's decision to migrate over to Current TV will relegate him to obscurity, comparing the shift to Dan Rather's late career life on HDNet.

There's a fundamental difference here: Rather entered a little-seen corner cable arena during a period that many considered the twilight of his career, while Olbermann is still revving his engine. I've never been a huge fan of his wannabe Edward R. Murrow gallantry, but when Olbermann steps off the soap box he often makes sharp points and fights the good fight. Up until now, he could only do so within the constraints of the cable news format. Either it couldn't contain him, or he couldn't contain it, but either way, the relationship was doomed to fail.

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Some media pundits manage to slip their feisty élan into the system. Rachel Maddow is a good example, of course. Everyone loves the way her delicate exterior masks the beast within. Piss her off and the ideology comes out to play (it's not like this former Air America host needs to hide her biases). But Maddow's likability allows her to get away with partisanship under the auspices of reportage because her opinion is part of her brand. People get it.

Olbermann's rascally ways are more unfettered and tonally complex. It's often hard to tell if he's being sarcastic or simply lost his temper. That's a lovely ambiguity at times, but not for people expecting garden variety headline analysis. (Does any name talent still do that? Anderson Cooper tries, but he's too precious. He looks like my cat.) Still, Olbermann was an ideal foe to Bill O'Reilly extremism, and should continue on that route.

Jon Stewart continues to inhabit a brilliant gray area where he can riff on the news to his heart's delight by claiming the safety valve of satire, which allows him to basically make shit up (sketch comedy excuses the confusion of fantasy and reality, after all). He churns out brilliant editorial cartoons in motion -- but he's still a funny man first, cultural commentator second. Stewart can only go dark or serious if a punchline lurks around the corner.

My hope is that Olbermann can find the happy medium between Maddow and Stewart. He should be ripping into the headlines, calling out the bullshitters, and mocking them however he sees fit. Have fun with the insanity (bring back Worst Person of the World, get bitchier about it!) but always come back down to earth at the end of the show. There's a fine line between brilliant punditry and mad science; Olbermann has the opportunity to walk it.

The question of ratings has no relevance here. We're at a unique point in broadcast history when television personalities have succeeded by mobilizing their core fans and propelling their careers forward on the basis of that loyalty alone. The major networks either get onboard with this strategy or abandon it, but the personalities survive. Have I mentioned how pumped I am to see "Conan O'Brien Can't Stop" at the South by Southwest Film Festival this year?

At any rate, back to Olbermann: I'll be watching. Assuming they post the clips online, anyway.

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