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A Premature Defense for Olbermann.

by Eric Kohn
February 9, 2011 3:15 AM
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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.


  • Bella Versace | February 12, 2011 6:28 AMReply

    Comparing Olbermann to Rather is apples and oranges. Dan Rather was one of several top level news broadcasters. There is only one Keith Olbermann and his audience awaits him. I say he makes Current a successful left leaning news channel, which we need since we could never depend on MSNBC,

  • PoliticalAmazon | February 10, 2011 11:29 AMReply

    Olbermann is the only cable liberal political talk host who is willing to take the risks, to go that extra inch towards the precipice, that is required to truly speak truth to power.

    Olbermann is willing to take it on the chin and take the risks of taking a very unpopular opinon, while other "journalists" and pundits timidly cower behind him.

    Rachel Maddow is well researched and very clever, but she can't bring it. She cannot take the risk that Olbermann has repeatedly taken for his viewers.

    When I, and many others, were questioning our own sanity because, even us of the unwashed masses knew that GWBush was lying about WMDs as an excuse to invade and occupy Iraq. We saw all but about 5 members of Congress sheeple on up to support GWBush in his lying madness.

    When Olbermann spoke up and said flat-out that Bush was lying, and that Congress knew it, it was like a breath of sanity wafted across the country.

    Oh, sure, Congress still sheepled in obsequience to Bush and the neocons and gave Bush unilateral power to invade and occupy Iraq. But those of us who knew the truth felt better because someone took the big risk to state what was easily discovered with about 5 internet searches.

    The fact that MSNBC named Lawrence "mr. meh" O'Donnell as the center of their liberal evening programming speaks volumes for the dumbing-down (or rightwingification) MSNBC plans for its liberal line-up.

  • dora K. | February 9, 2011 8:53 AMReply


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