|I fear for
Like so many others who hunger for some
journalistic independence on TV news, I often marvel at Olbermann's
dogged reporting and unique commentary. In a cable news environment
of conformity and conservatism, the MSNBC host takes on the Bush
administration for "demonizing dissent," for abusing our
Constitutional traditions, for "taking cynical advantage of the
unanimity and love [following 9/11], and transmuting it into
fraudulent war and needless death."
Only Olbermann talks about Team Bush "monstrously transforming
[9/11 unity] into fear and suspicion, and turning that fear into the
campaign slogan of three elections." He was virtually alone on TV
news in seriously reporting on 2004 election irregularities in Ohio,
and in exploring the pre-Iraq war Downing Street Memos indicating
White House deception.
In recent months, his prime targets seem to have evolved from
softer ones like Bill O'Reilly to bigger game: Bush and his minions.
It's worth noting that strong criticism of an extremist presidency
hardly makes Olbermann a leftist. I remember him as the whimsical
sports guy on ESPN.
I remember his first go-round on MSNBC in 1998 when he could have
sued his bosses for repetitive stress disorder for having to host
scores of Lewinsky episodes on the road to Clinton's impeachment -
an impeachment that may well have been impossible if not for the
complicity of TV news.
It's obvious his bosses at MSNBC/NBC/GE never envisioned the
increasingly bold Olbermann of recent months. It's likely that
Olbermann himself could not have foreseen his current role as the
lone voice of those who feel assaulted by a cable news business
dominated by the O'Reillys and Hannitys.
So why do I fear for Olbermann? Because I know his bosses. In the
run-up to the Iraq war, I too worked for MSNBC - as an on-air pundit
and a senior producer on the primetime Donahue show.
As I detail in
my new book "Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in
Corporate Media," the Suits at MSNBC/NBC muzzled us and ultimately
terminated us. They feared independent journalism and serious
dissent. They smeared Bush critics, with MSNBC's editor-in-chief
actually going on air - without evidence - to accuse Iraq WMD
skeptic Scott Ritter of being a paid agent of Saddam Hussein.
Olbermann has been gaining in audience ratings. That provides him
some security. But perhaps not enough.
When Donahue was terminated three weeks before the Iraq invasion,
it was MSNBC's most watched program. Canceling your top-rated show
doesn't happen often, but it happened to Donahue. Who knows what
will happen to Olbermann?
With Donahue, management cared less about building up audience
than tamping down dissent. While independent outlets and blogs were
soaring in audience by questioning the rush to war, our bosses
imposed straightjackets on us that prevented similar growth.
In the last months of Donahue, management gave us strict orders:
if we booked a guest who was antiwar, we needed two who were
pro-war. If we booked two guests on the left, we needed three on the
right. When a producer proposed booking Michael Moore, she was told
she'd need three right-wingers for ideological balance.
Olbermann's increasingly bold dissent has been occurring at a
time when Bush's approval ratings are low and Bush's war is in
shambles. That gives him some added security.
During Donahue's tenure at MSNBC on the eve of war, Bush's
popularity was high. And media conglomerates were particularly
concerned about not ruffling the White House at that moment - as
they were lobbying hard to get FCC rules changed to allow them to
grow still fatter.
The day after Donahue was terminated, an internal NBC memo leaked
out; it said that Phil Donahue represents "a difficult public face
for NBC in a time of war." Why? Because he insisted on presenting
administration critics. The memo worried that Donahue would become a
"home for the liberal antiwar agenda at the same time that our
competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity."
NBC's solution then? Dump Phil, stifle dissent, brandish the
NBC's solution now? So far, Olbermann appears to be on more solid
footing - mostly because the political zeitgeist is much changed
from four years ago. But MSNBC is still owned by GE's conservative
bosses, and managed by NBC's ever-timid executives. Olbermann knows
this reality as well as anyone; six months ago on C-SPAN, while
expressing confidence that good ratings would keep them at bay, he
remarked: "There are people I know in the hierarchy of NBC, the
company, and GE, the company, who do not like to see the current
presidential administration criticized at all."
I'm pulling for Olbermann; I'm one of the multitudes who find his
commentaries online (perhaps more see them on the Web than on TV) -
and forward them far and wide.
But with each new broadside against the Bush administration, I
fear for his future. His best security is us, an active citizenry.
It's media activism, organized heavily on the Net. It's media watch
groups like FAIR and Media Matters for America. It's the movement
that resisted the FCC changes in 2003, challenged Sinclair Broadcast
propaganda before the '04 election, and recently exposed the 9/11
"hijacking" of ABC by rightwing Clinton-bashers.
In the epilogue of Cable News Confidential, I lauded this
movement: "My only regret was that such a potent movement had not
coalesced by 2002 - to flex its muscles against MSNBC brass in
defense of an unfettered Donahue."
If Olbermann gets muzzled or terminated for political reasons, it
will be up to us to fight - not only for him, but for the concept
that without serious dissent, democracy is a sham.
Jeff Cohen is the
founder of the media watch group
FAIR, and author of
Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media