Olbermann's Disturbing Departure
Editor’s Note: When George W. Bush was at the swaggering height of his power, there were few voices in the major U.S. news media who dared to take him on, especially among the high-paid TV news personalities. One exception was MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann.
That is why Olbermann’s sudden ouster from his Countdown program last month was so stunning – and why it portends a less pugnacious response from American liberals to the new surge in right-wing political power, as Franklin L. Johnson notes in this guest essay:
On Friday evening, Jan. 21, after reading a short story by James Thurber, titled The Scotty Who Knew Too Much, Keith Olbermann abruptly closed his program by informing his viewers it would be his last. This out-of-the-blue exit will go down in broadcast history as one of the most bizarre.
It was no mystery Keith Theodore Olbermann had a rocky relationship with the front office of parent company NBC Universal. Often, there were signs his head was on the chopping block for some of his fiery rants which rankled the corporate sensitivities of many NBC sponsors.
Olbermann was able to defy his critics and arrogantly soldier on because he had strong support from CEO Jeff Zucker. He acknowledged Olbermann's value in growing the viewer base for MSNBC's evening news programs.
Infotainment increased briskly as cable service expanded across the nation. Olbermann played an important part in this process.
Furthermore, his opinion was an indispensable expression of liberal perspectives on current issues. And he was a bulwark against the rise of the right-wing propaganda machine known as FOX-hole news.
A terse statement on Countdown's website noted Olbermann's contract ended. It didn't say why or how.
The four-year deal for $30 million was set to expire in 2012, just after the presidential election. MSNBC thanked Mr. Olbermann for his contribution and "wished him well in his future endeavors." A comprehensive explanation was nowhere to be found. There is obviously more to this story.
The public has been left to speculate about the few facts available to draw a reasonable conclusion. Here are some bits and pieces which could be helpful in the pursuit of the truth.
It was no coincidence Olbermann was promptly sacked after the Comcast/General Electric joint venture relating to NBC Universal received final regulatory clearance. This deal also released president Jeff Zucker from his executive obligations.
With Mr. Zucker gone, Olbermann had no one in a position of power to protect him from dismissal. The very fact no further details seem to be forthcoming strongly suggests his firing was driven by office politics and/or personality clashes.
The evidence supports the view that politics rather than personality was at the heart of this incident. Keith was suspended for two days without pay in November 2010 for donating to the campaigns of three members of Congress.
He was sanctioned despite his protests he was unaware of NBC's corporate policy against such donations and he had every intention of informing his viewers about these donations, including one to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Arizona, who later became a victim of an assassination attempt in Tucson.
There are several more points worthy of consideration. The Republicans intend to wage a vicious campaign against Barack Obama during the next election cycle. They're emboldened by their seizure of the House at the polls last year and by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.
That ruling, which was handed down one year to the day of Olbermann's ouster, basically nullified Buckley v. Valeo which had declared money was protected speech but set limits on its use. Citizens United opened up a Pandora's Box of unlimited corporate contributions to our political process which could ultimately destroy what's left of American democracy.
Olbermann's axing threw MSNBC's weekly schedule into serious disarray. The evening opens with Chris Matthews in his regular spot at 5 p.m. Then, he's followed by newcomer Cenk Uygur and a repeat of Chris' Hardball show.
Olbermann's flagship 8 p.m. slot is filled by Lawrence O'Donnell, an old political hand and worthy replacement with a dull delivery. However, there's a big difference between the two O's.
Rhodes scholar Rachel Maddow holds her usual slot at 9 p.m. with labor watchdog, Ed Schultz, ending the evening at 10 p.m. A close examination of this lineup suggests that Olbermann indeed was fired for political reasons.
Rachel Maddow was the heir apparent to Olbermann's cleanup batter position. A superstar in her own right, Maddow earned this promotion as a result of hard work and perseverance. Yet, the fact she was passed over for somber, sleepy Larry O'Donnell speaks loudly about how NBC and the media in general intend to cover the 2012 presidential election cycle.
Moving labor advocate Schultz from 6 to 10 p.m. further diminishes labor's impact on U.S. politics. Also, contract restrictions will probably prevent Olbermann from returning to broadcast TV until the fall at the earliest.
All of these actions are setting the stage for a virtual conservative monopoly of the U.S. national political debate going into next year's election cycle.
Keith Olbermann chose Thurber's The Scotty Who Knew Too Much very carefully. The "Who," rather than "That" or "Which," in the title personalizes the pooch. It's a clear reference to himself.
This was a subtle slap at his and our corporate overlords who reward conformity and punish rebellion. The story ends with the moral "It is better to have asked some of the questions than to know all of the answers." If we are to survive as a nation, we should fervently heed this warning.
To comment at Consortiumblog, click here. (To make a blog comment about this or other stories, you can use your normal e-mail address and password. Ignore the prompt for a Google account.) To comment to us by e-mail, click here. To donate so we can continue reporting and publishing stories like the one you just read, click here.
Back to Home Page