Sunday, June 15, 2008

Why Keith Olbermann Matters

Peter Boyer's New Yorker profile of Keith Olbermann, filed by the editors under "The Political Scene," isn't really about politics or even about television; instead, it's a gossip-filled, behind-the-scenes look at MSNBC cooler talk and corporate obsessions. As such, it's remarkably boring--tabloid-style shop talk more suited to Ad Week than to the political section of a major magazine.

A reader of Boyer's article who has never seen Olbermann's program will come away with the idea that MSNBC has created a left-wing version of The O'Reilly Factor. But, setting aside Olbermann's public goading of O'Reilly, that's not the reason for the show's success. Any article about Countdown that doesn't mention Rachel Maddow, Dana Milbank, Eugene Robinson, Howard Fineman, John Dean, Craig Crawford, or Jeffrey Toobin (himself a New Yorker contributor) has missed the point. Every hour of Countdown features four or five several-minute segments of Keith wonking wonkishly with a respected wonk about some political issue, be it the latest election result or the latest Supreme Court decision. Even if it's presented from a liberal/progressive slant, you simply won't find such in-depth analysis on any other celebrity-driven news program outside of PBS.

What the show doesn't have are commentators shouting over each other, anchors ridiculing guests while cutting off their microphones, and ignorant viewpoints masquerading as just another side in a phony, tempestuous debate. ("Coming up: Is the earth 4,000 years old? We report. You decide.") What is intolerable about Bill O'Reilly and Lou Dobbs and Chris Matthews and their ilk is their insistence that the most reprehensible prejudices and brainless nitwits are worthy of equal time.

That's not to say that the show always lives up to its goals. Keith has become infamous for the question that answers itself; occasionally a rambling comment leaves a guest staring blankly at the monitor, wondering if a response is needed or expected. And I agree with James Poniewozik that Olbermann's rant against Hillary's "assassination" gaffe was over the top; it made me uncomfortable, and for a brief moment the show became what it had been an answer to.

But I think that particular ten-minute tirade was notable for being an exception to the overall setting of the program: an often cynical, usually funny, sometimes heated, but rarely belligerent discussion among intellectual equals who assume that certain viewpoints are beneath their viewers' dignity and, above all, who never condescend to their audience when talking about politics. Behind Olbermann's success is the still-radical notion that the most fervent American patriot can voice dissent against government malfeasance and right-wing spin.