Last night on Countdown with Keith Olbermann, the MSNBC host spent part of his broadcast condemning ABC’s George Stephanopoulos and Charles Gibson for their role in Wednesday’s Democratic debate. For Olbermann to sit in judgment of accomplished news journalists is comical.
For the unaware, Olbermann was a decent cohost (with Dan Patrick) of ESPN’s SportsCenter during the 1990s. This was followed by a stint on FOX Sports, before landing his position as host of his current MSNBC program. (Previously, he spent some time on MSNBC, but left out of disgust because he tired of covering the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal.)
Olbermann does excel at some things; he knows quite a lot about baseball, for instance. Unfortunately, his wisdom does not extend to serious journalism, or to matters of policy. Instead of original insight or thoughtful commentary, Olbermann offers a nightly digest of left-wing blogosphere clichés.
From time to time, Olbermann enriches his anemic program with a “Special Comment,” segment during which, furrow-browed, he lashes out – usually at the Bush administration – for as long as ten minutes at a time. It is riveting in its own way: haughty and self-righteous, melodramatic, overwritten, sputtering with rage, banalities, and quotations from Bartlett’s. It turns out that the mad utterings of a cable-news host can command an audience (though not a particularly large audience).
Like the band player who longs to be the high-school sports star, Olbermann covets the life of the serious journalist, and aspires to be the next Edward R. Murrow. But he is neither. He is not even Bob Ley.
Lately, Olbermann has become one of cable television’s most vociferous Obama cheerleaders. He eagerly waves palm branches for Obama, and criticizes anyone who dares to question the Man of Hope – hence his criticisms of Stephanopoulos and Gibson for merely asking the candidate about his relationship with Reverend Jeremiah Wright and William Ayers. These days Olbermann will often interview MSNBC contributors whose dispositions toward Obama range from love to reverence to worship. On his program, this qualifies as balance.
NBC News has a great history and it includes some of the best journalists working today, including Tim Russert and Brian Williams. But NBC News also has Keith Olbermann, and so long as it does, its reputation as a serious news organization will suffer. The esteemed among NBC’s journalists deserve better, as does the American news-consuming public.
– Peter Wehner, former deputy assistant to the president, is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.