It is not a compliment to human nature to say that there is something within us that is sometimes drawn to watching — for a limited period of time, anyway — the comically deranged on display. Which brings me to MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann.
By now Olbermann’s hyper-partisanship and straight-from-the-fever-swamps mentality — witness just about any of Keith’s “Special Comments” for ample evidence — is well documented. What is interesting to me, during the times I’ve tuned in to his program, is that he never interviews anyone who holds an alternative point of view. He appears — unlike the competitors he often obsesses about — to be afraid to expose his ideas to the light of day.
Olbermann has on his program either spokesmen from the Obama campaign or, much more frequently, journalists who share (though usually in a less offensive and more camouflaged way) Olbermann’s political biases. They almost never challenge the assumptions of Olbermann; their role is to give his prejudices the patina of “journalistic objectivity.” I’m speaking of people like Air America’s Rachel Maddow, Newsweek’s Richard Wolffe and Howard Fineman, the Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson and, until earlier this week, Dana Milbank.
According to Olbermann’s post on The Daily Kos (how perfectly appropriate), it seems Milbank notified Olbermann that after four years of appearing with him, Milbank accepted another television offer. Olbermann was apparently irate about a column by Milbank last week that created difficulty for Barack Obama, and therefore banned Milbank from his program. Olbermann alleges that Milbank took a comment by Obama out of context (readers can decide for themselves whether that is in fact a fair charge) and would not explain himself. And so Dana Milbank, who after four years of playing up to Olbermann deigned to write a single critical column on The Great Obama, was quickly censured. Such are the exacting journalistic standards of Olbermann, and, apparently, the network for which he works.
One wonders if the journalists who appear on Olbermann’s program understand that they are simply props for a man who has become the go-to guy for the MoveOn.org, Daily Kos, and The Huffington Post crowd. And do they appreciate just how much their credibility is damaged by frequently appearing with, and showing their obvious sympathy and agreement with, a man who has become a ranting, cartoonish character?
It’s an open secret that MSNBC, when turning its lonely eyes to Obama, feels (to invoke the unfortunate and slightly too revealing phrase used by one of its hosts, Chris Matthews) “a thrill going up my leg.”
Undoubtedly it does; and undoubtedly Chris speaks for many of his colleagues. They have an enormous investment, political, and emotional, in Obama’s success, and they are doing all they can to improve the odds that he will be our next president. That MSNBC does so in such a transparent way will, I think, harm its, and NBC’s, reputation even beyond what it has so far. And it underscores just one reason why the loss of Tim Russert was such a devastating loss to the network. He was the one person who appeared on MSNBC whose credibility — enormous and well-deserved credibility — allowed MSNBC to make at least a claim to journalistic seriousness. That really isn’t possible anymore.
MSNBC has a mission in this campaign: assuring the election of Barack Obama. They will, it seems, do everything in their power to achieve that end. That sound you hear, in that quest, is of journalistic standards being flushed down the toilet. Just like Dana Milbank was.
– Peter Wehner, former deputy assistant to the president, is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.