One week ago today, Keith Olbermann recorded his last words as the host of Countdown. The very minute he left frame, the blogosphere and Twitter world caught fire as millions expressed shock, sadness, anger, and for the conservatives of the nation, delight. Conspiracy theories raged across the ether as corporate giant Comcast, whose merger with NBC technically started that day, was assumed to have ordered K.O.’s firing. Supporters quickly drew a line from Olbermann’s axing to Comcast and thence to the Citizen’s United ruling by the Supreme Court one year prior. Boycotts of MSNBC and NBC were planned and indeed demanded.
Liberals who have watched conservative commentators and bloggers burst into flames at the smallest hint of potential liberal scandal, have now (seemingly) adopted the same strategy. The worst possible conclusions of every event are automatically drawn, without corroborating evidence, and draconian solutions are immediately pushed as the only true liberal reaction. Liberals shocked at the reactionary and often violent rhetoric of the right, have decided to adopt a similar tone and trigger pressure in their own dealings with the worlds of politics and the media. We have seen the pattern repeated many times after; the decision to abandon the public option, the decision not to sanction Israel during the Gaza War and blockade, the decision to select the not liberal enough Elena Kagan, the decision-making before and after the Big Spill, the decision to adopt the plan that included a consumer financial agency inside the Fed, the decision to make a deal on taxes with Republicans, Tucson, and the firing of Keith Olbermann.
All of the above events were and are critical to the democracy. All of them revolved around issues that liberals felt weren’t handled according to their principles. In all of these events, a small group of liberals aggressive within social networks, acted as judge and jury in deciding who the villains were and how they should be punished. In all of these events, these liberals jumped to some very poor conclusions that they then felt compelled to defend as the real facts came pouring in. To be absolutely certain, all of the above events represent issues that are critical to me personally. Many of them represent opportunities for the advancement of liberal ideals, ideals I believe are central to our history and future as a democracy. But liberalism, above all else, is supposed to treasure the sober application of fact and reason. This is nothing less than the very legacy of a democracy founded by thinkers from the Age of Reason.
Serving as mitigation for the less reasonable reactions of many liberals within new media, is the complete abdication of responsibility and mission by the old media. That Keith Olbermann is no longer on the air is almost certainly a bi-product of his inability to contain his rage at media establishment. He has never been known to (or claimed to) have patience for the politics of corporate America, and corporate America is now in charge of the news. Freedom of the press exists, in the United States, for the express purpose of reporting facts to the citizens of the democracy. If that sentence seems somewhat dry, obtuse, and less than entertaining, then you understand the problem completely. Journalism is protected so that it may report items that have absolutely no value as entertainment. But journalism doesn’t happen in America unless it has value as entertainment.
Keith Olbermann stayed on the air long after another personality would have been fired, precisely because he had value as entertainment. He did not lie on a nearly nightly basis like Glenn Beck does; he did not stretch the truth to the breaking point on a weekly basis like Bill O’Reilly does, and he is not nearly as unintentionally hilarious as the court of fools on Fox and Friends are; but K.O. does know how to turn “news” into entertainment. He raised conservative commentators and politicians on their own petards, and we loved him for it. But even though Olbermann provided us with reasonable and accomplished guests (Jonathon Turley, Nate Silver, John Dean, Melissa Harris-Perry, etc.), he was himself every bit as partisan and belligerent as those he so effortlessly lampooned. I believed him necessary as a liberal counterweight to the malicious garbage coming from Fox News. For a time, I watched him nightly.
But is it really effective, over the long term, to fight fire with fire? We liberals are, after all, the first to point out the fallacy of using that strategy against terrorism, because it creates terrorists faster than we can kill them. And so Olbermann created engaged and angry liberals faster then they could educate themselves. Many a time I have seen friends, fired up by Keith, venture onto the net to confront conservatives far better versed in the subjects of debate. The seemingly hair trigger responses by K.O. had the benefit of a production team and many of those experts I mentioned above; they had research and perspective and time. It was only the anchor’s irascibility and emotion that occasionally led him into untenable positions. That same emotion, spirit, and adherence to principle suffers without the supports that Olbermann always went on air with.
The difficult choice is ever-present in democracy; do we fight the fights we can win, or do we fight the fights that need fighting? Before making that choice, however, it is absolutely essential that we have a complete understanding of the field of battle. Does the violent call to arms encoded in conservative talking points need to stop? Absolutely. Is the prevalence and accessibility of guns in the United States a real problem? Yes. Do these facts mean that Tucson was an appropriate venue to call for the prosecution of a former state governor? Perhaps not. Just a fortnight after the Giffords shooting, my friends (and I write that with all conviction), were instantly convinced that their favorite liberal champion had been pushed out by a corporate monopoly supported by a corrupt Supreme Court. Within 48 hours, it was abundantly clear that the connections were never that simple, but for many, a flawed position that needed to be defended at all costs had already been taken.
My liberal friends in the new media are, however, in the best position to fix journalism, but they must first understand what journalism is all about. What the corporate media forgot or ignored long ago, is that journalism is not an industry filled with market segments. “Liberal” journalists have no more business in the business than “conservative” journalists. Everyone is entitled to their personal point of view, and humans always bleed their perspective into the work at hand, but journalism is about the collection and dissemination of fact. There are, to twist a phrase, no sides to any story. Factual reporting, unburdened by the false notion of “balance” found in today’s corporate news machine, should always have greater exposure and prestige than opinion. It is with some embarrassment that I review the statistics for this blog; statistics that show my purely opinion-based columns are far more popular than those based in straight reporting.
But we the people have always had options…PBS has been delivering factual journalism for decades, even as millions of liberals flocked to MSNBC and its hype and production values. These facts, taken together, beg a question. Are we interested in good reporting, or do we really want a cable network that mirrors the ratings and dramatic partisanship of Fox News? Are we interested in solving problems from our proudly liberal point of view, or do we really just want to win? There are those who would answer this with a call to the purity of principle, a call that sounds suspiciously similar to the “purity tests” of 21st Century conservatism. But this problem is never about anything so prosaic as principle. Journalism and politics too often boil down to the visceral reactions that create ratings. A favorite character from fiction asks the immortal question:
“Are you not entertained!?”
The Rational Middle is listening…