On Journalism, Olbermann, And The Corporate Media

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…

3 thoughts on “On Journalism, Olbermann, And The Corporate Media

  1. It is difficult to answer your comment Mark, without engaging in a “my sources are better than yours” stream, but I will try. First, the easy part. The Age of Reason is not a modern political label Mark, it is a historical term used to define various periods, philosophies, and writers between 1600 and the early 19th Century. Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson were deeply inspired by the period…and both of their works stand as late contributions. It served as the driving philosophy of the revolutions here and in France. So no, you can’t insert Mr. Reagan into The Age of Reason (he didn’t even make a film about that period).

    The Founding Fathers were Americans…they were as we are now; a blend of professions, faiths, passions, and ideologies who managed to compromise enough to produce a brilliant founding document. I would firmly reject any who attempt to color the Founders with their own ideology…there is enough written that those men’s ideals stand on their own.

    As to lies in the media…I am quite confident I can find significant lies and/or omissions in at least 2/3 of EVERY Glenn Beck broadcast on Fox News. Similar, although less severe numbers can be found for the other “opinion” shows on that network. You will not be able to match that claim with Wolf Blitzer (although I really can’t stand watching him), and Bill Maher doesn’t have a “news” program on a “news” channel. Please note that I don’t include radio talkers like Limbaugh et. al. for precisely that reason.

    The quagmire you so ably describe is precisely my point in that analogy; what many in our media promote as “simple” solutions are really nothing of the sort. Generally speaking, simple solutions typically come flying out of the mouths of individuals who have not thought the issue through to its logical conclusion. Thus this column, a piece sure to angry many liberal friends of mine who might not have thought enough on the stated incidents before publishing. Once you have either bombed a village, or called a politician and his/her followers evil, you have no more room for further maneuver. It is, as they say, impossible to put the toothpaste back in the tube. You won’t find a commander in the field with a tactical plan that does not specify ex-filtration, but much of our politics miss this critical element.

    Finally, I have noted previously that violence has played a role on both sides of the political spectrum in our history. I mentioned the 60’s (an allusion to groups like The Weatherman and the original Black Panthers) directly in my previous call to civility, but you will be hard-pressed to find the right’s equal for violent rhetoric in today’s left. You would be overwhelmed by clips and quotes taken from Fox News, and would not find anything close to its equal on all other networks combined. You will certainly find instances of such rhetoric (instances I hope we are passing away from now), but the volume is simply not analogous.

    When you find a group of liberals marching anywhere with automatic weapons (or even single-shot weapons), let me know. The notion is simply absurd. Unless you and your hunting buddies are threatened by a group of dope-smoking neo-feminists hell-bent on shoving flowers in the barrels of your rifles, you have little to complain about.

  2. “Liberal” journalists have no more business in the business than “conservative” journalists. This is a very true statement. But the problem is, we opened Pandora’s Box and now we can’t get it closed. All of your points make sense, but one who see things more from the right, I put different names and labels in your arguments.
    One argument is;” Liberals shocked at the reactionary and often violent rhetoric of the right”. I can easily see this statement written. Conservatives shocked at the reactionary and often violent rhetoric of the Left!

    This is nothing less than the very legacy of a democracy founded by thinkers from the Age of Reason. Is this an argument that democracy’s founding thinkers are Liberal? As a conservative, I have to insert my hero Ronald Regan and his Presidency as the Age of Reason. You’re going to get me on this one, but conservatives really hate it when they consider themselves the only reasonable thinkers.

    The next argument I’m tackling is;” 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”. Insert Wolf Blitzer, Bill Maher, etc…

    “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”. This right here is what I call a quagmire. My hunting buddies and I, just cringed when we here this argument. We talk about, if we didn’t have to pussy foot around the world, we could put an end to these wars and how we have to keep losing soldiers because we have to fight fair when our opponents don’t. If we were to listen to me and my hunting buddies, we just might end some of the nonsense, but we may escalate, thus the quagmire.
    One last note on your article; does the violent call to arms encoded in Liberal talking points need to stop?

  3. I agree that it would be nice if all news shows actually gave facts without partisan comment. However, I have watched many news shows on various networks where I see no correction of wrong facts given by the GOP. It infuriates me when an anchor sits quietly while a lie is being told. I’ve even seen this happen on The PBS News Hour. We need a show like Olbermann to call them out for their lies.

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