By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

The rise of Keith Olbermann

Peter Boyer has a terrific profile of Keith Olbermann in the current issue of the New Yorker. The theme — the emergence of the opinion-news hybrid in television journalism, seen first on the right with Fox News, now on the left with MSNBC — is an important one following the death of the determinedly centrist Tim Russert.

Personally, I enjoy Olbermann’s “Countdown” quite a bit. His standards for accuracy are considerably higher than those of his nemesis, Bill O’Reilly. My fear is that craven network executives will take any sign of success and drive it right over the cliff. I hadn’t realized until I’d read Boyer’s piece that CBS News had courted Olbermann as its lead anchor before settling on Katie Couric — who, despite all the drama over her low ratings and rumors of her departure, does a perfectly respectable job of anchoring the evening newscast.

Olbermann’s name has also come up as a possible replacement for Russert on “Meet the Press.” Fortunately, the most plausible rumor of the moment is that Tom Brokaw will come out of retirement to helm the program through the election.

By all means, let Olbermann be Olbermann — hosting a news-and-opinion program, not pretending to be something he’s not.

Also work checking out: NPR’s “On the Media” recently did a piece on what it called “The Olbermann Effect.”

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  1. Rick

    Olberman is too over the top for my taste. He’s also nasty. He will never be more than 3rd or 4th place in the ratings, he’s just not likable.CNN was smart to pass on him. He seems to appeal to the far left out there and that’s not a big enough audience to get his ratings any higher.Also I would not call his show “opinion-news”,it’s more like advocacy/news/rant.

  2. Dan Kennedy

    Rick: He’s in second place now — behind O’Reilly, but far ahead of whatever it is CNN is doing in that time slot.

  3. Rick

    I stand corrected. Last time I looked he was 3rd.

  4. Peter Porcupine

    DK – Olbermann’s fatal flaw is that he is a sportscaster – he is ENTIRELY win/lose, crush the opponent. It’s why he doesn’t have guests from the Dark Side, although the Jesuitical Bill O’Reilly often has on liberals. Keith doesn’t think oposing ideas deserve hearing.God help NBC if he gets his teeth into Meet the Press – I give it 6 months, tops, before he destroys the franchise.

  5. Anonymous

    NPR mislabeled their story. It isn’t the “Olbermann Effect”, but rather, by Olbermann’s own admission in the Boyer piece (“I really do owe him a percentage of my salary”), the O’Reilly effect. This is why, Brokaw and Mitchell appearances notwithstanding, the cable side will never be taken as seriously as the broadcast side. Unintentional (or maybe not?) comic effect at NPR’s Web site: In the audio of that story, you can clearly hear Bob Garfield say “Then came Fox News Channel, offering a fair and balanced 24-hour P.R. forum for the Republican National Committee”, but the Web editor transcribed it as “their public and national committee.” Works either way in the end.

  6. Dan Kennedy

    PP: Oh, please. O’Reilly doesn’t have liberals on to listen to them. He has them on to yell at them. In that respect, even the cartoonish “Hannity & Colmes” is better, because the script calls for Hannity to let up at some point and allow Colmes to let the liberal at least get in a few words.I like Olbermann’s show, but I’m well aware of its shortcomings. Just don’t try to tell me that it’s better than O’Reilly’s miserable program.You know what’s truly amazing? The three cable news nets have nine hours of primetime programming each night (8 to 11 p.m.). And of those nine hours, only one — Anderson Cooper on CNN — is devoted to what anyone would recognize as a reasonably straight newscast.Or maybe Campbell Brown, too? I will confess that I don’t know what she’s up to.

  7. Peter Porcupine

    DK – as I said, Jesuitical. I don’t regard O’Reilly as ‘better’ than Olbermann, but a liberal DOES get to speak, albeit in interrupted form – more than Olberman is willing to concede.I agree about Anderson Cooper, and see less of Campbell Brown than Greta vonSomething.You’re selling Alan Colmes short – he gets in some VERY good points for the side. BTW – where is the conservative/liberal show on CNN and MSNBC? As much as you may mock Fair and Balanced – it’s a better effort than the other 6-odd hours of programming.

  8. O-FISH-L

    Dan, I’m thrilled if this is what you really meant to write, but somehow I doubt it.”I like Olbermann’s show, but I’m well aware of its shortcomings. Just don’t try to tell me that it’s better than O’Reilly’s miserable program.”Awesome, I always knew you’d come around!

  9. Dan Kennedy

    Fish: Obviously I misspoke.PP: Those liberal-conservative debate shows are moronic. God, what could be worse than “Crossfire”? Oh, right. “Hannity & Colmes,” except that it lives.The best show on Fox is Brit Hume’s, but they don’t dare show it in prime time because they occasionally use big words.

  10. Rick

    “The best show on Fox is Brit Hume’s, but they don’t dare show it in prime time because they occasionally use big words.” And people watching FOX can’t understand big words?

  11. RyanB

    Olbermann is like the blogger for the broadcast world. And why are blogs so successful? Because we want to learn other people’s opinions, especially those from people who are actually in the know. That’s why we read blogs. And that’s also why Countdown is so wildly successful. I tune in just to hear his spirited opinions.

  12. Peter Porcupine

    DK – Crossfire needed to go because Jon Stewart, that exemplar of moderated thinking, said so? You learned more about an issue – ANY issue – in a single episode than in a MONTH of Daily Shows…and Stewart had the gall to call the Crossife pundits hacks!And that’s why I mentioned Hume as a MTP replacement – Russert could use big words, too.

  13. Dan Kennedy

    PP: Oh, please. “Crossfire” had already been moved to a time slot where no one could watch it because it was so demonstrably awful. Stewart was wrong — a show can only be “bad for America” if there are viewers.You can do such a show with the right hosts and with a commitment to real issues. Kinsley v. Novak or Buchanan was fine. I like Dionne v. Brooks on NPR, though Brooks isn’t much of a conservative. (Shields v. Brooks on Lehrer is even odder, because Shields isn’t much of a liberal, either.)Von Hoffman v. Kilpatrick was great! Am I showing my age?

  14. O-FISH-L

    Dan, you come across as terribly snobbish suggesting that prime time FNC viewers have limited vocabularies. After all, you just “misspoke” in your 12:47 comment. Pot, kettle? Your unbridled sense of superiority is the antithesis of what made Tim Russert so universally respected. Also, if I recall correctly, you regularly dismiss O’Reilly’s cable ratings winning streak because cable has far fewer viewers than the big three. How then, can you celebrate Olbermann’s second place showing when he has less than half the viewers O’Reilly has? Your elitism reminds me of the alleged comments attributed to a NYC socialite after the 2004 election, “How did Bush win? I don’t know anyone who voted for him.”

  15. Dan Kennedy

    Fish: I am an elitist. Big time.After Reagan was re-elected in 1984, New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael supposedly wondered how he could have won, since she didn’t know anyone who voted for him. The story you’re telling sounds like sort of apocryphal update.Can you show me where I “celebrated” Olbermann’s second-place finish? I said I like the show. Yes, the three cable nets have tiny audiences. That hasn’t changed.If you want intelligent conservative commentary during prime time, I suggest you turn off the television set and read the Weekly Standard. You certainly won’t find it on Fox. Sorry, but it’s the truth.

  16. Rick in Duxbury

    The New Yorker piece refers to Olbermann spending “a few months” in Boston. I would have sworn it was 8-9 years. (Hadn’t heard the one about him telling the inventor of instant replay that he didn’t know what he was doing. Classic.)

  17. Rick

    DanDo you have a special area where you seat the Conservative kids in your classes? Do you have to go over everything twice and talk real slow so what your teaching sinks in? Your contempt for anyone to the right of you is crystal clear.

  18. Dan Kennedy

    Rick: You are confusing my contempt for Fox News, which is real (although, as I said, I do like Brit Hume’s program), with what you imagine to be my contempt for conservatives, which is non-existent. I get along very well with my conservative students, because they are well-read.

  19. Rick

    Dan:I took your comment that Brit Hume’s show is not on in prime time because he uses big words as an insult to FOX viewers not to FOX itself. That’s how I read it anyway.

  20. Anonymous

    Dan, I imagine you are smoking a pipe right now, wearing that tweed sports jacket with the elbow patches. Will the candidate of all you academic elite (St. Barak) do as well as President Dean or President McGovern did? BTW, Olbermann hosts an opinion show where conservatives are not invited. O’Reilly invites all and is tough on all….didn’t the Clinton campaign say O”Reilly was more than fair with her? AND, Fox has too much journalistic integrity to let an opinion commentator like O’Reilly anchor election coverage. Unlike MSNBC that has Olbermann and Mr. “My Leg Has This Tingling Feeling Whenever I Hear Obama Speak” Matthews as ‘news’ anchors.

  21. Dan Kennedy

    Anon 8:39: I don’t smoke. I have written very critically of Howard Dean. And surely you understand that Fox News in general and O’Reilly in particular used Clinton, once she had lost, to beat up on Obama.As for what I make of Matthews and the rest of MSNBC’s election-night crew, I wrote about it for the Guardian here.

  22. Anonymous

    Olberman can be funny and witty at times…but he is becoming the Left wing version of O’Reilley!When he mocks people for personal traits, their voice, looks, etc….these are just cheap shots.I know the Left loves him….thinking he is giving it to them straight…but he’s a leftwing blowhard just likeO’Reilly is a right wing blowhard.Somehow the Left thinks is wrong when someone takes a cheapshot at their candidate…but it’s OK when someone does it for the other side.If youare going to stand for something…it should stand both ways. If you think O’Reilly’s style of “jorunalism” and broadcasting is wrong….then don’t simply do a left wing version of the same thing!Cheap shots are cheap shots.Snarky egotism is the same on both sides.And the whole “special comments” thing is simply self-centered ego gone wild.What makes the comments so “special”?

  23. Doug

    Elitism is good. I read real conservatives like George Will and Andrew Sullivan because they are learned and incisive, not because I wish to share in the malformed resentments of half-wits.Said another way: there’s nothing about Fox News and its defenders that I can’t scrape off my shoe.Doug

  24. Mike from Norwell

    Dan, if I recall Keith O’s World Series “interludes” last fall were about the lamest thing I’ve ever seen on sports broadcasting. Been too involved in Kid sport playoff games over the weekend, but please don’t tell me that he was even being considered for MTP. God help us.

  25. Jon Garfunkel

    DK–I used to watch Keith O., and found him entertaining. Comcast won’t offer me MSNBC without Fox News, so I don’t have either. And I realized I don’t miss Countdown at all. As far as the Pauline Kael quote, I noticed some time ago that Wikipedia’s entry had nailed it down pretty well. She wasn’t expressing clueless elitism; she was, in fact, frankly observing how insular her world was:”I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken. But sometimes when I’m in a theater I can feel them.”

  26. Dan Kennedy

    Jon: We get closer to the truth on Pauline Kael! Very interesting, given how she’s been depicted as a nitwit over the years for that statement.Doug: Though Andrew Sullivan probably couldn’t be called a conservative anymore, George Will certainly can. Here’s something you won’t hear tumbling out of O’Reilly’s or Hannity’s mouth anytime soon.

  27. Doug

    Dan,I think that to understand Sullivan is to interpret his work as a product of the Thatcher movement, which differs greatly from Goldwater-Reagan conservatism here in the States. And about George Will. Could you imagine any of the potted plants on Fox news penning this quote from Will’s column today:McCain, co-author of the McCain-Feingold law that abridges the right of free political speech, has referred disparagingly to, as he puts it, “quote ‘First Amendment rights.’ ” Now he dismissively speaks of “so-called, quote ‘habeas corpus suits.’ ” He who wants to reassure constitutionalist conservatives that he understands the importance of limited government should be reminded why the habeas right has long been known as “the great writ of liberty.”Doug

  28. Patrick

    Dan,I too enjoy Olbermann’s show. Regarding Meet the Press, Brokaw is a good choice through the election. However, I would like to see NBC give the job to the lovely and talented Gwen Ifill, who, to my mind, shares Russert’s sense of authenticity. That would be a great move. Whaddya think?

  29. Dan Kennedy

    Patrick: As I’ve said, my two leading choices would be Gwen Ifill or Aaron Brown. Ifill, at least, is getting mentioned, so who knows? I’m a little concerned that she would be too nice, but I think she’s got the smarts and talent to rise to the occasion.

  30. Rick in Duxbury

    In a classic Olbermann moment last night, he berated others for sloppiness, only to refer to an elderly reunion participant at Phillips Academy in Andover, NEW HAMPSHIRE.(From an ex-Bostonian, no less). Live by the sword…..

  31. Adam

    Is it just me, or was ESPN glossed over a little in that profile.I’m not sure what the New Yorker’s layout currently looks like, but that had to be 4-5 pages in print. Only 2 grafs on ESPN?I, and I don’t believe I’m alone in this, cannot look at Keith Olbermann without thinking about the heyday of SportsCenter.Two grafs? Really?Also, if Olbermann hates O’Reilly’s show, fine, he makes valid points, but Bill O’Reilly is not news. Don’t interject him into everything, just do your job better and be content with that.Now, I have to decipher an extraordinarily difficult word verification. Is that an “A” or an “O”?

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