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.”

After Russert, the deluge

How thin is the NBC News bench? The Los Angeles Times reports that the top three contenders for Tim Russert’s “Meet the Press” perch are David Gregory, Chris Matthews and Joe Scarborough. Good grief. I’m adding “Face the Nation” to my podcast subscriptions right now. (Via Romenesko.)

Media Nation’s top two (and extremely unlikely) contenders: Gwen Ifill and Aaron Brown.

Tim Russert, 1950-2008

Tim Russert’s death does not bode well for the future of television news. Though he was sometimes criticized for being too much of an insider, and for being tougher on liberals than on conservatives, Russert was smart and serious. He had a rare talent for communicating his love and knowledge of politics. And he was, by all accounts, a thoroughly decent human being.

Will NBC executives take advantage of this tragedy to go younger, glitzier and cheaper? That is not the legacy Russert would want or deserves.

Bill Shields of WBZ-TV (Channel 4) interviews several of us from “Beat the Press” here. The actual “Beat the Press” discussion should go up here sometime over the weekend. I’ve also written a column on Russert for the Guardian, which should be available here in a little bit.

Saturday morning update: My Guardian piece is now online.

Photo (cc) by Joseph Hallett and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

An awkward moment for Obama

My friend and former Phoenix colleague Michael Crowley has beaten me to it.

Yesterday I was listening to the podcast of “Meet the Press,” which this week featured Sen. Barack Obama. For the most part, it was standard-issue Tim Russert, as Obama easily batted away questions of the tired old “how can you be for campaign-finance reform when you raise money from special interests” variety.

But, as I was driving past Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Custom House, I nearly had to pull over for this exchange:

Russert: [O]ther critics will say that you’ve not been a leader against the war, and they point to this: In July of ’04, Barack Obama, “I’m not privy to Senate intelligence reports. What would I have done? I don’t know,” in terms of how you would have voted on the war. And then this: “There’s not much of a difference between my position on Iraq and George Bush’s position at this stage.” That was July of ’04. And this: “I think” there’s “some room for disagreement in that initial decision to vote for authorization of the war.” It doesn’t seem that you are firmly wedded against the war, and that you left some wiggle room that, if you had been in the Senate, you may have voted for it.

Obama: Now, Tim, that first quote was made with an interview with a guy named Tim Russert on “Meet the Press” during the convention when we had a nominee for the presidency and a vice president, both of whom had voted for the war. And so it, it probably was the wrong time for me to be making a strong case against our party’s nominees’ decisions when it came to Iraq.

Obama — shading the truth then, telling it straight now? Not a very good campaign slogan. Or as Crowley writes, “Obama might argue that there’s a difference between speaking as a nominee and speaking about the nominee. Still, even by his own account, this episode hardly seems to live up to the tough standards he set last night” — referring to a rousing speech Obama had given in Iowa the night before.

In July 2004, Obama went beyond cooling down his rhetoric in order to accommodate John Kerry and John Edwards, and his explanation for that now is cynical. Obama’s flagging campaign has caught a few sparks in the past week. It will be interesting to see whether he did himself any real damage yesterday.

Update: Media Matters reports that Russert creatively sliced and diced Obama’s comments from three years ago. No surprise there. But what concerns me is what Obama said yesterday.

Cleaving unto absurdity

I couldn’t believe it when John Harwood, on “Meet the Press,” defended that ridiculous Washington Post column about Hillary Clinton’s alleged cleavage on the grounds that she’s too “calculating” not to know what she was doing. So I’m glad that Media Matters was similarly appalled.