Keith Olbermann: Farewell (For Now)
Cable news just lost one of its few progressive heroes, and it's a poorer place for it.
We don't yet know much about the facts behind the severance of ties between Keith Olbermann and MSNBC, and although there's endless speculation as to the hows/whys/what's-nexts for both parties, for the moment, speculation is all it remains.
Olbermann was one of the most forcefully intelligent, profoundly articulate figures on television; his passion for principle and integrity, and his masterfully deft eloquence, dovetailed and begat a veritable juggernaut of bold ideas borne of truth, and of an unwavering faith in humanity's capacity to overcome the worst of its present-day tribulations. Not coincidentally, Olbermann was almost single-handedly responsible for the recent rise of the progressive voice in mainstream TV news, a space now populated by similarly brilliant and passionate figures such as Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O'Donnell -- both of whom might not be there now if not for the foundation Olbermann so expertly laid.
For ages, the far right has unrelentingly decried what they implore society to perceive as a "liberal bias" in mainstream news, essentially a label slapped haphazardly on any principled pursuit of accountability and truth. In capitulatory response (all too reminiscent of many elected officials "accused" of being "liberal"), news organizations have tiptoed ever more delicately around sensitive or charged issues so as to avoid even the faintest risk of incurring such accusations, often sacrificing substance and true journalistic integrity along the way. In turn, an entire network was founded to counter the straw man, and today Fox "News" enjoys a loyal following in the same sense that certain daytime talk shows appeal to some people's morbid fascination with the angry, the sensational, and the obscene.
So who would stand up in the face of this nonsense and speak the truth? Who would brazenly stare the demon of ideological-label delegitimization in the face, and defy it without fear?
Some have simplistically portrayed Olbermann as the ideological counterpart to some of the prominent figures on Fox (generally Bill O'Reilly or Glenn Beck). This nonsense false-equivalence argument may be valid only in the sense that "passionately articulate" is a counterpart to "raving angry," or "intelligently principled" to "dangerously delusional," but beyond that, it implies a dichotomy that lends undeserved credence to an alarmingly misguided worldview.
Or to paraphrase the great Bill Maher, just because there are two opposing sets of ideas doesn't mean both sides have a valid point. There are numerous examples of this throughout history which are retrospective no-brainers in our modern context -- just as today's most contentious struggles will be viewed through some future context, assuming we get that far.
Olbermann reminded us that the defenders of the status quo will always stop at nothing to portray proponents of progress as insidious threats to our very way of life, but we cannot let that weary old canard silence us. It's nothing more than a last-ditch act of desperation in the face of an undeniable awakening to emerging realities.
Of course, one might draw the conclusion that I'm writing a eulogy for either Olbermann or his role in galvanizing this nation's discourse, but neither Olbermann nor his career have passed. I have no doubt we'll see him again, as soon as wildly-speculated-upon-yet-still-unknown contractual obligations permit. I just fear for the future of MSNBC, if indeed this is foreshadowing changes to come, although I stress that such implications are pure conjecture at this point.
The funny thing about the myth of "liberal bias" in the mainstream media is that the far right holds a deeply intrinsic advantage in that realm: money controls mainstream media, and money almost always favors far-right policies, because far-right policies favor money. It's an incredibly simple phrase of reciprocal ideological arithmetic that underlies so much of the tumult and turmoil in politics today, expertly sustained from one electoral generation to the next by empty-yet-poignant appeals to tradition and enticing-yet-thoroughly-debunked economic mythology.
I think it's safe to assume MSNBC supported the direction Olbermann forged for them because it gave them an identity and a niche, and because it thus made money for them. They weren't giving him a platform from which to speak the truth out of the charitable goodness of their hearts. Corporations generally don't work that way. If the relevant higher-ups at MSNBC (or Comcast, its new owners) decide they can make even more money by catering to other markets, they'll drop the progressive "gimmick" like a hot potato, to hell with their loyal viewers. It's that simple. (And I would remind the reader that succeeding as a business doesn't necessarily mean you're doing good things for the world. There are companies that make a lot of money selling cigarettes, for instance.)
In the end, then, I sincerely hope Olbermann's departure isn't a sign of any forthcoming ideological reorganization at MSNBC borne of the eternal pursuit of the Almighty Dollar. But even if it is, there'll be another way.
Money and material success are alluring, yet ultimately transient -- but truth is immortal.
And I know Keith Olbermann will continue to lend his voice to the propagation of truth as long as he has a voice to give, which I hope continues to be the case for a long time to come. In the meantime, Maddow and O'Donnell have some big shoes to fill, but I fully expect they'll do Olbermann (and all of us) proud.