Monday, November 15, 2010
The Agony of Cable I have been trying for a week now to sort out just how I feel about this Keith Olbermann matter and I keep coming back to one question: Isn't his 15 minutes of fame about up? If you are a watcher of news about "the news," you know that the MSNBC host of the popular show Countdown was suspended for a few hours recently for violating an NBC News policy about employees of the news division making political contributions. In keeping with the general tone of cable TV, the hubbub over the Olbermann suspension has lasted longer than the Olbermann suspension. Now Howard Kurtz at The Daily Beast offers up the inevitable story - Olbermann has antagonized all his bosses at NBC who seem on the verge of showing him the studio door even as he enjoys the remainder of a four-year, $30 million contract. Don't bet on it. That last fact about money is perhaps all one really needs to know about this story. Keith Olbermann, a clever, opinionated partisan (playing a journalist on cable) gets paid a lot of money by the folks at MSNBC for performing essentially the same shtick five nights a week. He offers opinion and commentary in the guise of "news," interviews people with much the same point of view and draws a fairly large audience of like-minded Americans every night. Over at Fox, Bill O'Reilly does the same thing, as does Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck. Nothing going on here has very much to do with news and nothing at all to do with the public interest. Meanwhile, the top brass at NBC looks pretty silly because they are trying to apply the old rules of TV news to the new reality of the openly partisan swamp of cable. Leave it to Jon Stewart to really sum this up: "Yes, MSNBC, it's a stupid rule, but at least it was enforced poorly." The very best thing I've read from the Olbermann file is the take from former ABC News correspondent Ted Koppel that appeared in the Washington Post. Koppel, a real journalist, made a telling point when he quoted Olbermann as saying the NBC rule he had violated just needed to be "adapted to the realities of 21st Century journalism." There you have it. Serious journalism on the tube is a dying institution. Some of the last surviving dinosaurs, the Tom Brokaws and Koppels, still show up to bemoan the good old days when the Keith Olbermann's further push the lines of what real journalists know to be acceptable, but even they know real news on TV is in its death throes. Cable and the vast corporationization of news has left the public interest notion on the curb, while entertainment masquerading as news drives ratings and money. Some of us can remember, as Ted Koppel does when: "Much of the American public used to gather before the electronic hearth every evening, separate but together, while Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley, David Brinkley, Frank Reynolds and Howard K. Smith offered relatively unbiased accounts of information that their respective news organizations believed the public needed to know. The ritual permitted, and perhaps encouraged, shared perceptions and even the possibility of compromise among those who disagreed." That hopelessly old fashioned model, as Koppel says, was far from perfect, but it has much to recommend it that the antics of an Olbermann and a Beck certain don't. The reality of 21st Century journalism is simply money and ratings. The old fashioned sense that broadcasters had a public service role to play by virtue of their use of the public airwaves - a notion embodied in the 1927 federal legislation providing some framework for organizing those airwaves - has gone the way of 16 millimeter film. If you really wonder why our politics - brace yourself for the Lame Duck Session - are as dysfunctional, nasty and vacuous as they are, you can start to find the answer in the vast wasteland of cable "news." You'll find no notion of shared perception or compromise out there. Peel back the hot air and find the mother's milk of cable: it's all about the money. I seriously doubt MSNBC will dismiss Keith. It would be like firing your franchise. They hired him to be outspoken, full of himself and a shameless partisan. The powers to be at NBC are getting just what they have paid for and they are moralizing all the way to the bank. His 15 minutes of fame just got extended.