Keith Olbermann’s abrupt departure from MSNBC should be another wake-up call to American progressives about the fragile foothold that liberal-oriented fare now has for only a few hours on one corporate cable network.
Though Olbermann hosted MSNBC’s top-rated news show, “Countdown with Keith Olbermann,” he disappeared from the network with only the briefest of good-byes. Certainly, the callous treatment of Olbermann by the MSNBC brass would never be replicated by Rupert Murdoch’s right-wing Fox News toward its media stars.
At Fox News, the likes of Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity have far greater leeway to pitch right-wing ideas and even to organize pro-Republican political events. Last November, Olbermann was suspended for two days for making donations to three Democratic candidates, including Arizona’s Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was wounded in the Jan. 8 shooting in Tucson.
Now, with Olbermann’s permanent departure on Friday, the remainder of MSNBC’s liberal evening line-up, which also includes Rachel Maddow, Ed Schultz and Lawrence O’Donnell (who will fill Olbermann’s 8 p.m. slot), must face the reality that any sustained friction with management could mean the bum’s rush for them, too.
The liberal hosts also must remember that MSNBC experimented with liberal-oriented programming only after all other programming strategies, including trying to out-Fox Fox, had failed – and only after it became clear that President George W. Bush’s popularity was slipping.
In nearly eight years at “Countdown,” Olbermann was the brave soul who charted the course for other mainstream media types to be even mildly critical of Bush. Olbermann modeled his style after legendary newsman Edward R. Murrow, who stood up to excesses by communist-hunting Sen. Joe McCarthy in the 1950s, even borrowing Murrow’s close: “Good night, good luck.”
But MSNBC’s parent company, General Electric, never seemed comfortable with Olbermann’s role as critic of the Bush administration, nor with the sniping between Olbermann and his Fox News rival, O’Reilly, who retaliated by attacking corporate GE on his widely watched show.
In 2009, the New York Times reported that GE responded to this pressure by having GE chairman Jeffrey Immelt strike a deal with Murdoch that sought to muzzle Olbermann’s criticism of O’Reilly, in exchange for O’Reilly muting his attacks on GE.
Olbermann later disputed that there ever was a truce and the back-and-forth soon resumed. But it was a reminder that GE, a charter member of the military-industrial complex and a major international conglomerate, had bigger corporate interests at play than the ratings for MSNBC’s evening programming.
So, too, will Comcast, the cable giant that is assuming a majority stake in NBC Universal, which controls MSNBC. The Washington Post reported on Saturday that sources at MSNBC quashed speculation that Olbermann’s departure was connected to the Comcast takeover, which was approved by federal regulators this week.
The troubling message to progressives is that they remain essentially orphans when it comes to having their political interests addressed by any corporate news outlet. While the Right has built its own vast media infrastructure – reaching from newspapers, magazines and books to radio, TV and the Internet – the Left generally has treated media as a low priority.
Though some on the Left saw hope in the MSNBC evening line-up, the larger reality was that even inside the world of NBC News, the other content ranged from the pro-Establishment centrism of anchor Brian Williams to the center-right views of MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough to CNBC’s mix of free-market extremism and corporate boosterism.
While gratified to be given a few hours each night on MSNBC, the Left surely had nothing to compare with Murdoch’s News Corporation and its longstanding commitment to a right-wing perspective on Fox News and News Corp.'s many other print and electronic outlets.
As I wrote in an article last November, “Olbermann and the other liberal hosts are essentially on borrowed time, much the way Phil Donahue was before getting axed in the run-up to George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, when MSNBC wanted to position itself as a ‘patriotic’ war booster.
“Unlike News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch, who stands solidly behind the right-wing propaganda on Fox News, the corporate owners of MSNBC have no similar commitment to the work of Olbermann, Rachel Maddow and Ed Schultz.
"For the suits at headquarters, it’s just a balancing act between the ratings that those shows get and the trouble they cause as Republicans reclaim control of Washington.”
Those corporate priorities also were underscored in the pre-Iraq invasion days when MSNBC dumped Donahue, then the network’s biggest draw. But Donahue had allowed on some guests critical of Bush’s planned war.
After the invasion in March 2003, MSNBC’s coverage was barely discernable from that of Fox News, with both networks superimposing American flags on scenes from Iraq and producing pro-war promotional segments showing heroic images of U.S. soldiers being welcomed by happy Iraqis (with no scenes of the war’s carnage). [See Consortiumnews.com's "America's Matrix."]
The ongoing significance of America’s media imbalance is that it gives the Right enormous capabilities to control the national debate, not only during election campaigns but year-round. Republicans can deploy what intelligence operatives call “agit-propaganda,” stirring controversies that rile up the public and redound to the GOP’s advantage.
These techniques have proved so effective that not even gifted political speakers, whether the savvy Bill Clinton or the eloquent Barack Obama, have had any consistent success in countering the angry cacophony that the Right can orchestrate.
One week, the Right's theme is “Obamacare’s death panels”; another week, it’s “the “Ground Zero Mosque.” The Democrats are left scrambling to respond – and their responses, in turn, become fodder for critical commentary, as too wimpy or too defensive or too something.
The mainstream media and progressives often join in this criticism, wondering why Obama let himself get blind-sided or why he wasn’t tougher or why he can’t control the message. For the Right and the Republicans, it’s a win-win-win, as the right-wing base is energized, more public doubts are raised about the President, and the Left is further demoralized.
Like Clinton before him, Obama has reacted to this political/media landscape by shifting rightward toward the “center,” further alienating his liberal base. Many on the Left respond by denouncing Obama as a sell-out and deciding to either sit out elections or vote for a third party.
This dynamic has been instrumental to the Right’s political victories over the past three decades even as those policies – from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush – have worsened the lives of middle- and working-class Americans.
The sudden disappearance of Keith Olbermann from television is another ominous omen that this dynamic will continue.