Even Though The Nightly News Still Stinks... Olbermann Rules!
The launch of Katie Couric a year ago as the anchor of the CBS Evening News was hailed by CBS as the biggest thing in news since, well, the invention of denture fixative commercials. It was also the biggest flop. The CBS Evening News Without Dan Rather or Bob Schieffer had its lowest ratings since Nielsen began tracking evening news shows in 1987. This turn of events stunned CBS executives--who had given her the famous "Kiss Me Kate" contract, which paid Couric $15 million a year--and the news consultants who thought she was the answer to CBS being mired in third place in the network news race for the past ten years. The news doctors who have been paid millions trying to fix the show for the past year have only made it worse. It didn't matter how many times the consultants got it wrong. Remember what they did to poor Dan Rather? Smile, don't smile. Wear a sweater, don't wear a sweater. Stand up to deliver the news, sit down. It is a law of the news consultancy/network relationship: If we are paying so much money, it must be right. Otherwise, why are we paying so much money?
So, as a TV critic who has logged millions of hours of viewing to help save one of my three favorite commercial networks, I decided to volunteer my services to the Save CBS Campaign. Here's what I would do: First, I would dump the Walter Cronkite school of reporting, of which Katie Couric is the latest practitioner. The objective that's-the-way-it-is style they use at all the network evening news shows is so old, so over. No wonder all the network news programs are falling in the ratings. Katie Couric is just the hardest hit.
What the evening news shows need is less "objectivity" and more analysis. The problem with objective journalism is that it doesn't exist and never did. Molly Ivins disposed of the objectivity question for all time when she observed in 1993, "The fact is that I am a 49-year-old white female, a college-educated Texan. All of that affects the way I see the world. There's no way in hell that I'm going to see anything the same way that a 15-year-old black high school dropout does. We all see the world from where we stand. Anybody who's ever interviewed five eyewitnesses to an automobile accident knows there's no such thing as objectivity."
What I'm proposing is nothing new. Before Walter Cronkite became the model "objective" newsman, there was Edward R. Murrow. In the late 1930s Murrow started the tradition of reporting the news and analyzing it, giving his opinion of what it all meant. The Murrow legend was built on his opinionated analyses on the CBS Evening News.
For those who never saw Murrow's news show, here's how it would go: After running through the headlines, he would call on reporters at home and abroad to give reports on the scene. These so-called Murrow's Boys were real TV journalists, not actors who played them on TV. CBS News in the Murrow years had people we respected because of their expertise, not because they were famous TV names. The foreign correspondents weren't empty trench coats but real experts like William Shirer, who reported from Berlin on the menace of Hitler in the 1930s. It didn't matter that Murrow's Boys were bald like David Schoenbrun, who reported from Paris in the glory days, or older than the 18-49 demographic like Dan Schorr. They were specialists in specific areas.
Then Murrow would do his closing essay, in which he would comment on some hot issue, continually treading dangerous waters: McCarthyism at home, apartheid abroad, J. Edgar Hoover, the atomic bomb, stockpiling of weapons of mass destruction--all of which he opposed. He was pro-union and anti-business. He was a dissident on US foreign policy post-World War II. He spoke out against the Truman Doctrine, which had America supporting fascist dictatorships in Greece and elsewhere because they were anti-Communist. He was against funding Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist army, which John Foster Dulles told us would retake the mainland someday, if they didn't die of old age first. He was hard on Douglas MacArthur when he took his troops across the 38th Parallel in the Korean War. He criticized the Pentagon snafus that were getting our troops killed. He was critical of US support for the French in Indochina (pre-Vietnam) and of the Eisenhower Administration's embrace of the French puppet government in Saigon led by a Riviera playboy, Bao Dai. He was against Red Channels and blacklisting and the House Un-American Activities Committee, which identified a Communist under every bed. He even attacked television itself, warning that it had the capacity to "distract, delude, amuse and insulate us."
"No one can eliminate prejudices--just recognize them," Murrow said. His approach was so successful that all the other network news hours copied him.
Finally, CBS president William Paley made Ed Murrow shut up--by canceling his shows. In the dark ages after Murrow, the most powerful commentary on network news was the raised eyebrow of David Brinkley after reading a piece of news on NBC. A generation of telegenic and totally uninvolved journalists followed.
In short, what CBS (and all the others) need is a new Ed Murrow. Good news! There's already one out there on the launchpad who has demonstrated his qualifications. I'm talking about Keith Olbermann of MSNBC. He has the journalistic chops and the mind, heart, instincts and courage.
Olbermann, who anchors a one-hour nightly news show on MSNBC called Countdown With Keith Olbermann, closes his show every night by saying "1,547th [for instance] day since Mission Accomplished in Iraq," an hommage to Ted Koppel's "Iran Hostage" coverage, which evolved into Koppel's late-night ABC news show Nightline (the MSNBC show was originally Countdown: Iraq). Then Olbermann throws his crumpled script at the camera, which shatters, a simulated digital effect (something Koppel never did).
"Our charge for the immediate future is to stay out of the way of the news," he explained when the show debuted on March 31, 2003. "News is news. We will not be screwing around with it," a reference to Bill O'Reilly, his rival over at Fox News in the 8 pm time slot. "It will not be a show in which opinion and facts are juxtaposed so as to appear to be the same."
Olbermann, who looks more like a high school teacher than a glitzy TV anchor, is the one who cuts and dices the news of the day into five segments, what he and his staff consider the day's top stories, illustrated with news reports from NBC News correspondents, interviews with newsmakers, whom he treats courteously, interspersed with signature witty interjections (calling 9/11 Rudolph "Giuliani's red badge of courage"), further interrupted by new ways to look at the news.
Olbermann does news quizzes and a puppet theater. Beginning with the Michael Jackson trial, he created comedic puppet "re-enactments" of news stories, using printed photographs glued to popsicle sticks, hand-held in front of a blue screen. Olbermann did the voiceovers himself. My favorites were the "Karl Rove Puppet Theatre" and the "Anna Nicole Smith Supreme Court Puppet Theatre," although the Mel Gibson and Paris Hilton puppets were not too shabby.
A segment called "Oddball" regularly assays the day's collection of weird videos, goofy stories with goofy clips of people behaving like idiots, announced with the clarion "Let's play Oddball!"
Each night he picks the Worst Person in the World, awarding a bronze medal (worse), a silver (worser) and a gold (worst). Bill O'Reilly has the distinction of winning all three top spots on a single broadcast (the night of November 30, 2005); as of June he had gone gold fifty-seven times.
What I like about Olbermann as a newscaster is that he makes the evening news look like life itself, very absurd but serious, very angry, very stupid, very silly, very snarky, very much about pop culture. He gives the news in a language that can be understood by news audiences today. It is refreshing to hear a straight newsman making cultural references. If the voting goes heavily Democratic, he told the co-anchor of MSNBC's election night 2006 coverage, Chris Matthews, "you might see some sort of shift toward getting out of that war faster than Britney Spears just got out of her marriage." His was the only show where I could stand to hear about Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, Brangelina, Britney and estranged husband Kevin Federline, American Idol results or other stories he always told us his producers were forcing him to cover.
This is Olbermann's second stint at MSNBC. In 1997-98 he hosted a talk show called The Big Show, but he left the network after clashes with management over an edict from the suits to focus on the unfolding Monica Lewinsky scandal, which especially sickened him.
This time around, MSNBC execs gave him the freedom to do the news his way, since they had nothing to lose. Nineteen other shows had already failed opposite The O'Reilly Factor since 1996. Countdown is now the highest-rated show on MSNBC, which doesn't say much, as MSNBC is ratings-challenged. Still, his ratings in July were up 88 percent over last year.
What I like most about K.O., as he is called offscreen, is his passion. He goes after the dragon--which, as Murrow's producer, Fred Friendly, used to say, is the real function of news.
Olbermann's Special Comments, as they are labeled, make up the core of my pitch as his volunteer advocate. They were off the radar scopes until September 2006, when Rumsfeld said anyone who was critical of the "war on terror" or the war in Iraq or of Administration policies was the equivalent of the people who appeased Hitler in the 1930s. "I'm not a big fan of being called a Nazi appeaser or even a parallel Nazi," K.O. said. "I took that personally." And he began eviscerating Rumsfeld.
He has done twenty-two of the "specials" (as of July 19), all of which earn a place for him on the Mount Olympus of commercial TV anchors. The July 4 special on his reaction to Scooter Libby's pardon, explaining the historical imperatives for Bush and Cheney to resign, was the Gettysburg Address of K.O.'s commentaries:
I accuse you, Mr. Bush, of lying this country into war. I accuse you of fabricating in the minds of your own people a false implied link between Saddam Hussein and 9/11. I accuse you of firing the generals who told you that the plans for Iraq were disastrously insufficient.... I accuse you of subverting the Constitution, not in some misguided but sincerely motivated struggle to combat terrorists, but to stifle dissent. I accuse you of fomenting fear among your own people, of creating the very terror you claim to have fought. I accuse you of exploiting that unreasoning fear, the natural fear of your own people who just want to live their lives in peace, as a political tool to slander your critics and libel your opponents. I accuse you of handing part of this Republic over to a Vice President who is without conscience and letting him run roughshod over it....
For ten minutes, Olbermann spoke with fierce clarity and surgical precision, drawing a comparison to President Nixon's resignation. He had obviously done his homework. His recitation of Bush's crimes concluded with his observation that the President had been "an accessory to the obstruction of justice" in the Libby case. "From Iraq to Scooter Libby," Olbermann said at the time, "Bush and Cheney have lost Americans' trust and stabbed this nation in the back. It's time for them to go." The highest praise I can give is to say I can imagine Ed Murrow speaking those words.
I'm not saying Olbermann is Ed Murrow. He is, however, what Ed Murrow might sound like today, changing with the times as a good newsman should.
I also realize the format of Countdown, with its mix of serious and lite news, might seem a little schizophrenic to older folks who haven't kept up with the crazy way the culture is evolving. But it's what has to be done to get the literally tens of people who watch MSNBC to pay attention.
My final recommendation is that what would make The O Factor--or whatever they would call the Olbermann-anchored evening news--work is for CBS News to bite the bullet and be the first to go to an hourlong format, something the network began debating in Walter Cronkite's day. The network under Bill Paley wrestled with its conscience and always lost, preferring a half-hour of lucrative syndicated trash following the news.
Would it work? There would be gnashing of teeth, rending of garments at Black Rock. There would be outrage from the on-the-air zombies now doing the news from the Land of the Living Dead. If the new concept caught on, they too would need to find something to say about the news they are mindlessly reporting. It would change the face of network TV news.
TV is an art form that suffers from kleptomania. They would rather steal something that works than try anything original. So much attention will be paid to The O Factor that the other networks will be looking for their own Olbermanns, newsmen with differing values and opinions. After all, in Ed Murrow's day, right-wingers Fulton Lewis Jr. and Walter Winchell were also on the air.
A whole new audience will emerge for the network evening news when it stops being, as Arianna Huffington put it, "the referee, pretending there are two sides to every issue." As Murrow suggested, there actually could be three, or even one.
Naturally, CBS won't buy the Kitman Plan, because I'm giving it to them free of charge. In TV news, they don't believe anything is good unless they spend millions to ruin the likes of Couric and Rather. And that's the way it is.
Marvin Kitman is the author of The Man Who Would Not Shut Up: The Rise of Bill O'Reilly. He is currently the media critic of the Huffington Post, and was media critic at Newsday for thirty-five years.
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