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Keith Olbermann’s MSNBC Departure a Wake-up Call to Fix Broken US Corporate Media System

Scott Harris

Like thousands of his fans around the country, I was shocked to hear the news that Keith Olbermann would no longer be hosting his weeknight "Countdown" show on MSNBC.

Olbermann's terse announcement, made at the end of his Friday, Jan. 21st show, came the same week that the Federal Communications Commission and the Justice Department approved the merger of cable giant Comcast and NBC, MSNBC's parent company. There was immediate speculation that Comcast's incoming management at MSNBC was a key factor in the decision to cancel Olbermann's show. We'll likely have to wait a little while to hear an honest account of the events which led to the program's end.

Because Olbermann was afforded time to say goodbye to his audience -- and did so with a stiff upper lip and little apparent anger -- many media insiders were guessing the decision to cut short his four-year contract with MSNBC by two years, was a decision in which Olbermann was a participant.

Regardless of the reasons, I, along with many progressives across the U.S., will miss Countdown and Olbermann's intelligent and passionate delivery of commentary mixed with a good dose of humor and smart-alecky personal asides. As a good friend told me at dinner the night after Countdown's cancellation, knowing Olbermann would be on the air to help us try to make sense of America's ever more insane political psycho-drama, was "very comforting."

For me and many others, Olbermann's finest hours came during the darkest days of the eight-year rein of the Bush-Cheney regime. And he established his integrity and principled nonpartisan belief system as he persistently harassed President Obama each time he broke his campaign promises to adopt odious Bush era policies. The nation's very bleak media landscape will indeed become a bit more bleaker without Olbermann on the air.

While I appreciated Olbermann's sincere and sometimes cynical view of the "inside the beltway" politics he covered, I was most impressed with his daily effort to act as a truth detector holding Washington politicians accountable for their bald faced lies and blatant hypocrisy -- be they Democrats or Republicans, liberals or conservatives.

The sobering thing about this element of Olbermann's show is that once upon a time in America, real journalists at real TV networks and real newspapers used to perform this same function as part of their normal, daily job description. In today's U.S. media system, it's been left to a unique cable TV talk show host like Olbermann or The Daily Show's Jon Stewart to speak truth to power -- and assist a population barraged by ceaseless and cleverly packaged propaganda to sort out truth from lies.

Olbermann's "harsh" style seemed to stick in the craw of Howard Kurtz, former Washington Post media columnist and host of CNN's "Reliable Sources," who now writes for the Daily Beast. Appearing on CNN's Anderson Cooper show the same night of Countdown's cancellation, Kurtz criticized Olbermann's "over the top" commentary the day of the Tucson massacre in which he attacked Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and other hate talk jockeys for their reckless use of gun metaphors and violent images to attack political opponents. Kurtz, like many other mainstream media critics, consistently declare that America's right and left punditocracy are equally irresponsible in their overheated political rhetoric - a practice that Olbermann regularly condemned, branding it as dishonest "false equivalence."

I know I'm not alone in hoping that Keith's hard-working progressive colleagues at MSNBC, Rachel Maddow and Ed Shultz, will be permitted to continue their good work under the shadow of the network's new Comcast owners. But hope alone, nor faith in giant corporations will ensure that a few honest progressive journalists and commentators will be allowed to slip in among the vast majority of corporate media's tepid "reporters," who behave like scribes to the rich and powerful, or frothing-at-the-mouth right-wing talk show hate-mongers.

Olbermann's departure from millions of television sets in this country should serve as another in a series of wake-up calls to progressives who have long understood the power of media to hypnotize a nation to war, re-elect war criminals as heads of state, or accept trickle-down economics and tax breaks for the rich as "good" for the average working stiff.

While there are justifiable complaints about today's "talking head" model of cable TV news, and we would all do well to demand that major newspapers and TV stations bring back hard-hitting investigative reporting like that of Seymour Hersh and Edward R. Murrow, it's shocking to realize that the apparently very fragile evening lineup on MSNBC is the nation's only major cable TV network that daily provides viewers with progressive points of view in prime time. There's simply no other game in town when it comes to corporate media.

As has been true for many years now, it's up to the progressive community -- and the independent journalists and media makers who keep them reliably informed -- to come together to strengthen individual alternative journalistic enterprises. But more importantly, we need to collectively brainstorm ways to create new venues for progressive ideas -- and raise the funds necessary -- to reach the millions of Americans who frighteningly rely on Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly and Glenn Beck for their world view.

I sincerely hope that wherever Keith Olbermann ends up -- as a broadcaster or full-time activist -- he can lend his considerable talent, energy and popularity to aid us in this important effort to re-energize the nation's media system and strengthen democracy.

Good night and good luck, Keith!

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Scott Harris is executive producer with Between The Lines Radio. Email:

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