On Friday, it was announced that Keith Olbermann, host of Countdown on MSNBC, had been suspended indefinitely for contributing to the campaigns of congressional candidates without getting prior approval from his superiors. And if it truly is in the agreements that are signed by employees upon being hired, they are absolutely in their rights to do so.
But, I have become far more cynical of late. And something about this doesn’t ring true.
Some have said this is a warning shot from new owners, Comcast, for Olbermann and others to tone it down. Last night, I happened upon a different theory.
Four days earlier, Olbermann announced a different suspension – that of the “Worst Persons” segment. An “indefinite suspension”. This was in response to something spoken at John Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s Rally For Sanity and/or Fear. In the speech, Stewart noted that a major contributor to the current political climate of partisan bickering is the media. The willingness of various media outlets to buy into the name-calling, the divisiveness of the various political pundits and talking heads has not helped improve the debate in Washington, but has instead fueled it.
Olbermann, while disagreeing that there was an equivalency between what he/MSNBC does and what FoxNews does, did understand the point, and said the decision had been made to suspend the “Worst Persons” segment. He also said he hoped others would take similar action to raise the level of discourse. And he pointed out that for the most part, he believed that MSNBC is a news organization first, and not a political organization, while Fox was more political than news.
That was Monday.
By Friday, news came that Olbermann had been suspended for not receiving authorization for making political contributions to three Democratic campaigns, for a total of less than $7,500. The corporate take on the matter is that he violated NBC News policies by doing so. There is question as to whether NBC News policies actually apply to MSNBC, but nevertheless, this is the MSNBC story.
Meanwhile, Rachel Maddow, on her Friday show that follows Countdown, spoke of the matter. She pointed out that it was the difference between her network and Fox that made the suspension a necessity. That MSNBC is a news organization, and that Fox is a political organization. Fox contributors include potential 2012 Presidential candidates, and their hosts have participated in and headlined numerous fundraising events, as well as actually making fundraising calls for Republican candidates on air.
She made a clear distinction between the two, showing that the reason Olbermann had to be suspended was because of that distinction, news vs. politics.
And until I heard that segment from Maddow, I was willing to ascribe the whole thing to Olbermann not following the rules. But something about that segment, and the preceding issues from that week, just didn’t sit right.
Stewart makes the claim that they are all to blame. Olbermann says it’s a false equivalency, but cancels the “Worst Person” segment to show that there is a difference, asking others to take similar action. He then gets suspended for an action the other guys do on a regular basis. And it is held up as the real difference between the networks.
The cynic in me sees something far too neat, far too compact for this. It is entirely possible that the narrative is just that, and the sequence of events is what it appears on first blush – the reaction to a host violating policies. But it looks very planned, very orchestrated. If it is, it’s brilliant. Thousands have gone online to petition for Olbermann’s return. And when he does return, it will likely be one of, if not the highest rated shows he’s ever done. And make no mistake, he will return.
Just as in politics, the media fight for market share. And when the cry for “sanity” ends up lumping you in the same bucket as the competition, there’s a major problem. So something has to be done to increase the differentiation to make it a choice. To show potential viewers that there is a clear separation between “us” and “them”. Between “sanity” and “zealotry”. And this incident seems designed to do just that.
Perhaps I am too cynical. Perhaps this is just the way things happened. But honestly, I hope not, because it is genius. It clearly shows a difference between the two. And the Democrats should take notice. They face the same problem.
Democrats have been lousy about differentiation, about showing what they stand for, other than “not them”. Republicans have been phenomenal for decades at defining the opposition, fitting them into neat – if false – niches, labeling Democrats as any heinous thing they can come up with. And Democrats have attempted to stay above the fray. Meanwhile, Republicans have advanced their cause.
If Democrats want to regain power, to show the difference between their ideas and those of the right, they need an “indefinite suspension” of sorts. They need to create a bright, clear line between their ideas, their policies, and those of the right. They need to show that the other side is doing something they shouldn’t and that it’s not just ideological difference. And they need to show it clearly.
I enjoy Countdown. I expect Keith will back on the air shortly, and I look forward to it. Hopefully, the Dems can take page out of this chapter, and figure out how to get back “on air” as well.
UPDATE: Keith Olbermann will return to Countdown on Tuesday, Nov. 9th.