Keith Olbermann re-upped for four more years with MSNBC Monday, ensuring the liberal flamethrower a primetime platform through at least the next presidential election.
Now he needs to convince his newfound viewers to re-up with him.
There’s no question Barack Obama’s victory last week was bad news for media figures like Jon Stewart, who now need to retool their shtick after years of criticizing and poking fun at the Bush administration. But Olbermann has it particularly rough.
Even by cable news standards, Olbermann has never been much for levelheaded analysis. His abject abhorrence for Bush and the Republican Party, exemplified best by his rabid “Special Comments,” taps into a visceral hatred that has little time for reflection or balance. He is a man who has traded exclusively on the derangement syndrome that surrounds our current president.
Divorced from his Bush crutch, Olbermann’s modus operandi is about to become obsolete.
Olbermann, of course, would tell you he’ll transition. Appearing on “The View” Monday, Olbermann was asked if he would take Obama and congressional Democrats to task if they falter. “Yeah,” Olbermann replied curtly.
Consider me skeptical. If Olbermann is incapable of one thing, it’s criticizing Obama.
Long a cable also-ran, Olbermann’s star began to rise upon the introduction of his scathing “Special Comments” in August 2006. He has delivered nearly 50 of the diatribes since, with a majority excoriating Bush and members of his Cabinet. In more recent entries, Olbermann has directed his ire at John McCain and Sarah Palin. Other political figures, such as Hillary Clinton, have received occasional scorn.
Only one comment, from June of this year, can be said to focus on Obama to any significant degree. In it, Olbermann mildly regretted the Illinois senator’s willingness to take a political posture on the amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (though still mainly using the comment to bash Republicans) — other than that, nothing.
Olbermann’s most recent comment criticized last week’s vote to ban gay marriage in California. While it was a remarkably sober and worthy effort, Olbermann could have easily reserved some condemnation for Obama’s “have it both ways” stance on the issue, wherein the senator opposes Proposition 8 but also opposes gay marriage. He didn’t.
Nor can Olbermann seemingly abide others who dare to question his messiah. On Election Night, Chris Matthews (a man so anti-Obama that he once felt a thrill run up his leg during one of his speeches) briefly sought to criticize the president-elect for reneging on his one-time promise to accept public financing in the election. Olbermann wasn’t having any of it, insisting without explanation that Obama never made such a pledge. Of course there’s no explanation to give — Obama indisputably made a promise and broke it.
Incapable of criticizing Obama, where does Olbermann go from here? Cheerleading the new president, certainly, but with a deep recession in gear highlights will be fleeting. That leaves the same old routine of ripping Republicans — except now they’re a minority party lacking power.
No doubt hardcore partisans will remain loyal to the Olbermann brand. Those more inclined for a bit of balance and sanity in their political commentary will increasingly look elsewhere.
In Chicago’s Grant Park on Election Night, Obama urged the nation to “resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long,” saying the Democratic Party should greet victory with a “measure of humility and determination to heal the divides that have held back our progress.”
The next night, Olbermann deliriously mocked Bill Kristol, Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly, exclaiming to the conservative triumvirate, “You don’t matter anymore!”
Behold, the healing power of humility!
Election Day itself may have been a hidden harbinger of things to come for Olbermann and MSNBC. One would expect a night that represented a validation of its agenda and coronation of its candidate to be a ratings bonanza for the network. And it did well, of course, but not next to its competition. MSNBC attracted only 65 percent of the primetime viewers its rival Fox News did. It did only slightly better among the coveted 25-54 age demographic, nabbing 68 percent of Fox News’ viewership.
The night’s big winner was CNN, which easily posted the best ratings of the three cable news networks. Unless I’m underestimating the appeal of holograms, there’s a lesson to be gleaned here. Whether or not Obama truly is the bridge-building, bipartisan politician he often purports to be, voters clearly embraced the notion that he could be. And to witness his election, they turned to the network most associated with centrist leanings.
Fox News and O’Reilly have proven that ratings success can be secured even with a favorable occupant in the White House. But O’Reilly’s viewers are fiercely loyal; Olbermann’s largely younger set may be more fickle. And Olbermann’s caustic partisanship is so outlandish it earns no real comparison.
It may be a less than desirable four years, sir.
Ryan Masse ([email protected]) is a second-year law student.