Sunday, January 23, 2011

Keith Olbermann Exits- A "Special Comment" of My Own


This morning I watched Johnny Cash's America, a two hour biographical film on A&E. It traced the highs and lows, the demons and triumphs of the life of this American original. Many of us old enough can remember the zenith of Cash's career in the early 1970's when he had a weekly TV show that appealed not only to his country music base, but to the Baby Boomer generation; on any given JOHNNY CASH SHOW you could find Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, or Stevie Wonder, often jamming with Cash and Carl Perkins and the Tennessee Three.

But ten years later Cash's career spiraled downward. By the early 1980's Columbia Records, Cash's label for nearly 30 years, unceremoniously dropped him. Some friends said that the money Cash generated in record sales built Columbia's Nashville headquarters, and the suits showed their gratitude by giving him the boot.

I'm telling this little story because I couldn't help but think of the departure of Keith Olbermann from MSNBC last Friday, and the similarities it had to that of Johnny Cash being tossed by Columbia three decades ago. In my eyes, time should be marked at MSNBC as "BKO" for the years before Olbermann took over COUNTDOWN, and call whatever follows the "Left Turn Era". Keith Olbermann was THAT important to the branding of MSNBC, which before the emergence of Olbermann and COUNTDOWN was deeply mired in third place among the three cable news networks.

To be frank about it, MSNBC had no identity before COUNTDOWN. The Right had Fox News, and CNN was "the Original Recipe", the first cable news station, the one for the rest of us. Yes, MSNBC did have Don Imus in those days; many have now forgotten in the wake of the flap of his remarks about the Rutgers Women's Basketball team is that Imus would have left leaning guests on his show, not because Imus was a liberal (he was a registered Republican), but he only had guests on his show that he liked. And that included members of all political ideologies.

But it was Keith Olbermann's emergence as the most prominent liberal.....if not the only....voice in cable news that began the re-branding of MSNBC as a progressive alternative to the FOX NEWS juggernaut, and the bland neutrality of CNN. At a time when it was still fashionable for The Right to use the word "liberal" as a pejorative, Olbermann was unapologetic for his progressive views. While war raged in Iraq and Afghanistan, and any criticism of the wars was deemed as unpatriotic by the Right, Olbermann showed that dissent from popular opinion at risk to one's own position may be in itself the highest form of patriotism. The emergence of his progressive voice began a process that saw more liberal voices coming out of the woodwork and seeking a platform. Not only did Keith Olbermann set a tone for what came to follow at MSNBC, but his voice may have been responsible for spawning hundreds or even thousands of others in the media or in the blogesphere.

And for that, we owe him a collective "thank you".

We may never know all of the reasons for Olbermann's departure from MSNBC. Some conspiracy theorists say that COMCAST was behind the termination...I don't buy that, and yes, I am aware of the situation involving Bill O'Reilly, COMCAST, and former COMCAST broadcaster Barry Nolan. You don't show your biggest star the door when you depend on ratings for advertising dollars. It's business, and it's still always about money.

Keith is rich, and will return to TV even richer. And maybe this is a good time for him to step back and take some time for himself. In the past two years he had to bury both of his parents, and saw a politician he financially supported (resulting in his suspension) shot in the head. And maybe in this time when media and politicians are being asked to tone it down and heed the call of the "new civility" Keith Olbermann just decided to step away, and just watch what will happen next.

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