Wednesday, June 21, 2006
The Tao of Keith
Keith Olbermann has a reputation -- one that's fairly well-known throughout the television news business.
We've all heard the stories; they're the stuff of legend.
He's impossible. He's unbalanced. He's a nightmare. He's completely fucking nuts.
Well guess what? None of it matters. None of it. The reason is because when the lights come up and the camera comes on, Keith Olbermann becomes one of the smartest, funniest and most talented people on television. His show, "Countdown," is not only the lone bright spot on MSNBC's otherwise painfully dismal lineup, it's the best news show on television. Period. Whether or not you agree with Keith's obviously left-of-center politics, his show provides an essential counterbalance to the legion of media out there who are content to either be complicit in forwarding the agenda of those in power, or worse, to simply sit back and do nothing.
Translation: he picked up a rifle when the rest of us abandoned our posts.
In its best moments, Countdown shocks viewers with its willingness to do stories and take positions that other newscasts won't, often for the reasons I described in a previous post (Journalist, Defend Thyself, June 7th, 2006). Olbermann wears his passion and his politics on his sleeve, and does so with an appropriate amount of razor-sharp wit and, occasionally, unapologetic outrage. His constant prodding, berating and exposing of the guy who shares his time-slot at the other end of the dial -- Bill O'Reilly -- is a joy to watch. Somebody's gotta do it, and Keith does it so very, very well. Detractors always revel in pointing out that O'Reilly's ratings are higher, as if this fact is somehow proof of the quality of his show. It's not. Britney Spears has sold a lot more records than Queens of the Stone Age; it doesn't mean she doesn't still suck.
There's a reason Olbermann signs off nightly by using the words of Edward R. Murrow -- "Good night, and good luck." For the time being at least, he seems to be the only one who remembers what Murrow stood for and fought for. He's not afraid to stir the pot. Bottom line: Countdown has balls, and lately it's pissed some people off. There's an almost irrefutable correlation between Olbermann taking a certain amount of shit, and the reversal of fortune for the present administration, specifically as it applies to its folly in Iraq.
I once heard that you can judge someone by the enemies he makes; I also happen to know that in the world of TV, if you're not a threat, you'll simply be ignored. If people are bothering to talk about you -- to respond to you -- then you're on their radar.
Hence why it was so gratifying and amusing to get a look at an interesting little exchange that took place last week. Basically, it revolved around a series of e-mails sent back and forth between Olbermann and two right-wing critics who decided to poke him with a stick. Lloyd Grove, a gossip columnist here in New York, and a guy who can always be counted on to provide excellent housebreaking material for that new puppy, giddily published the e-mails for all to see. His intention it seems was to expose Olbermann as a rampaging hot-head while simultaneously shocking readers with the heretofore unknown revelation that adults sometimes use foul language.
It apparently started with an e-mail from the unknown antagonists (Notably, Grove wouldn't print their names) in which they taunted Olbermann by saying that dead al Qaeda terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was obviously his "hero." It was just the kind of juvenile crap you'd expect to hear from the few Bush supporters left these days.
Olbermann could've -- and many say should've -- blown it off; but he didn't. His e-mail reply?
"Hey, save the oxygen for somebody whose brain can use it. Kill yourself."
Over a period of God-knows-how-long, Olbermann responded to the continued abuse by asking his unknown tormentors if they were "still watching that evil fuck O'Reilly?" and by telling them at one point, "Go fuck your mother."
Okay... was his reaction kind of immature and ill-advised? Yes. In fact, after the exchange went public, Olbermann was forced to issue an apology, saying, "I should not have replied to these... hateful e-mails, but I wonder how many of us could receive literally hundreds of them, questioning our patriotism, religion and ethnic origin, without succumbing to the natural wish to confront such hate." The fact that he "succumbed" from his official NBC e-mail address didn't help matters.
But was it wrong?
We've all heard about the dangers of what happens when we allow ourselves to surrender the position of moral authority. We've listened to mom say, "Don't stoop to their level." We've watched Tubbs convince Crockett not to shoot the murderous bastard he has at the end of his gun, saying, "Don't do it man, he's not worth it." We'd like to believe that taking the high road is, without exception, preferable to getting into a shouting match, or a fist fight, or a battle of obscene e-mails. Well, sometimes it is -- and sometimes is isn't. Sometimes the high road leads to a cliff.
One of the biggest problems with those under attack by the Cult of Bush, is that they've kept deathly quiet in comparison to their antagonists. I can only assume that this is because they're still believing the words of mom. They're still listening to Tubbs's voice telling them that their enemy just isn't worth it. They feel that they're above that kind of anger and frustration. In some ways, their silence only proves what their attackers are saying about them -- that they consider themselves to be too elite and too pristine to be able to engage in the kind of shouting and name-calling which the average Joe understands so well. They spend too much time thinking, and not enough time decisively acting. No matter how hard you try, you can't make avoidance look decisive.
But Olbermann did something that I've been waiting for someone with a forum to do for months -- he stepped off the pedestal and got his hands dirty. Good idea or not, he stopped taking it and told them to fuck off.
Chalk this up to his alleged psychosis all you want; maybe more people should do what he did.
After all, what did you think when Crockett didn't shoot that son-of-a-bitch?