Monday, November 15, 2010

Olbermann doesn't get it

I like to watch Keith Olbermann's "Countdown" show, mostly because he's smart and funny, and he has a terrific grasp of history, politics and the English language. But he doesn't understand journalism.

As I write this, he's still going on and on in his latest "special comment," attempting to refute (articulately but somewhat pathetically) Ted Koppel's recent assertion in the Washington Post that Olbermann and his right-wing counterparts are not journalists. Olbermann is unpersuasive.

Of course, I champion Koppel's position because I published a version of it four days prior to his Post column. Olbermann refers to journalists who practice the tradition of our better angels as "glorified stenographers" who he suggests are incapable of making a difference. Nonsense. He oversimplifies the role and work of real journalists to give himself more apparent gravitas.

I am gratified to note that Olbermann appears to have been speaking about TV journalism, which is often a contradiction in terms on the highest level. Still, he clearly wants to be seen as a journalist in the same sense that Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite were. Oh, please. If that weren't so presumptuous it would be comical. Yes, as Olbermann correctly pointed out, both Murrow and Cronkite -- plus countless other broadcast journalists of earlier eras -- occasionally lapsed into commentary. But it was not their stock-in-trade. It was precisely because they rarely engaged in commentary that they had the credibility to be persuasive when they did.

Olbermann clearly has the talent to portray umbrage, even outrage, and he may even actually feel it. But he just needs to give up the argument that he's a journalist. He's not, and he doesn't have the street cred to pull it off. He's a commentator, and a damned good one. That should be enough.

He claims that Koppel suggested that MSNBC and Fox News are essentially equivalent but opposite sides of the same coin. Koppel did not. He simply said that neither rises to the level of journalism. Whether one comes closer than the other is no more relevant than trying to figure out which woman is more pregnant.

Koppel gave voice to essentially the same point I had made in my column about MSNBC's silly reaction to the uncovering of Olbermann's contributions to Democratic candidates, though he was more eloquent:
The need for clear, objective reporting in a world of rising religious fundamentalism, economic interdependence and global ecological problems is probably greater than it has ever been. But we are no longer a national audience receiving news from a handful of trusted gatekeepers; we're now a million or more clusters of consumers, harvesting information from like-minded providers.
And yet Olbermann, with a straight, even stern, face, argued the opposite -- that the times require hacking down "the false god of objectivity." While achieving complete objectivity by human journalists may be out of our reach, we shouldn't stop striving for the ideal. It makes us better, even as we fall just short. To toss it out under the guise of a "more honest" exposition of personal editorializing is fine, so long as it's not called journalism doesn't pretend to be.

I will continue to watch Olbermann and Rachel Maddow, mostly because I find them intellectually stimulating in a way that Glenn Beck and Bill O'Reilly cannot possibly pull off. But when I want journalism I will turn to newspapers.

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