Keith Olbermann has hosted the final Countdown.
One would have hoped that MSNBC executives had the same appalled reaction to Olbermann’s grotesque politicization of the Tucson tragedy as normal Americans. Alas, it turns out that Olbermann was just as annoying to his staff, coworkers, and bosses as he was to most viewers. The parting of ways stems more from workplace antagonisms than a recognition of the indecency of his broadcasts.
And the most indecent part of those broadcasts was not the widely criticized “Worst Person in the World” segment, which even Olbermann briefly suspended. It was when Olbermann combined the pomposity of Ron Burgundy with the righteous wrath of Howard Beale into a show-closing Ten Minute Hate.
What made _Countdown_’s Special Comment so unintentionally special?
Generally the Special Comments began with an “as promised”—as in, if the “special” doesn’t clue you in that this comment is a really big deal, then the fact that Keith is delivering on his promise to lecture you should. Histrionics, welled-up emotion, and a self-righteous tone characterized the harangues. Though not exactly Farrakhanish or Chavezian in length, Olbermann’s monologues occasionally surpassed the ten-minute mark. Outside of cable access, it’s not a usual occurrence for a host to talk into the camera uninterrupted for the time it takes to listen to “Shine on You Crazy Diamond”—at least not on Western television.
The rhetorical question, asked with feigned earnestness to shame the targets, was a staple of the Special Comment. After the pro-traditional marriage Proposition 8 passed in California, for instance, Olbermann asked of supporters: “With so much hate in the world, with so much meaningless division, and people pitted against people for no good reason, this is what your religion tells you to do?” Like so much on television, the repetitious rhetorical questions were done for show—Prop 8 supporters were watching Fox, after all. The propensity to namedrop Clarence Darrow and Edward R. Murrow to convey erudition actually outlined the cable talker’s parochial knowledge. Ominous invocations of “Joe McCarthy” were similarly frequent—and similarly a sign of narrow learning. Formalistic terms of pseudo-respect strangely meshed with insults. Typical Olbermannisms of this sort regarding George W. Bush, generally referred to as “Mr. Bush,” featured the host remark: “Your words are lies, Sir” and “You, Sir, have no business being president.” In Westerns, villains wear black hats. In a Special Comment, they go by such names as “Sir” and “Mr.”
Olbermann’s last Special Comment was a fitting coda. Just hours after Jared Lee Loughner had murdered a half-dozen people in a Safeway parking lot in Tucson, Arizona, the Countdown host demanded public penance from Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, and all “those politicians and commentators who have so irresponsibly brought us to this time of domestic terrorism.” In the days that followed, when it became clear that Olbermann’s picture of Loughner as a Tea-Partier-gone-crazy was itself crazy, Olbermann compounded his initial recklessness with dishonesty by claiming that nobody had ever blamed the right-wing for the mass murder in the first place.
It wasn’t merely that Olbermann had rashly put a political narrative ahead of the uncooperative facts. It was that his Special Comment was especially guilty of the sins he ascribed to others.
Through Special Comment, the GOP became “treacherous and ultimately traitorous Republicans”; George W. Bush, an “unhinged, irrational Chicken Little of a president,” “a bald-faced liar,” and either a “pathological presidential liar, or an idiot-in-chief”; and the Tea Party, “a group of unqualified, unstable individuals who will do what they are told, in exchange for money and power, and march this nation as far backward as they can get, backward to Jim Crow, or backward to the breadlines of the ’30s, or backward to hanging union organizers, or backward to the Trusts and the Robber Barons.”
If it weren’t for incendiary, over-the-top rhetoric, there would be no Keith Olbermann—at least not the post-Sports Center version of Keith Olbermann. So inveighing against overheated discourse said less about those on the broadcaster’s enemies list than it said about how oblivious he was to how others perceived him. The man had no sense of irony.
As was the case with the Tucson Special Comment, Olbermann used the forum to air his fantasies as if they were reality, adding to the segment’s surreal quality. Upon George W. Bush signing the Military Commissions Act, Special Comment, borrowing the president’s words, pronounced it “the beginning of the end of America.” In February 2009, Special Comment declared that Dick Cheney had “terrified more Americas than did any terrorist in the last seven years.” Six months before the Republican Party’s greatest mid-term election victory since the 1930s, the bespectacled host pondered the GOP’s imminent extinction: “You are rapidly moving from ‘The Party of No,’ past ‘The Party of No Conscience,’ towards ‘The Party of No Relevancy.’ You are behind the wheel of a political Toyota. And before the mid-terms, you will have been reduced to only being this generation’s home for the nuts.”
The Special Comment was bad television, but unlike the bad television that surrounded on MSNBC. Whereas, say, The Ed Show is as mediocre as its name implies, Special Comment imagined itself as grandiose only to come off as embarrassingly amateurish. It failed memorably because it failed with pretensions. This car-wreck quality that prompted so many to hastily turn the station paralyzed a dumbstruck me, mouth agape, to slowly sit down and absorb the spectacle.
For a parody of Bill O’Reilly or Sean Hannity, one must change the channel from Fox News to Comedy Central for The Colbert Report. For a caricature of Keith Olbermann, one needed only to have left it on MSNBC and wait for the Special Comment.
Daniel J. Flynn is the author of A Conservative History of the American Left (Crown Forum, 2008), Intellectual Morons (Crown Forum, 2004), and Why the Left Hates America (Prima Forum, 2002). He has appeared on Fox News, MSNBC, CNN, Sky News, PBS, CSPAN, and other broadcast networks. He writes a Monday column for Human Events and blogs at www.flynnfiles.com.