MSNBC demotes (disciplines) Keith Olbermann

The New York Times reported today (9.8.2008) that MSNBC recently demoted Keith Olbermann (along with Chris Mathews) from the co-anchor position he occupied during the current election season. Despite Olbermann's humiliation, he will remain a part of MSNBC's lineup and its future election coverage. But he will be limited to providing news analysis during the latter.

First, an obvious question: Is Olbermann in trouble? If he is in trouble, why is this so and what does it mean?

Simply put, Olbermann's slightly left-of-center position on the issues, when coupled to his often caustic take on his media colleagues and competitors, the Bush administration and the Republican Party, makes him a focal point for rightwing critics. Yet his place at MSNBC seems secure because he has provided a ratings success for the long-struggling network. Bluntly put, Olbermann demonstrates that a market exists for a left-liberal presentation and analysis of the news. Indeed, MSNBC is the sole source for this kind of reporting and analysis of all the mainstream networks. Since NBC is a for-profit enterprise, ratings do matter to those working for the network and certainly to those who own the network. Since they matter, annoying Keith Olbermann is likely to stay on the air unless he commits Imus- or O'Reilly-like blunders.

The Times seeks to account for this curious manifestation of the economic imperative when it claims that

The success of the Fox News Channel in the past decade along with the growth of political blogs have convinced many media companies that provocative commentary attracts viewers and lures Web browsers more than straight news delivered dispassionately.

There is no reason to doubt that some Americans prefer the WWE style when it comes to politics. But is it Olbermann's outrageousness which draws viewers to Countdown and MSNBC, as the Times article suggests? Would Olbermann's rightwing critics accept his reporting and analysis if he worked without passion and invective?

Perhaps. But a prudent person would not count on the right accepting Olbermann or anyone like him.

What the right finds troubling is the possibility that some citizens have demoted "straight news" coverage and "responsible analysis" because this reporting and analysis is often vacuous, biased and even sometimes a spectacle intended to manipulate those who watch it. After all, if NBC and its parent institution General Electric had wanted to employ offensive clowns acceptable to the right as election coverage anchors, it could have brought back Dennis Miller (CNBC), Don Imus (MSNBC) or Michael Savage (MSNBC). Tucker Carlson also remains on the MSNBC payroll, and would do if NBC were desperate. But the network refused this path. It opted instead for Olbermann (and Mathews). It likely did so because a market exists for Olbermann's work. He has an audience. In fact, his audience is such that his face nearly defines MSNBC as a brand, according to the Times article. This market or audience cannot be limited to individuals needing a dose of outlandishness to get through their day since television is chock full of it. Avoiding provocative content is the truly difficult task. Rather, Olbermann's ratings success appears attributable to his message, to, that is, the content of his shows, his take on events and individuals, and not to his style alone. Liberalism of Olbermann's kind clearly has a place within America's public sphere.

Success of this kind can bring trouble, according to the Times: "When the vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin lamented media bias during her speech, attendees of the Republican convention loudly chanted 'NBC.'"

What is to be made of this? To begin, it's unclear why ridicule and criticism originating on the right would be considered a downside to anything…. Nor is it clear why the New York Times or anyone else believes news coverage must be acceptable to GOP partisans and candidates if it is to be judged unbiased. Do Republican sensibilities and interests form a political litmus test for the media? If they do, what would justify this state-of-affairs? If it is possible to identify unbiased news coverage whenever it passes by because it travels without criticism, this possibility may not amount to much in political matters since such coverage or news is probably trivial. It would be trivial because non-trivial reporting and analysis would be contested as a matter of course when the situation is marked by decisive conflict. Politicians, political technicians, journalists and analysts ought to expect conflict and criticism, not lambast their opponents for merely existing.

If charges of bias can be considered normal when they are made during a time of conflict, what can be made of the rightwing attack on the "elite media"? A lot, I believe. As a matter of fact, the GOP has long and successfully used media criticism as an intimidation and propaganda technique (for recently coined like-minded analyses, see this and this). Its media complaints refer not to exceptions which sensible individuals must manage; they instead refer to boorish and self-serving political acts which their opponents must endure. The GOP has an agenda. It self-consciously practices a "friend-enemy" politics. It prefers a subservient news media, and works hard to ensure that it has what it wants. Scruples are not a problem for the GOP. It is not above sponsoring police state methods against journalists, as recent events made clear. It is even capable of assassinating journalists in order to make a point. What is truly shocking is the supposedly liberal media has been tacitly complicit with this overt political demand. It seemingly accepts it as legitimate. Olbermann's demotion drives this point home, as Glen Greenwald suggests:

[It] is extraordinary for a media company to publicly embarrass, diminish and tarnish its own principal asset [Olbermann]. It is plainly doing so for ideological, not ratings-based, reasons: namely, it fears doing anything to anger the White House, the McCain campaign and the Right in this country.

What, exactly, does NBC and the majority of America's journalists fear? Why discipline any American journalist who refuses to genuflect before the political right? And what, for that matter, scares the GOP and the right in general so that they would compulsively diminish America's public discourse?

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