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From AJR,   February/March 2007  issue

Is Keith Olbermann the Future of Journalism?   

The MSNBC anchor’s unorthodox amalgam of the serious and the silly and his trenchant criticism of the war in Iraq have boosted the struggling network’s ratings and made him a hot media commodity. But some critics dislike blurring the line between fact and opinion.


By Mark Lisheron
Senior Contributing Writer Mark Lisheron (mark@texaswatchdog.org) is Austin bureau chief for Texas Watchdog, a government accountability news Web site.      

Often, in any creative endeavor, timing is the difference between genius and an unsold canvas, a rejected manuscript, an expired contract.

Back in June 2003, not long after MSNBC, the little cable network that rarely could, first aired the prime-time news program "Countdown," television critic Phil Rosenthal took notice. There was no funereal recitation of the night's top stories, but a fast-moving mix of news, entertainment and opinion calibrated to bring in and keep young viewers. Orchestrating it all was Keith Olbermann, who, it seemed, had been working his entire broadcasting career to get to this show.

"Keith Olbermann is on to something. Something big," Rosenthal wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times. "'Countdown' flows from funny to poignant in connecting the seemingly random dots of a day's events, important and trivial, steadfastly clinging to basic tenets about what is and isn't news without being bound to traditional approaches.

"And who knows? 'Countdown' might just offer a glimpse of the future of TV news."

More than three years later, a growing number of viewers have caught up with Rosenthal, who now writes for the Chicago Tribune. Thank President Bush and Donald H. Rumsfeld and the war in Iraq. And Bill O'Reilly for the strangest kind of cheerleading. Or MSNBC, either for recognizing the future or for not having anything better to fill the 8 p.m. EST slot while Olbermann's show lingered in cable television obscurity.

Just now, "Countdown" is one of the most talked about programs on television. The ratings are soaring and the audience, by cable standards, is exploding. Olbermann has given a network with no identity the very kind of personality that attracts the viewers advertisers covet.

MSNBC is the little chick turned banty rooster, all fired up for a fight with rivals CNN and, in particular, O'Reilly's Fox News Channel. Olbermann, the droll, nettlesome, whip-smart, self-absorbed, hilarious, peripatetic television savant, is as happy as he's ever been, his friends say.

"The stars are in alignment for Keith, 'Countdown' and MSNBC," says a euphoric Phil Griffin, senior vice president of NBC News and the executive in charge of MSNBC.

Invariably, this success raises questions embedded in Rosenthal's fortune-telling. The gushing procession of television observers quick to claim Rosenthal's vintage discovery as their own seem to be saying that change is good, or at least inevitable, and always good copy. The popularity of "Countdown" cannot help but have some influence on a medium whose heart pumps on the life support of imitation.

But in trying to reckon whether Olbermann is, indeed, the future of television news, there is another question being asked about the basic tenets of news itself, what it is and what it isn't, that has some important stakeholders in the business worried. What if the reach extended beyond cable and beyond television? What if, as the subhead to a story in November by Kansas City Star TV critic Aaron Barnhart asked, Olbermann's "Countdown" is journalism's saving grace?

"Part of the problem here," says Peter Kann, the Pulitzer Prize-winning chairman of Dow Jones, "lies in fashionable new philosophies that argue there are no basic values of right and wrong, that news is merely a matter of views.

It's a dangerous philosophy for our society and a dagger at the heart of genuine journalism."

Kann says he has never seen "Countdown." He does not mention the show by name in the speeches he delivers to students, businesspeople, reporters and editors. But at the top of his list of the 10 trends in mass media he says we ought to be most concerned about are two of "Countdown's" chief virtues: entertainment and opinion. The need to entertain almost certainly leads to distortion and misdirection, Kann says. Couple this with a blurring of the line between news and opinion, he adds, and the audience will eventually lose its ability to recognize what is true and untrue, will assume that news necessarily comes equipped with a way of thinking about it.

If these trends are the dagger at the heart of journalism, it's hard to imagine a sharper one than "Countdown" or an assassin better suited to the work than Olbermann. It's rather pointless, Griffin says, to consider the two separate from each other. Unlike print journalism, which still subsumes the creator, and network news, which prefers its anchors to be functionaries serving the stories, news on cable television grows out of personalities. Contrary to those who have come to "Countdown" late, Olbermann did not invent the format for cable. Larry King did. Olbermann's antagonist, Bill O'Reilly, sharpened the edge on Fox.

Olbermann, however, recognized that there is room for more than a couple of personalities in the cable news business. And it is his personality that drives the program. "Keith gives 'Countdown' its vitality, its juice and its sensibility," Griffin says. "Without his personality, that show would fail."

"Countdown" exists in the conviction that by 8 p.m. a viewer knows the news of the day, from the Internet, television and radio, from exchanges by BlackBerry and cell phone, Griffin says. The show focuses on five stories of the day, flipping the inverted pyramid upright and counting down to the big story rather than leading with it. In and around those stories are bits of business, sports and entertainment items, celebrity gossip and tales of the absurd.

Those who have followed Olbermann's career recognize his influence on even the silliest of dispatches. In addition to the enemies he has made as a result of his eccentricities and bouts of petulance, there are many who admire the gifted writing and the desire to make full use of television's visual advantages. "Writing to picture," Griffin calls it, using carefully chosen words to expand on rather than retell what the viewer could already see. Griffin, who has worked in broadcasting for more than 25 years, says he has never met anyone with a surer understanding of this relationship than Olbermann.

Watch "Countdown" on any given night and you'll be treated to deft wordplay and a clever juxtaposition of the serious and the sublime. Olbermann has a news sensibility and gravity that suggests Eric Sevareid and an ability to stand apart from and skewer the ridiculous that channels Groucho Marx.

This is exactly what Rosenthal saw years ago--he and about 200,000 others. Different and well-crafted, to be sure, but mostly ignored, hardly a threat to the blood supply of the Fourth Estate. What changed the fortune of "Countdown" and Olbermann was not maximizing the potential of his medium but expressing his impatience with it.

Olbermann has a well-chronicled history of criticizing his employers. A decade ago, at the height of his popularity as coanchor of "SportsCenter," he publicized his contract disputes with ESPN, ridiculed its headquarters city of Bristol, Connecticut, as "the most Godforsaken place in the East," got suspended and quit. Two years later, during his first stint at MSNBC, he announced that he was ashamed the network was forcing him to report on President Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky night after night, and he left again. Before rejoining MSNBC he flitted from Fox Sports Network to CNN to ABC Radio, where he won an Edward R. Murrow award for his reporting on 9/11 and its aftermath.

Frustration set in after "Countdown" launched, but not for anything the producers had done. Olbermann's stories after Hurricane Katrina grew more pointed and accusatory. Finally, Olbermann approached his bosses and asked to deliver an editorial on the inaction of the Bush administration in the face of the catastrophe. The same smallish audience caught the anchor delivering pure spleen, but word, along with the video clip of the "special comment" segment, spread. Olbermann was officially angry.

"Sure, there was risk," Griffin says. "You wonder how one of these is going to play. But, look, Keith wanted to do it, and we knew it would be authentic. We knew it would be Keith."

Olbermann honed his mix of vitriol and wit by baiting Bill O'Reilly, his counterpart in the 8 p.m. time slot on Fox. Slate media writer Jack Shafer traced the battle to May 2003, when Olbermann summed up the way the late Sen. Joe McCarthy handled the press. "So it was all programmed to look for fish to shoot in the barrel," Olbermann told his audience. "Oddly, that's also how they program Bill O'Reilly's show."

Beginning early last year, Olbermann began with some frequency naming O'Reilly his nightly Worst Person in the World. He portrayed O'Reilly as a self-satisfied windbag and tinhorn populist. Rather than ignore him, O'Reilly rarely failed to take Olbermann's bait. At one point O'Reilly announced that he intended to pressure Olbermann's bosses to stifle him, at which point, the "Countdown" host replied on air, "Let us leave our bosses out of this, Bill, or I'll have to call yours, and you know how much Satan hates to be disturbed while 'American Idol' is on." Satisfied at the wound he inflicted, Olbermann teased, "I ain't callin' Rupert Murdoch the devil, by the way."

The "Countdown" audience and the press loved the class smart-ass besting the puffed up pedant. "I'd be lying if I told you that O'Reilly didn't help us," Griffin said. "Keith couldn't believe it, but the guy took the bait every time."

When two of O'Reilly's fans attempted to lure Olbermann into an e-mail debate last summer, he responded, according to New York's Daily News, by telling one of them to "go fuck your mother" and both of them to "Save the oxygen for somebody whose brain can use it. Kill yourself." He later issued a statement apologizing for the intemperate language.

Twice more, Olbermann stepped out of his anchor's role to deliver special comments, blasting Bush and Rumsfeld for their mishandling of the war in Iraq. Olbermann's recasting of "Countdown" to fit his new persona has been unapologetically liberal, although he prefers to refer to himself as a skeptic.

On one recent night--1,318 days since "mission accomplished," he reminded the audience--the news portion of the program centered on stories arranged and reported to belittle the president. A video shot of an intent Bush prompted Olbermann to crack, "If only the appearance of listening really were enough to fix Iraq." He juxtaposed images of Bush and then-United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, to the U.N. chief's clear advantage. And finally, he turned to Dallas Morning News correspondent Wayne Slater standing in front of the illuminated Capitol in Washington. The author of "Bush's Brain," wearing his best pop psychology mortarboard, suggested Bush lies to the nation and to himself to create a place in his mind where history will vindicate him.

Although I interviewed him for a previous AJR piece (see "His Way," September 1997 ), Olbermann would not speak to this turn for himself, or about anything else, in spite of repeated requests for an interview for this article. Griffin says that maybe he doesn't want to jinx the tremendous roll he's on. Olbermann is famous for being funny that way, Griffin says.

"I do know these are things Keith has wanted to say for a long time. He isn't going to do the opinions all the time, but we've proven that point of view works. Facts don't lie. The audience came, they looked, they liked what they saw, and they're staying."

In television, staying is what matters. Before swinging the ship portside, MSNBC could have counted on 400,000 viewers for "Countdown" on its best night, says Brian Stelter, who reprints Nielsen ratings daily on his much respected media blog, TVNewser (mediabistro.com/tvnewser ). Now, a viewership of 600,000 to 700,000 is common, and Stelter suspects that, based on Olbermann's name recognition, many more viewers are going uncounted by Nielsen.

While those numbers are much smaller than the 2 million who tune in for O'Reilly, "Countdown" has effectively demolished a cable TV shibboleth. "The common wisdom has always been that liberals would not come to a show like this on cable and stay with it," Stelter says. "As long as he's willing to say and do things that other people on cable wouldn't, I think he can keep it going. I'm excited that there's someone out there not following the cues from the government the media usually follows."

There is something very important in Stelter's take on "Countdown." Stelter, 21, thrives in a blogger's world, where viewers are expected to sift through and separate fact from opinion. For Stelter, this mix of opinion and fact is the norm rather than the exception. He finds a news show like "Countdown" that stands up to the government superior to the work of the old newsgatherers on air and in print, who sometimes appear to simply recite what the government says.

Andrew Tyndall, who has been following the changes in media delivery for a decade on his Web site, Tyndall Weekly (www.tyndallreport.com), says "Countdown's" success is more a signpost for the growth in the number and variety of news formats than any changing of the guard. Keith Olbermann is far more likely to coexist with "NBC Nightly News" anchor Brian Williams than he is to supplant him, Tyndall says. All of it is part of the diffusion of the mass audience from network news and newspapers into new niche formats on cable and the Internet.

And with that diffusion, that growing acceptance of fact capering with opinion, has come the watchdog blog. Robert Cox began writing olbermannwatch.com in November 2004 because of what he considered the poor choice of guests and the lack of fact-checking. Besides critiquing Olbermann, Cox uses his blog to castigate the mainstream media that publish and air laudatory stories about the "Countdown" host without, in Cox's view, checking them out. Olbermann has chosen to ignore Cox directly, but told the New York Observer that his critics are "belligerently uninformative."

"Olbermann is what's wrong with journalism today," says Cox, a New York businessman and president of the Media Bloggers Association. "Far from being the Edward R. Murrow he likes to present himself as, he's the Walter Winchell of journalism. He stacks the deck with his point of view and he flat out lies."

It's all right there for everybody to see at olbermannwatch, he says. It certainly appears from examining the site that anything Olbermann has ever said or done is reproduced there. The problem is that no one yet has started a watchingcoxwatcholbermann.com to sift the wheat of his truth from the chaff of his opinion. Like many bloggers, Cox laments the demise of objective journalism while offering up opinion, in this instance right-wing, along with fact.

This potentially endless chain of partisan watchdogging in a world where truth is up for grabs is the future Kann and others worry about. Chris Tuohey, an associate professor in the broadcast journalism department at Syracuse University, says educators are concerned about the encroachment of opinion. Most schools, however, continue to teach the basics of journalism as they have always done, to students whose news experiences increasingly include parodies like "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart." "If you teach both, you send too confusing a message," Tuohey says.

And, as is true of so much in a college education, students reconcile the theoretical with the practical after graduation.

Tuohey says he is less concerned with his students' ability to recognize what is what on "Countdown" than he is with the Balkanization of the television audience. Something in a nation's discourse is lost when people aren't confronted with ideas different from their own. "When an audience identifies with you, when they agree with you, they're going to watch," he says. "The more voices there are, the more opportunities there are not to deal with anything you don't agree with."

S. Robert Lichter, president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, whose existence is devoted to analysis of such issues, takes a long, historical view of the change that "Countdown" represents. The golden period of American journalism, whose passing some are already lamenting, was shaped as much by the consolidation of an information elite as it was informed by journalistic idealism. Cable and Internet news is democratizing the news agenda. "The news is becoming more vibrant and less reliable," he says with a laugh.

One mistake we make during this period of wrenching transition Lichter calls the third-person effect. It is the assumption that only we are smart enough to recognize the danger posed by the fuzzing of the objective and subjective. Everyone else is at risk.

The other mistake, Lichter says, is assuming that some hybrid must inevitably crush straightforward journalism. Along with the niches where scabrous rumors settle, there are publications like The Economist, academic blogs and venues like Poynter's Romenesko, where the end of journalism as we know it is shared in excruciating detail by more people than could ever have been imagined in the golden age.

Newspapers still count their collective circulations in the dozens of millions. Olbermann is considered a phenomenon for adding a couple hundred thousand viewers.

For now, "Countdown's" impact can only be measured within the confines of cable television, because there is so far no evidence to suggest that programming with strong opinions can survive the coopting pressure of a mass audience, says Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

As hot as Olbermann is, his message has not conquered Middle America. Neither TVNewser nor the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press has broken down the Nielsen numbers to see where "Countdown" is most popular. But a LexisNexis search pairing the name Keith Olbermann with each of the five states that delivered the biggest margin of victory to George W. Bush in 2004--Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Nebraska and Utah--produced not a single locally written story about his show.

Glenn Garvin, television writer for the Miami Herald, says most of America isn't paying attention. "Olbermann is a media cause célèbre and a popular flop," Garvin wrote in an e-mail interview. "To me, he's simply the flip side of Bill O'Reilly, a guy rewriting the wires and sprinkling it with random political rants, better gag lines, but a more predictable point of view."

Further defying the notion of a full-fledged youth revolution is the matter of the age of "Countdown's" audience. MSNBC has made much of Olbermann's pull with younger viewers. Among the ratings coups last year was "Countdown" moving past CNN into second place among the cable news networks for viewers age 25 to 54. Its own research, however, shows the median age of the "Countdown" viewer at 59. If nothing else, the numbers show just how tiny the younger audience is for even the hippest cable television news.

What no one can account for is what happens when the war in Iraq, around which Olbermann has wrapped his show, comes to an end, says David Folkenflik, who covers the media for National Public Radio. "Olbermann," he says, "is in danger of hitting the same note over and over again."

Even Stelter, who is a fan, says, "His show survives on two topics, Bush and the war in Iraq. I can't imagine he'd last for more than a few years doing what he's doing."

For MSNBC the issue right now isn't whether Olbermann is saving journalism or changing cable television. He has already done something that no one has ever been able to do at the network: provide a personality around which to build a future. Phil Griffin says he isn't sure how that accomplishment translates at his own network, much less in the world beyond cable.

"We're not out there looking for Keith Olbermann II," Griffin says without hesitation. "It ain't gonna happen. It's too unique. It can't be done without Keith."

But is network news ready for a Keith Olbermann? This time Griffin pauses for a long while. "Come back to me in five years. The world is changing fast."