Wednesday, February 02, 2011

The Political Killing
Of Keith Olbermann

On Friday, January 21, 2011, after reading a short story by James Thurber, titled The Scotty Who Knew Too Much, Keith Olbermann abruptly closed his program by informing his viewers it would be his last. This out-of-the-blue exit will go down in broadcast history as one of the most bizarre.

It was no mystery Keith Theodore Olbermann had a rocky relationship with the front office of parent company NBC Universal. Often, there were signs his head was on the chopping block for some of his fiery rants which rankled the corporate sensitivities of many NBC sponsors. Keith was able to defy his critics and arrogantly soldier on because he had strong support from CEO Jeff Zucker. He acknowledged Keith's value in growing the viewer base for MSNBC's evening news programs.

Infotainment increased briskly as cable service expanded across the nation. Olbermann played an important part in this process. Furthermore, his opinion was an indispensable expression of liberal perspectives on current issues. And he was a bulwark against the rise of the right-wing propaganda machine known as FOX-hole news.

A terse statement on Countdown's website noted Keith's contract ended. It didn't say why or how. The four-year deal for $30 million was set to expire in 2012, just after the presidential election. MSNBC thanked Mr. Olbermann for his contribution and "wished him well in his future endeavors." A comprehensive explanation was nowhere to be found. There is obviously more to this story. The public has been left to speculate about the few facts available to draw a reasonable conclusion. Here are some bits and pieces which could be helpful in the pursuit of the truth.

It was no coincidence Keith was promptly sacked after the Comcast/General Electric joint venture relating to NBC Universal received final regulatory clearance. This deal also released president Jeff Zucker from his executive obligations. With Mr. Zucker gone, Olbermann had no one in a position of power to protect him from dismissal. The very fact no further details seem to be forthcoming strongly suggests his firing was driven by office politics and/or personality clashes.

The evidence supports the view politics rather than personality was at the heart of this incident. Keith was suspended for two days without pay in November, 2010, for donating to the campaigns of three members of congress. He was sanctioned despite his protests he was unaware of NBC's corporate policy against such donations and he had every intention of informing his viewers about these funds. Although it's now well known he made these contributions, the media seem to omit the huge fact one of the recipients was Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the recovering victim of an assassination attempt in Tulsa.

There are several more points worthy of consideration. The Republicans intend to wage a vicious campaign against Barack Obama during the next election cycle. They're emboldened by their seizure of the House at the polls last year and the imprudent Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission Supreme Court decision. It was handed down exactly one year to the day of Keith's firing. This decision basically nullifies Buckley v. Valeo which declared money was protected speech but set limits on its use. Citizens opened up a Pandora's Box of unlimited corporate contributions to our political process which could ultimately destroy what's left of our democracy.

Olbermann's axing throws MSNBC's weekly schedule into serious disarray. The evening opens with Chris Matthews in his regular spot at 5 p.m. Then, he's followed by newcomer Cenk Uygur and a repeat of Chris' Hardball show. Keith's flagship 8 p.m. slot is filled by Lawrence O'Donnell, an old political hand and
able replacement with a dull delivery. There's a big difference between these O's. Rhodes scholar Rachel Maddow holds her usual slot at 9 p.m. with rising star and labor watchdog, Ed Schultz, ending the evening at 10 p.m. A close examination of this lineup proves Olbermann was fired for political reasons.

Rachel Maddow was the heir apparent to Keith's cleanup batter position. She earned this promotion as a result of hard work and perseverance. Rachel is a superstar in the news business and a legend in her own right. Yet, the very fact she was passed over for somber, sleepy Larry O'Donnell speaks loudly about how NBC and the media in general intend to cover the 2012 presidential election cycle. Moving worker advocate, Ed Schultz, from 6 to 10 p.m. diminishes labor's impact on our national politics. Also, certain contract clauses will probably prevent Olbermann from returning to broadcast TV until the fall at the earliest. All of these actions are setting the stage for a virtual conservative monopoly of our national political debate going into next year's election cycle.

Keith Olbermann chose Thurber's The Scotty Who Knew Too Much very carefully. The "Who," rather than "That" or "Which," in the title personalizes the pooch. It's a clear reference to himself. This was a subtle slap at his and our corporate overlords who reward conformity and punish rebellion. The story ends with the moral "It is better to have asked some questions than to know all of the answers." If we are to survive as a nation, we should fervently heed this warning.

Franklin L. Johnson


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