S.E. Cupp’s column in today’s New York Daily asks a question that I happened to be thinking of the other night: why is Keith Olbermann, a left-wing political opinion entertainer, a fixture on sports programming while Rush Limbaugh, a right-wing political opinion entertainer, radioactive? Olbermann and tag team partner Dan Patrick contribute to NBC’s Sunday Night Football, and he writes a baseball blog (baseblog?) for MLB.com. Limbaugh can’t even buy his way into national sports.
Cupp is right to ask the question, but the situation is not a double standard – and media watchdogs would be wise to let this one pass lest they look foolish. Many folks know that Olbermann made his national bones on ESPN. Few know that he was a particularly intelligent and funny sportscaster, even if his encyclopedic knowledge of the 1899 Cleveland Spiders Base Ball Club gave an early glimpse into the pomposity with which he now doles out his nightly “Worst Person in the World” award.
Limbaugh is much more widely known, but his entire public persona is based on creating controversy. And when he had a chance to be a “sports guy,” he injected politics, famously pointing out that Donovan McNabb’s perception had as much to do with desired media narratives as it did with actual on-the-field performance. Sure, there was media bias in the coverage of what he said, but a seat at an ESPN desk is not the place to talk about sports media bias if you want a long career in sports journalism. Then again, ESPN was probably looking for a sideshow by hiring Limbaugh in the first place.
This isn’t to say that Limbaugh should be more like Olbermann, but the fact is that there are plenty of people – large numbers, actually – who don’t watch MSNBC. To them, Olbermann’s image hasn’t been “tainted” by his politics. Olbermann still does sports because he always has done sports – and because, on some level, he’s good at it.
While Limbaugh will always be the “Republican talk radio guy,” Olbermann can still be the guy who pioneered the practice of using catch phrases to narrate sports highlights. That may or not be something to be proud of, but it’s kept him working.