Olbermann, Maddow, and the new faces of MSNBC

Keith Olbermann’s final “good night, and good luck” on Friday makes for an interesting media interest story.

Olbermann was a key voice of the left during the 2006 and 2008 election cycles, so he surely could have been fired for being “too liberal.”  With the Comcast/NBC merger complete, several corners of the internet were abuzz with gossip that the new parent company had something to do with the iconoclastic Olbermann being showed the door.  Or, he could just be a jerk who has a history of being fired for not getting along with coworkers.  That’s probably the most likely answer.

For years, Keith Olbermann was the face of the new MSNBC’s left-oriented opinion programming; his aggressive style countered the conservative and populist voices of Fox News with something a bit punchier than CNN’s vanilla lineup.

MSNBC hasn’t shied away from that.  They’re keeping the “Lean Forward” campaign, and their evening lineup still boasts Ed Schultz, Lawrence O’Donnell, and Rachel Maddow.  Maddow will be the lineup’s new cleanup hitter – and for MSNBC, that seems to be the best motivation for the move.

This is unscientific, but do a Google image search for Olbermann and another for Maddow.  Sure, as a liberal lightning rod, there are plenty of pictures of Olbermann designed to make him look dumb.  But as you scroll through, a pattern becomes obvious: few of his pictures, even official ones, include him smiling.  Much like the “special comments” he delivered on his program, Olbermann frequently looks stern, as if the next words out of his mouth might just be the most important in the history of the universe. (See picture above.)

Maddow, on the other hand, is smiling in most of her search results.  When delivering opinions on her show, Maddow is smug and smart-alecky, but clearly enjoys poking fun at her targets.  It’s not necessarily good-natured humor, but it’s humor.  Much like the gruff Bill O’Reilly, one can picture a calmer, non-political side of Maddow, as if she understands that the topics on her show are important, but not likely to mean the end of the world any time soon.

Public relations 101 for anyone who wants to be on TV is to smile… and keep smiling… and smile some more.  It helps the speaker relate to the viewer.  Even when discussing difficult or contentious topics, smiles go further than furrowed brows.  Maddow seems to know this, and thus is a more effective host – and, by extension, messenger of liberal ideas.

That means that the real winners in Olbermann’s dismissal are the far left activists for whom the erstwhile Countdown host was a beacon in the night of the Bush administration.  While he created a place for overt leftist thought on cable news outside the guise of objectivity, Maddow is now the better caretaker of that tradition.

Whatever the real motivations were, the result of the decision is that Maddow, and not Olbermann, is the signature voice of MSNBC as they move (or lean) forward.  That’s pretty good news for MSNBC, but it’s even better news for left-leaning activists.

Welcome back, Keith!

Keith Olbermann will return to MSNBC on Tuesday night after a box-checking suspension for his monetary donations to Democratic candidates.  In defense of Olbermann, Rachel Maddow bragged that the NBC News rule against such donations illustrated the difference between MSNBC and Fox News – calling Fox News a “political organization” where on-air personalities act as political fundraisers.

Johnny Dollar’s Place has a video that makes a point I tried to make last week (and makes it much better): that just because they aren’t reporting to the FEC doesn’t mean that MSNBC’s news opinion.entertainment personalities aren’t making campaign contributions:

Wait – Keith Olbermann made donations in money, too?

Former ESPN SportsCenter anchor Keith Olbermann’s suspension from his MSNBC post due to political donations has nothing to do with journalistic integrity.  In fact, neither does the policy NBC News has against political donations.

First, it’s worth mentioning that Olbermann giving coverage to people he donated to isn’t a conflict of interest.  These are donations, and not investments – he really had nothing to gain from two Congressional races and a Senate race in states where he presumably doesn’t live.  Arguably, the money he gave was insignificant compared to the airtime allotted.  If NBC wants to suspend him, or any host, it should be for the in-kind donations of coverage.

Olbermann admitted to making the financial donations, but he didn’t have to – after all, political donations are public record.  So the FEC can tell us exactly who Olbermann wanted to win.  Do we know that about Olbermann’s NBC colleague Brian Williams, or Katie Couric, or Anderson Cooper, or anyone else who say they’re giving us “objective” coverage of national issues?   The NBC ban on donations means they never have to answer those types of question – which is too bad, because they are worth asking.

You may not like Keith Olbermann, but you know where he stands – and if you tune in, you can take what he says with a grain of salt. It might be nice to have that luxury with other news personalities.



That guy on MSNBC looks like that guy who used to host SportsCenter

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.

Good journalism, bad journalism, and Mary Landrieu’s office

Very few people actually know what happened last week in Mary Landrieu’s New Orleans office.  That didn’t stop multiple news outlets of dropping the phrase “wiretapping” around liberally (no pun intended) when reporting that James O’Keefe, Stan Dai, Joe Basel, and Robert Flanagan were arrested.  Of course, that meant echoes of Watergate coloring the commentary – even though the official documents make no such accusation.

Watergate makes for an interesting comparison here – not in any crimes perpetrated, obviously, but in reporting.  Anyone who has read All the President’s Men – or, like me, simply seen the movie – knows that Watergate was exposed by tireless investigative journalism by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.  They spent months digging, to prove their case.  They did not print half-truths and echo reports from the AP.

Beyond the statement made by O’Keefe, I know nothing about this case.  I am a fan of O’Keefe’s and Dai’s work from their days at Rutgers and George Washington, respectively, which I got to witness when I was working at the Leadership Institute.  I have a strong suspicion that whatever information they were looking for probably would have been politically – but not personally – damaging to Sen. Landrieu.

But to make any allegations beyond that would be wrong for me and certainly wrong for anyone who considers themselves an actual journalist.  MSNBC and other outlets showed no such restraint.

In fact, one might argue that these arrests – like the Watergate arrests – are the beginning, rather than the end, of the questions.  These guys were looking for something – O’Keefe says that Landrieu’s constituents were calling the office but couldn’t get through, and he thought they were ignoring calls.

If citizens are trying to participate but can’t, isn’t that a pretty big story?

MSNBC would never say that (about a Democrat)

“Barack Obama is a stupid #$@&ing socialist!”  So said the Twitter feed @MSNBCHeadlines, which has since been discontinued after a profanity-laced Twitter tirade (twirade?) on Friday, as documented by TechCrunch.  Previously, it had just served up exactly what it promised – MSNBC headlines, without comment or blue language.

It’s easy to chalk this up to the feed being hacked, but as TechCrunch reports that Twitter account was never owned by MSNBC.  So here’s another possibility: @MSNBCHeadlines was a sleeper Twitter account built for the express purpose of saying things like “Chris Matthews sucks.”  But in order to maximize the impact, the owner of the account simply fed MSNBC headlines for a few months to build a follower base.

It’s pretty easy to do, and it might not be the last time we see something like this.  With big 2010 House and Senate races coming up, now would be the time to register a Twitter account like “@PASenateHeadlines.”

Let’s say you work for Joe Sestak, the Democrat Congressman challenging Arlen Specter for the nomination.  It would be easy to feed the account with the daily news stories about the race that run in various newspapers around the state thanks to Google news.  There wouldn’t need to be any slant to the stories, and the lack of a slant would attract more followers; interested parties (especially reporters) would follow the account just to get straight news from various sources that they may have missed.

The account exists on autopilot and seems innocuous for a few months.  Then, weeks before election day, you take more direct control of the account.  Instead of automatically feeding it any old story about the Pennsylvania Senate race, you serve up more consistent anti-Specter news.  If you have some potentially damaging information about Specter (like video of him hanging out with George W. Bush) you could use this Twitter feed to attract attention.

Maybe @MSNBCHeadlines got hacked.  But maybe it was a prank that provided a blueprint for an effective campaign tactic.

MSNBC + HuffPost = … wait, this can’t be right…

Most of what the content on The Huffington Post.  Same for the shows on MSNBC, except for when Keith Olbermann does sports highlights.  But this article on the Hufftington post by MSNBC host Dylan Ratigan is a great summary for why bailouts, stimulus packages, and other forms of what he calls “corporate communism” are bad and shortsighted:

If you allow weak, outdated players to take control of the government and change the rules so they are protected from the natural competition and reward systems that have created so many innovations in our country, you not only steal from the citizens on behalf of the least worthy but you also doom them by trapping the capital that would be used to generate new innovation and, most tangibly in our current situation, jobs.