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Keith Olbermann and the death of the ‘left’

  • Written by Jason Johnson
Like many Americans, I was absolutely shocked last week when Keith Olbermann abruptly announced that he was leaving his “Countdown” show on MSNBC.
 
 Dr. Jason Johnson

Like many Americans, I was absolutely shocked last week when Keith Olbermann abruptly announced that he was leaving his “Countdown” show on MSNBC. With no advanced warning MSNBC’s highest rated show and most popular personality was leaving the small screen. Olbermann’s departure brings us some serious questions about the future of the MSNBC network but more importantly the future of the progressive left on cable news networks.

“Countdown” with Keith Olbermann premiered on MSNBC eight years ago and had steadily gained in popularity, viewers and influence from day one. Olbermann, who had previous stints at ESPN and MSNBC, seemed to have finally found his niche with a show that was political, witty and the most overused of commentary phrases ‘irreverent’. In all honesty, it was an irreverent show, with Olbermann doing something that no one had ever seen the left do before on a cable news network.

Bill Clinton once lamented that there really wasn’t a “Rush Limbaugh” for the left and he was right. While liberals have done a pretty good job in Hollywood and even on editorial pages in certain big city newspapers, on radio and television they’ve failed miserably. “The Daily Show” and “Colbert Report” are great but the hosts will readily admit these shows are comedy first and news commentary second.

Air America radio died a painful death a few years back after desperately trying to sell liberal talk radio to the masses. Any investor who thought Americans would want to listen to the nasal diatribes of Janene Garofalo and Al Franken deserved to lose their shirt. When it comes to television, Rachel Maddow and Ed Shultz have been able to keep themselves alive thus far on MSNBC, but they are really clinging to the anchor of Olbermann’s show, which not only was the ratings leader at MSNBC but transformed the network as a whole.

Why is it that liberals can’t figure out television in the same way the conservative producers have at Fox News?

The formula is simple, but not many people fit the bill. Like them or not, guys such as Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck are funny and creative in their shows. Whether through parody songs or out and out mocking, they give their audience something to laugh about. Olbermann was the only liberal commentator out there who could honestly make you laugh out loud while criticizing Bush for the War on Terror.

Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly know how to brand themselves as regular guys with predictable sketches, and Olbermann’s “Worst Person in the World” segments were some of the most memorable and relatable elements of his show. Most importantly, a good political commentator has to be willing to fight, to get dirty to speak truth to power and sneer in the face of criticism. Beck has no problem attacking Obama, not just on policy but his character and values. This may not always have been the most polite public discourse, but it’s catharsis for his fans and viewers.

Liberals are constantly frustrated that it seems like their leaders never want to fight. At every turn the Democratic-led Congress caved in to Bush’s war plans, and Obama is quick to capitulate to the right, but not Olbermann. He was the one liberal out there who was funny, passionate, informed and willing to fight. Whether picking a personal fight with Bill-O or counting down the days that Bush failed to end the war in Iraq, “Countdown” with Keith Olbermann was the red meat needed for a liberal crowd that was tired of going vegan when it came to political commentary.

It was Olbermann’s passionate defense of liberal views that finally gave MSNBC an identity, as the anti-Fox News. As his show rose to prominence, MSNBC overtook CNN as the second most watched cable network to Fox News during many time slots. So why drop the man who saved your network, gave it an identity and had your highest ratings?

Perhaps it is because MSNBC is being purchased by Comcast. Perhaps it is because Olbermann was a difficult guy behind the scenes,, or maybe reasons we haven’t heard yet.  Regardless of the reason, the left is now without a spokesperson, again, and no amount of stern lectures from Rachel Maddow or bombast from Ed Schultz can replace the wit, poetry and creativity of Olbermann.

While MSNBC casts itself as the Fox News antidote with their new motto, “Lean Forward,” they apparently weren’t willing to bend over backwards to keep their most talented personality. Proving once again why the conservatives will always win the air wars.

(Dr. Jason Johnson is an associate professor of political science and communications at Hiram College in Ohio, where he teaches courses in campaigns and elections, pop culture, and the politics of sports. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)

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