Keith Olbermann's first week smooth and rude

New Current TV host brings the rancor with him

June 24, 2011|By David Zurawik | The Baltimore Sun

After four nights of watching Keith Olbermann, there are two things I can say with some certainty.

First, he has put together a first-rate production team. Current TV is producing a more focused and faster moving “Countdown” than MSNBC did. That is either high praise for a relatively little outfit like Current, or a harsh indication of how slipshod things sometimes get editorially and production-wise at MSNBC, especially with some of its, shall we say, less focused hosts likeChris Matthews.

On the other hand, it is premiere week. And while it is great that the production crew was of the caliber where opening-week jitters didn’t make it to the screen, the big test will be whether “Countdown” can maintain the energy level of these first shows a month from now.

But here’s the second thing I believe to be true about “Countdown,” and this one matters far more than a telecast looking good. Olbermann will never see the high road. He is a divisive and uncivil character whose very essence as a performer is rooted in anger, rancor, insults and feuds.

I hoped that working for Al Gore, who at times in his political career exemplified the high road, would alter Olbermann. But that’s not the case so far, and Olbermann is already dragging the prime-time cable TV conversation about politics in the wrong direction.

With a TV-marginalized Glenn Beck leaving Fox News, the state of cable TV political talk is certainly not at the toxic level it was when Beck and Olbermann were using the airwaves and the Internet to solicit dirt on each other or anyone in the other’s camp. Thank God, those insane cable TV days of jihad are gone.

But there was Van Jones, a former senior aide to President Barack OBama, this first week talking about how he might sue Beck over some of the allegations that first surfaced on Becks' Fox News show in those toxic TV times.

And the angry intra-channel feuding Olbermann was notorious for was also there from the first night when, with only a few minutes left in the broadcast, Olbermann,  teed it up for contributor Markos Moulitsas to tear into on-air talent and management at MSNBC, Olbermann's last TV home.

As I said in my opening-night review:

Moulitsas, the fast-talking founder of the Daily Kos, almost came out of his seat vehemently denouncing Joe Scarborough, host of MSNBC's "Morning Joe," and Phil Griffin, the channel's general manager. He called Scarborough a "loser," while kissing up to Olbermann, whom he termed a "national treasure." He accused Griffin of taking orders from Scarborough and keeping him off the air for 13 months because he had offended Scarborough. 

In fact, Moulitsas almost made it sound as if he had been blacklisted. And since Olbermann was exposing it, that would make him not just a "national treasure," but also Edward R. Murrow. What kismet!

Except the angry words of Moulitsas had all the invective, petty jealousy and general sense of intramural nutsiness that you might find late at night in the dorms of a small undergraduate college after a hotly contested student government election. And I am sure the attack on Griffin and Scarborough had every bit as much interest for a mass audience as such a collegiate donnybrook might have.

Talk about insider madness, lack of editorial judgment and self-indulgence.

The Moulitsas performance ran into the 9 p.m. hour, another petty attempt by Olbermann to disrupt the start of 9 o'clock shows on other channels -- like MSNBC.

What it mostly disrupted, however, was people trying to use DVRs, and as of tonight, Current TV's new host says (HE SAYS) he will end his show at 9 p.m. like a grown-up broadcaster.

I lost count of how many times Olbermann took shots at Fox News in his first four nights. Remember the crazy running Rupert Murdochstuff he engaged in on MSNBC?

But that’s merely petty, divisive and attention-seeking.

Far worse, is Olbermann calling people “idiots” and “half morons” as he did this week with Sarah Palin and Rick Santorum. What so dismayed me was the climate he has already created on Current TV where some of his contributors also engage in that level of rude, crude, insult talk.

And it isn’t simply a matter of incivility, though, that is bad enough. The larger issues is that such talk only polarizes and distracts us from trying to coherently discuss and hopefully offer solutions to the massive and frightening problems that confront this nation today.

Trying to inform and even elevate the national conversation is the public service part of being on TV.  I just wish Olbermann would imitate that part of Edward R. Murrow -- instead of the cosmetic aspects of his wardrobe and manner of on-air speech.

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