Olbermann v. Koppel, Alterman v. Hitchens
Above the Fold
Keith Olbermann was wrong to contribute $7,200 to three Democratic candidates. It was a violation of company rules (whether he knew that or not), it was needlessly provocative, it offended many of his colleagues, and it undermined the credibility of his network.
So a two-day suspension from the air was perfectly appropriate.
But the torrent of criticism from everyone from Tom Brokaw (privately, according to Howie Kurtz) to Ted Koppel (very publicly, in The Washington Post) only emphasized the incompetence of Olbermann’s critics.
Everything in Koppel’s 1,500 word diatribe in The Post reminded FCP of how pompous and shallow Koppel always was, even in his prime.
The first problem was the idiotically false equivalence Koppel found among Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly–“individuals who hold up the twin pillars of political partisanship….”
It is really nothing less than obscene to equate serious people like Maddow and Olbermann with dangerous clowns like Hannity and Beck. The MSNBC anchors are, indeed, relentlessly liberal. But they are also extremely intelligent, careful with the facts, and genuinely interested in the truth.
Hannity and Beck are none of those things. As Dana Milbank pointed out recently, during the short time Barack Obama has been president, Beck has managed “202 mentions of Nazis or Nazism, 147 mentions of Hitler, 193 mentions of fascism or fascist, and another 24 bonus mentions of Joseph Goebbels”–and most of these were directed in some form at Obama.
Olbermann may have made three small and stupid donations to Democratic candidates, but Hannity has been a full-time money-raising machine for everyone from Sharron Angle to Christine O’Donnell. Nearly all the rest of Roger Ailes’ boys and girls are Reublican fundraisers, or prospective Republican presidential candidates, or both.
And as Obama jetted off to Asia, Beck once again displayed his unrivaled capacity for prevarication: “Have you ever seen the president, ever seen the president go over for a vacation where you needed 34 warships, $2 billion — $2 billion, 34 warships. We are sending — he’s traveling with 3,000 people.” As Tom Friedman notes today, “In Beck’s rendition, the president’s official state visit to India became ‘a vacation’ accompanied by one-tenth of the U.S. Navy’ ” (all of which was based on the presumably pure invention of a single unnamed provincial official in India).
Thus, anyone like Koppel who writes that “Fox News and MSNBC “show us the world not as it is, but as partisans (and loyal viewers) at either end of the political spectrum would like it to be,” either never watches these networks on a regular basis, or simply has no judgment.
The rest of Koppel’s piece tends to support the latter conclusion. Besides the flatly false statement that 60 Minutes was the first network news program ever to turn a profit (see Jack Schafer’s excellent dissection of that fantasy), Koppel’s theme–that objectivity used to be the greatest strength of all the news divisions–is equally false.
Olbermann did a fine job of demonstrating that in a searing “special comment” on his program a couple of days after Koppel’s article appeared. Olbermann reported quite correctly that the only times the networks have made crucial contributions to the life of the republic have actually been when its anchors explicitly threw off the cloak of objectivity–when Ed Murrow attacked Joe McCarthy, when Walter Cronkite devoted half of the CBS Evening News to Watergate (at a moment when every other news organization except The Washington Post was ignoring it), and–most importantly–when Cronkite went to Vietnam after the Tet Offensive in 1968. Cronkite courageously declared in a prime time special that nothing better than a stalemate was possible in Vietnam, and called on the United States to negotiate its way out, “not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.”
Olbermann continued, “the great change about which Mr. Koppel wrings his hands is not partisanship nor tone nor analysis. The great change was the creation of the sanitized image of what men like Cronkite and Murrow and [others, including Koppel] did. These were not glorified stenographers. These were not neutral men. These were men who did in their day what the best of journalists still try to do in this one. Evaluate, analyze, unscramble, assess — put together a coherent picture, or a challenging question — using only the facts as they can best be discerned, plus their own honesty and conscience.”
Meanwhile, we have people like Tom Brokaw–who never used his anchor seat to do anything remotely as important as what Cronkite did–attacking Olbermann for compromising his network’s credibility. And yet, almost simultaneously, Brokaw was going on NBC’s Nightly News this month to parrot Republican talking points, including the crucial need to redefine the rich in America as anyone who makes at least $1 million, instead of a paltry $250,000. Because editorializing from the right is always allowed on every network–and only a multimillionaire like Brokaw would consider someone earning $250,000 “poor.”
There is one more problem with the idea that Keith Olbermann is, or ever could be, the biggest threat to the reputation of NBC News. The people most responsible for diminishing it are the executives who are in charge of it.
Two and a half years ago, David Barstow of The New York Times wrote a brilliant piece revealing that all of the major networks had been victims of a Pentagon propaganda scheme, which used legions of retired military officers to push the Bush administration’s line about Iraq and Afghanistan. As Barstow wrote, “Records and interviews show how the Bush administration has used its control over access and information in an effort to transform the analysts into a kind of media Trojan horse — an instrument intended to shape terrorism coverage from inside the major TV and radio networks.”
That piece won the Pulitzer Prize. And it was followed, six months after it was published, by another Barstow article that focused on NBC’s favorite military analyst, retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey. Entitled “One Man’s Military-Industrial-Media Complex,” it described how McCaffrey’s ties to defense contractors made him the direct beneficiary of any on-air commentary which supported either war.
And what did NBC News executives decide was the appropriate on-air response to Barstow’s accusations?
Absolute silence, which continues to this day – and was mimicked by all the other evening news shows. With that decision, all the network news divisions gave up their claims to being serious news gathering organizations.
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Christopher Hitchens is now fighting a gallant fight for his life against cancer. He is one of the best-loved and most-despised writers of our time. For the finest explanation ever written of those dueling points of view, don’t miss Eric Alterman’s brilliant review of Hitchens’ memoirs in the current issue of Dissent. It begins this way:
Has there ever been anyone quite like Christopher Hitchens? As a writer and a thinker, Hitchens may be the greatest performance artist the profession has ever produced. He is Oscar Wilde without the plays; Gore Vidal without the novels; Edmund Wilson without the ideas; George Orwell without the integrity; and Richard Burton without the movies (and Elizabeth Taylor). What he is not, however, is the author of lasting works of reportage, criticism, philosophy, or, dare I say it, literature.
Despite his myriad (and on occasion, damn-near miraculous) talents as literary critic, columnist, and long-form journalist, Hitchens’s genius undoubtedly lies in the art of the argument. “The world I live in is one where I have five quarrels a day, each with someone who really takes me on over something; and if I can’t get into an argument, I go looking for one, to make sure I trust my own arguments, to hone them,” he has explained, adding, “I would often rather have an argument or a quarrel than be bored, and because I hate to lose an argument, I am often willing to protract one for its own sake rather than concede even a small point.”
For the rest of Alterman’s piece, go here.
(H/T to Hal Davis for bringing it to FCP’s attention.)