Perhaps the highlight of Keith Olbermann’s weeklong fifth anniversary celebration of his MSNBC show “Countdown” has been his back-and-forth with Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell.
Olbermann kicked off his big week on Monday by naming Rendell, a big-time Hillary booster, the day’s worst person in the world and suggesting that he might be an idiot. Rendell’s crime? Suggesting that Olberman’s favorite punching bag, Fox News, has been the most balanced of all the cable networks in covering the Democratic primary race.
Then the other day, Rendell shot back, asking one reporter if Olbermann “gets checks from the Obama campaign.”
Put aside the fact that Olbermann’s rant on Monday didn’t really speak to Rendell’s assertion that Clinton and Obama get balanced, if not fair, coverage on Fox. Olbermann might want to check in with NBC’s resident Yiddishist, Brian Williams, about the meaning of chutzpah.
Whether or not Fox (Olbermann prefers “Fixed”) News deserves the “most balanced” distinction, what’s indisputable is that Olbermann now presides over the most one-sided anti-Hillary show on all three major cable news networks. These days Olbermann arguably spends more time bashing Clinton than either President Bush or John McCain. And he basically never has a harsh word to say about Barack Obama.
The issue isn’t accuracy: Olbermann hits Clinton hard, but usually above the belt. The problem (if one chooses to see it that way) is that he only goes after one of the two Democratic front-runners. Again, to borrow the Fox paradigm, Olbermann is fair, but not balanced: When the Clinton campaign finds itself under fire, Olbermann sees it as his job to pour on the gasoline; when Obama is feeling the heat, Olbermann moves to put out the flames.
Looking past the hypocrisy issue, is there anything wrong – in the increasingly opinionated world of cable news – with the blatantly anti-Clinton tone of Olberman’s show?
To be honest, I never had much of a problem with his choosing-sides approach when the target was the president. After all, the media is supposed to be keeping watch on the White House, and with so many mainstream outlets falling down on the job, and conservative hosts playing apologist and cheerleader, Olbermann has played an important role.
But now it feels different. In the Obama-Clinton race, Olbermann isn’t checking power – he’s trying to swing the election. And, while liberal attacks on John McCain and conservative attacks on the two leading Dems certainly fall into the same category, playing favorites during the primary season is taking opinionated mainstream journalism to a new high/low. Now we’re not only going to have liberal and conservative shows/networks, we’re going to have them for individual candidates on each side of the aisle? Are there enough shows to go around?
All that said, the real issue isn’t Olbermann, but his role in MSNBC’s overall election coverage and the supporting cast of journalists from ostensibly unbiased media outlets that frequent his show. Olbermann isn’t just a guy with a show – he often plays co-host during debate and election night coverage. To be fair, he does a fairly decent job of toning it down and playing it less crooked in these settings. But, still, why is a blatantly anti-Clinton host sharing the point at a network that still claims to aspire to some standard of balance and objectivity?
Along similar lines, why are the Washington Post and Newsweek willing to pimp out their reporters to a show that is so one-sided? Sure, in print Dana Milbank and Howard Fineman might aspire to play it straight, but Olbermann’s consistently anti-Clinton line of questioning effectively turns them (and their publications) into pawns in his political crusade.