Keith Olbermann has hosted the final Countdown.
One would have hoped that MSNBC executives had the same appalled reaction to Olbermann’s grotesque politicization of the Tucson tragedy as normal Americans. Alas, it turns out that Olbermann was just as annoying to his staff, coworkers, and bosses as he was to most viewers. The parting of ways stems more from workplace antagonisms than a recognition of the indecency of his broadcasts.
And the most indecent part of those broadcasts was not the widely criticized “Worst Person in the World” segment, which even Olbermann briefly suspended. It was when Olbermann combined the pomposity of Ron Burgundy with the righteous wrath of Howard Beale into a show-closing Ten Minute Hate.
What made Countdown’s Special Comment so unintentionally special?
Generally the Special Comments began with an “as promised”—as in, if the “special” doesn’t clue you in that this comment is a really big deal, then the fact that Keith is delivering on his promise to lecture you should. Histrionics, welled-up emotion, and a self-righteous tone characterized the harangues. Though not exactly Farrakhanish or Chavezian in length, Olbermann’s monologues occasionally surpassed the ten-minute mark. Outside of cable access, it’s not a usual occurrence for a host to talk into the camera uninterrupted for the time it takes to listen to “Shine on You Crazy Diamond”—at least not on Western television.
The rhetorical question, asked with feigned earnestness to shame the targets, was a staple of the Special Comment. After the pro-traditional marriage Proposition 8 passed in California, for instance, Olbermann asked of supporters: “With so much hate in the world, with so much meaningless division, and people pitted against people for no good reason, this is what your religion tells you to do?” Like so much on television, the repetitious rhetorical questions were done for show—Prop 8 supporters were watching Fox, after all. The propensity to namedrop Clarence Darrow and Edward R. Murrow to convey erudition actually outlined the cable talker’s parochial knowledge. Ominous invocations of “Joe McCarthy” were similarly frequent—and similarly a sign of narrow learning. Formalistic terms of pseudo-respect strangely meshed with insults. Typical Olbermannisms of this sort regarding George W. Bush, generally referred to as “Mr. Bush,” featured the host remark: “Your words are lies, Sir” and “You, Sir, have no business being president.” In Westerns, villains wear black hats. In a Special Comment, they go by such names as “Sir” and “Mr.”
Olbermann’s last Special Comment was a fitting coda. Just hours after Jared Lee Loughner had murdered a half-dozen people in a Safeway parking lot in Tucson, Arizona, the Countdown host demanded public penance from Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, and all “those politicians and commentators who have so irresponsibly brought us to this time of domestic terrorism.” In the days that followed, when it became clear that Olbermann’s picture of Loughner as a Tea-Partier-gone-crazy was itself crazy, Olbermann compounded his initial recklessness with dishonesty by claiming that nobody had ever blamed the right-wing for the mass murder in the first place.
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