Saturday, January 22, 2011

Keith Olbermann and the Tale of the Peanut Butter

When I look for the news on television, I have a simple request, one which apparently is so unreasonable that most cable news channels have forgotten how to do it. I want the actual news. My idealized (and apparently hopelessly naive) layperson concept of journalism comes straight from the VOA's original mission statement: "The news may be good or bad for us -- We will always tell you the truth." Anybody who presumes to explain what it all means without first giving a truthful account of what happened? They're just wasting my precious time, and yours, and the time of everyone we know. We're supposedly adults, and we don't need a cookie and a story at bedtime. So naturally, I have little or no use for most American-owned cable news channels, especially between 8 and 11pm, when the opinion shows take over.

Keith Olbermann, the now-former host of MSNBC's Countdown, was one of the few commentators for whom I made time, although not as often in the past year, when the aroma of partisan politics in concentrated doses made me start questioning the nature of adulthood in America. I can't really say that the reason I watched Olbermann wasn't because he backed a lot of the same horses I did (and yeah, I know I just said the "cookie and a story" thing, but I'm not made of stone, people), but his opinions were rooted in provable things, not rumor and innuendo. I never got the feeling that he reverse engineered the facts he was presenting and threw out the ones that were inconvenient to a pre-slanted conclusion.

Some people--and that includes a high-profile competitor who always refused to mention Olbermann by name--might debate that point until they're blue in the face, but I never saw one kill a story friendly to the host's viewpoint while a show was in progress, explaining on the air that on further review, the main points of the piece didn't stand up to scrutiny, therefore, no story. That was Olbermann, who has actually shown the integrity to publicly retract statements in a field where the simple idea of correcting your errors--basic journalistic ethics, in other words--is seen by some as a sign of weakness, where the field leaders' approach to mistakes is to keep talking and hope nobody notices.

That doesn't even cover the Special Comments, the pure opinion pieces which asked pointed, necessary questions at a time in recent history when when being a questioner was equated by a significant part of the country as treason. Arguably, he went to the well a bit too often and dissipated the cumulative impact, but that doesn't completely nullify the strongest of those pieces. I'm still waiting for that hyperbolic atmosphere that made Special Comments necessary to dissipate, by the way. It doesn't look like it'll happen this year. Forget about it happening next year.

As a result of all this and more, Olbermann presided over the highest rated program on MSNBC, which is why it was baffling on the face of it when on Friday night, he announced that we were watching the final Countdown...and from the way he phrased the announcement, he seemed just as surprised as we were.

There's a rumor spreading--and for the moment, let's mark it as just that--which claims that NBC Universal's new corporate owner Comcast is pushing for a more ideologically "balanced" MSNBC, and the termination of Countdown is the first maneuver in that direction. That would be a mistake, but not because I take any joy from the I-said-you-said model of partisan bickering. The problem with the "one from each side" theory of fairness is that in the new ultra-partisanized way of looking at reality, where sources are, as often as not, insular to the point of being almost incestuous, you can almost always guarantee that at least one side is going to be working from faulty data at best, outright lies based on wishful thinking at worst. Then there's another nightmare scenario, which has happend a lot in the past ten years, when both sides of the punditocracy base their opposing viewpoints on the same wildly inaccurate garbage, and as a result, both opinions are equally useless.

The most alarming part of it all is when some lazy armchair analyst--and it's the Internet, so that's a 24-hour cycle in itself--decides that if are two extreme differences of opinion, then the truth must lie somewhere in between. If one side is (or, God forbid, both sides are) wrong, wrong, wrong, the end result of splitting the difference is still a fraud, no matter how good your intentions are.

This is how I explain it: On one end of your kitchen counter, you have an open jar of creamy, creamy peanut butter. On the other end, you have a jar containing (and for some reason, I'm using the family-friendly terminology here) a whipped cow pie. Never mind where you found it, never mind why you put it in your blender in the first place. For our purposes, it is still warm, still steaming.

You've decided that you want a sandwich, but five minutes ago you ran head-first into a heavy wooden door...locked. When you regained consciousness, you realized you wanted to make a sandwich out of something, but of course, you've just sloshed your brains around and you're not entirely sure which jar is which anymore. So just to play it safe, you scoop an equal amount out of each, mix them together, and spread them on your bread. Then, you take that first bite.

The flavor? It ain't gonna be peanut butter, bub.

To bring it back home, in a field where cattle business has become the rule of law, Keith Olbermann is, if not pure peanut butter, at least well within the FDA guidelines, and I'm keeping my fingers crossed that he reappears sooner rather than later. Still, the overall situation gets worse every year, to the point where I'm pretty much done with television as a primary news source. Ideally, the Internet should help us be better informed about everything, but in practice it's equally useful in the false validation of lies, biases, and bigotries, which means you have to be an even more vigilant consumer than ever, and that's just exhausting if you have other things to do with your day. The long-withdrawn FCC mandate, where broadcast news was part of the community service requirement and not just another profit center that could be tarted up or even discarded like another element of the entertainment division, has almost become one of those nostalgic throwbacks to another world, like button candy and five-cent Cokes. Thirty minutes was what you had to work with. Somebody sat behind the desk, told you what happened in the world, and left you enough breathing room to decide things for yourself. We never suspected how good we had it.

(As always, I do this as no one's representative, and speak for the only person whom I have a right to speak for. Just to be completely honest, I did edit a couple of sentences for clarity a few hours after this post went live. That's what happens when you act as your own editor.)

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