Sunday, January 23, 2011

TV: One Less Bag To Leak Gas

Last week looked like it might shape up into a discussion about the state of children's programming in the US, a discussion launched by a new MTV series. Instead, America's biggest -- if not most favorite -- blowhard sucked up all the oxygen in the room as people wondered: "Why?" and "Why, oh, why?" The answer -- indeed the questions -- like most of life's riddles can be found on a Carly Simon album.


Friday night, our modern day Betty Hutton announced his departure from MSNBC (click here for video). It was typical drama queen and, yes, he did strike his Scarlet O'Hara pose yet again by declaring, "As God is my witness" -- which has led so many to wonder if Keith Olbermann hated women so much just because he saw them as competition for -- or reality checks on -- his drag routines? Regardless, he was yet again explaining there was no place for women in his world as he referred to viewers as males.

His announcement brought a variety of responses. For example, Steven Weber insisted, at The Huffington Post, on seeing the announcement as time to yet again attack 'the other,' "They accuse, they lie, they do everything they have been bred to do to survive. And in doing so, they drag down the system, they drag down humanity, forcing all to live by their antiquated rules and eye-rolling superstitions. The gun fetishes and the god fetishes amount to one big ignorance fetish, a sad commentary on the failure of the intellect to overcome instinct." And you thought just his acting was bad. Mike Hegedus, at the same outlet, offered a more clear eyed appraisal. As usual The Docker Boys at The New York Times and Perez Hilton were lost while TMZ, by contrast, demonstrated it can get the gossip.

At The Washington Post, Greg Sargent stopped rubbing the obscene fat pockets under his eyes long enough to huff and puff and lament. What? Ethics is now something the Journolister Sargent -- who has raised concerns at The Post over his online links/reach-arounds -- worries about? Sargent managed to exemplify the worst reality about Olbermann and his groupies: Facts don't matter.

Their hero didn't put much emphasis on them, so why should they? Sargent is crediting Olbermann with getting Rachel Maddow her own show at MSNBC when everyone has long known it was Rachel Maddow's on air criticism of MSNBC's Chris Matthews -- quickly picked up by The Associated Press -- that resulted in MSNBC announcing they had signed Maddow to her own show -- thereby killing the criticism Maddow was making only days before.

Sargent's long been the Poster Child for Ultimate Fan Boy -- you sort of picture him still sleeping in footy pajamas and in his own urine -- so it would be easy to dismiss his loose grasp of the facts as a stray strand were it not such a pattern. And it was predominately Male Pattern Falseness -- women tended to stick to reality (see Hollywood Reporter's Sofia M. Frenandez, USA Today's Ann Oldenburg, Pop Eater's Rebecca Macatee, etc.). Among the many sufferers of Male Pattern Falseness?

Glenn Garvin (Miami Herald) practices the fact-free diet when he writes, "When Olbermann arrived in 2003, neither a political agenda nor an audience was discernible at the network." That was almost as laughable as David Folkenflik declaring to Scott Simon (Weekend Edition, NPR) yesterday that Olbermann made MSNBC, "A place where liberals could find their concerns and voices heard in a way that hadn't been the case on cable networks." The revisionary tactics are endless and we don't have the time or space to repeat all of them.

A political agenda was very obvious at MSNBC and, in fact, was what watered down the "MS" (Micro Soft) and beefed up the NBC. Bill and Melinda Gates found the e-mails in early 2003 not just irritating but embarrassing. The e-mails?

In 2003, MSNBC's prime time (like Fox, MSNBC prime time is where the crazy runs free; during the day, both networks attempt to offer some semblance of news) went conservative and then some with the most offensive addition being homophobic Michael Savage. It was Savage's addition that led to an online e-mail campaign to Bill and Melinda Gates and the fallout from that was only semi-resolved at the end of 2005 with NBC taking over a greater stake in MSNBC. It was very embarrassing for the Gates to be seen as humanitarians and also be partnered with GE in bringing homophobia to life via MSNBC.

The hiring of Savage wasn't an accident. Twelve days after the announcement that Savage was joining the MSNBC line up, MSNBC announced they were cancelling the cable network's highest rated program, Donahue. The same day MSNBC announced that axe falling, Rick Ellis (All Your TV) reported on an internal assessment by MSNBC which declared that with the US marching off to illegal war, Phil Donahue would be a "difficult public face for NBC in a time of war. . . . He seems to delight in presenting guests who are anti-war, anti-Bush and skeptical of the administration's motives." Along with Savage, they added the conservative Joe Scarborough. And they would 'delete' Ashleigh Banfield.


We're not into revisionary history. We're not advocates of feel-good journalism. And that's why it has been so offensive to read the 'reporting' on Keith Olbermann. "Keith led a resistant nation to the Mount." That's the subtext of so many of the articles in the last two days. But the reality is that no such thing ever happened.

In 2003, MSNBC was going conservative. It's popular host Chris Matthews (Donahue had more viewers than Matthews) had been high stepping from centrist Democrat to right-winger throughout the late 90s. MSNBC saw his 'success' (fawning -- which is what he still does today, but for Democrats) as the key to programming success. Besides, it was much cheaper to produce a Hardball than an Ashleigh Banfield in Pakistan for A Region In Conflict. Fox News had struggled in prime time and was now turning a profit with cheap talking head shows revolving around gas bags which required no locations, no investigations, nothing more than a mike, a camera and some room deodorizer.

Ashleigh is sort of the key to the whole story in fact, the Rosetta Stone of where we were, where we are and why. Even when she goes unmentioned, as she did all weekend, she is indeed the story.

MSNBC decided to go right-wing. Just knew that would turn it into a hit cable network. They had Chris Matthews right-wing program but they had much more. They had a climate that no one wants to talk about today. In March, the Iraq War hits the 8 year mark. There's a generation that's come of age after the invasion which may have no idea about the climate back in those days. Yes, you had Chris Matthews and G. Gordon Liddy on MSNBC licking their lips and rubbing their thighs together over the alleged penis bulge in Bully Boy Bush's 2003 "Mission Accomplished" drag outfit. That is sometimes remembered.

But MSNBC's decision to air that nonsense without apology or to axe Phil's show or whatever else happened in a climate where MSNBC knew they wouldn't be held accountable. Like Chris Matthews, Saturday Night Live has restyled itself and possibly Lorne intends to take heavy scissors to certain 2002 and 2003 broadcasts to protect the show from its own mistakes but in the post-9-11 climate, few were as big offenders as Saturday Night Live which seemed on an eternal mission to worship "America's Mayor" Rudy G. and which thought the height of political criticism was their skit of Bush's Iraq War "press conference" that largely consisted of blowing air darts at Helen Thomas so that she would stop asking questions. In fact, Helen Thomas was the butt of that skit. Not Bush leading a country into illegal war and lying about it, Helen Thomas asking the unpleasant questions was the butt of the joke. Back then, Saturday Night Live was at its most political and most conservative.

Not incidentally, back then Saturday Night Live was mocking Ashleigh Banfield for the 'crime' or 'joke' of reporting from Pakistan and Afghanistan. Back then, there was a strong push to refuse to listen. And Saturday Night Live was part of that push. Tina Fey and Lorne Michaels would like for you to forget that, but it is reality.

CNN was cable's News Channel. Or had been. As much as anything could. But CNN, by 2002, was part of the AOL-Time-Warner-Disney-Touchstone-CNN conglomerate and not really about news at all. The suits were still in a panic -- not over the fact that they'd allowed military psy-ops to intern and report at CNN but over the fact that the documented and sourced "Valley Of Death" report was one they had to walk away from and, most of all, that it had left the impression that they were 'unpatriotic.' In that climate, a lot of centrists -- wrongly beloved by many liberals in the audience as 'one of us' -- were cowed into going along with the march to war. (They would emerge a few years later, like Aaron Brown, for example, allowing that maybe they could have asked a few hard questions or presented a few anti-war voices but . . .)

That was the climate that led to war. A timid and fawning press (which we still have) afraid to do their jobs and those that tried to do their jobs repeatedly being attacked for the 'crime' of trying.

Fox News was riding high in the ratings and, just as NBC had once tried to copy the ABC ratings power house Three's Company with We Got It Made, MSNBC decided they could refashion themselves. Teri Copley was no Suzanne Somers and MSNBC was no Fox News.

But it would take a few years for them to grasp that.

Ashleigh Banfield was mocked by Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show. Might Jon Stewart today explain the latter? Explain how Banfield was doing anything that should have resulted in ridicule?

She was already under fire from her own network. When new-hire Michael Savage declared on the radio that Ashleigh was "the mind slut with a big pair of glasses" and that she "looks like she went from porno into reporting," there was fallout at MSNBC -- for Ashleigh Banfield. Instead of issuing a statement of support for Banfield, Eric Sorenson and the MSNBC suits said nothing publicly and privately told Banfield she shouldn't say anything.

It was saying something, specifically a campus speech in April 24, 2003, that led to an eventual parting. The 'controversial' speech included:

That said, what didn't you see? You didn't see where those bullets landed. You didn't see what happened when the mortar landed. A puff of smoke is not what a mortar looks like when it explodes, believe me. There are horrors that were completely left out of this war. So was this journalism or was this coverage-? There is a grand difference between journalism and coverage, and getting access does not mean you're getting the story, it just means you're getting one more arm or leg of the story. And that's what we got, and it was a glorious, wonderful picture that had a lot of people watching and a lot of advertisers excited about cable news. But it wasn't journalism, because I'm not so sure that we in America are hesitant to do this again, to fight another war, because it looked like a glorious and courageous and so successful terrific endeavor, and we got rid oaf horrible leader: We got rid of a dictator, we got rid of a monster, but we didn't see what it took to do that.
I can't tell you how bad the civilian casualties were. I saw a couple of pictures. I saw French television pictures, I saw a few things here and there, but to truly understand what war is all about you've got to be on both sides. You've got to be a unilateral, someone who's able to cover from outside of both front lines, which, by the way, is the most dangerous way to cover a war, which is the way most of us covered Afghanistan. There were no front lines, they were all over the place. They were caves, they were mountains, they were cobbled, they were everything. But we really don't know from this latest adventure from the American military what this thing looked like and why perhaps we should never do it again. The other thing is that so many voices were silent in this war. We all know what happened to Susan Sarandon for speaking out, and her husband, and we all know that this is not the way Americans truly want to be. Free speech is a wonderful thing, it's what we fight for, but the minute it's unpalatable we fight against it for some reason.
That just seems to be a trend of late, and l am worried that it may be a reflection of what the news was and how the news coverage was coming across. This was a success, it was a charge it took only three weeks. We did wonderful things and we freed the Iraqi people, many of them by the way, who are quite thankless about this. There's got to be a reason for that. And the reason for it is because we don't have a very good image right now overseas, and a lot of Americans aren't quite sure why, given the fact that we sacrificed over a hundred soldiers to give them freedom.
Well, the message before we went in was actually weapons of mass destruction and eliminating the weapons of mass destruction from this regime and eliminating this regime. Conveniently in the week or two that we were in there it became very strongly a message of freeing the Iraqi people. That should have been the message early on, in fact, in the six to eight months preceding this campaign, if we were trying to win over the hearts of the Arab world.

Dan Kennedy (at the Boston Phoenix) noted the suit's response in real time, "Ms. Banfield does not speak for NBC News. We are deeply disappointed and troubled by her remarks, and will review her comments with her. In the meantime, we want to emphasize how proud we are of the journalism produced by NBC News and of the men and women who worked around the clock, even risking their lives, to bring this story to the American public." And, as Kennedy noted, Banfield would soon be gone.

MSNBC's high-profile line up was Michael Savage, then right-winger Chris Matthews, Joe Scarborough, Pat Buchanan (who opposed the Iraq War and did so publicly -- along with Bill Press -- on the MSNBC progam Buchanan & Press) and others.

So to claim that MSNBC -- as many in the press are now -- never titled until their "Lean Forward" campaign currently is not only mistaken, it's a damn lie.

Another lie is that Keith brought liberalism to MSNBC for eight or so years. No. He was hired, in 2003, as the MSNBC press release at the time notes, to do an "irreverent look at the day's top news" and it would be similar to "a radio music countdown" only about "water cooler buzz" and not music. That's what his fluffy little show largely was for its first two and a half years.

Supposedly he garnered huge ratings. He did not.

Yes, he did better in the ratings than Michael Savage but, outside of some hopped up on drugs suits, who really ever thought that homophobia and Michael Savage's face would result in high ratings?

MSNBC destroyed itself and it took years for it to rebuild. We don't care for Olbermann but we'll credit him with parts of the rebuilding.

We won't, however, call him a ratings hit.

He wasn't. And his ratings didn't justify his salary. More importantly, his ratings weren't increasing (true of all of MSNBC's prime time line up). The ratings had long ago settled. Massive exposure had not led to higher ratings. This wasn't Cheers or Moonlighting where promotion and word of mouth would lead to a ratings smash. This was a show that had reached its highest level ever and, it turned out, that wasn't very high at all.

This also wasn't the voice of liberalism. In fact, it was a voice that damaged the American left.

For example, there were no stories on the environment that carried weight on Countdown. (It was Anderson Cooper that led on the Gulf Disaster, not Olbermann.) Certainly, the pollution of the Hudson River and its effects was never addressed. The ecology was reduced to 'smarter shopping.' So let's not kid on that front. There was no holding Barack Obama accountable for continuing two wars. So let's not kid on that front either.

Remember how we said Ashleigh Banfield was the Rosetta Stone? She really is. She's all over this story without even trying. For example, shortly after Olbermann made his announcement, John Nichols of The Nation was pouncing on it and lavishly praising Olbermann and those 'commentaries.' Where was Nichols' column on Banfield?

No where to be found and that's the worst damage that Olbermann and his kind have done. Ashleigh Banfield was an actual reporter (back when her own program first started, MSNBC was trying to ape CNN). And when she was vanished, The Nation and others didn't care. Actual overseas reporting wasn't defended. Does the world really need more Olbermanns or more Banfields? For John Nichols, the well known sexist, the answer is very clear: Pontification is more important than investigation.

And that's sad and it's telling. And it certainly explains why Olbermann and his MSNBC co-stars have been able to escape serious criticism from so many for repeatedly altering facts to create a stronger narrative. It's also true that if Ashleigh Banfield had been Ashton Banfield, she might have gotten some support. She certainly wouldn't have had Michael Massing's bitchy comments about her hair style appearing in The Nation had she been a man. And, if she really wanted support from the echo chamber of the left, she'd need to be a man who embraces sexism the way so many of the left commentators do.

Keith Olbermann embraced it. Bob Somerby long documented that reality but basically stood alone in doing so (two notable exceptions were Rebecca Traister and Rachel Sklar). And in 2008, we saw FAIR and the so-called News Dissector Danny Schechter refusing to call out the sexism Olbermann utilized and bathed in repeatedly. That damaged the left, make no mistake. The use of sexism and the refusal to call it out did great damage to the left. While Bob Somerby was able to call out Olbermann, it turns out that some left writers were as well.

At least privately.

Last summer, The Daily Caller did their stories on Journolist -- a listserv among self-styled lefty journalists -- and one of the revelations that got very little attention was the story about the number of writers objecting to the sexism of Keith Olbermann and doing so in 2008. But doing so privately, among themselves. As one left voice after another lodges objections, along comes Luke Mitchell (then with the notoriously sexist Harper's magazine) to declare, "Olberman is irritating and his obvious sexism is reprehensible. But yes, someone going on TV and saying that torture is bad is a net positive." Because women don't matter and because domestic abuse -- in Luke Mitchell's mind -- isn't torture and possibly also not considered abuse. Sexism breeds abuse. But Luke Mitchell didn't care. He just needed a man to say "torture is wrong." Apparently because he worships the penis and because, without a man saying it, it might not be true in his mind.

With all the writing about Keith Olbermann over the last two days, it's surprising just how little attention has been paid to his sexism. Niall Stanage (Salon) was one of the few to go there:

Olbermann’s claim to the moral high ground here was strictly relative. This is a man, after all, who once reported an allegation that Paris Hilton had been punched in the face under the tagline "A Slut and Battery." Hilarious, no?

Olbermann's gone and, as telling as what's being discussed, it's what's not being discussed that really tells the tale of both Olbermann and so much of the left. As for his departure? The answer can be found in track ten on Carly's Boys In The Trees album:

Now in the place where I come from
The people don't grow on trees (except some of the boys)
And you can't treat people like meat
Without getting brought to your knees
Now and then baby . . .

1-23-11, Ava and C.I. note: "A timid and fawning press (which we still have) afraid to do their jobs and those that tried repeatedly being attacked for trying." has been reworked into "A timid and fawning press (which we still have) afraid to do their jobs and those that tried to do their jobs repeatedly being attacked for the 'crime' of trying." as a result of questions in the e-mails. We hope that clarifies the sentence.
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
Poll1 { display:none; }