If there was some strange parallel universe in which Keith Olbermann and I were members of Congress, I suspect we would vote together about 99 percent of the time. But when the “Countdown” host announced his abrupt departure from MSNBC on Friday night, I felt only relief.
First reactions to Olbermann’s exit have broken along lines as partisan as they were predictable. That the New York Post would respond to the news with glee and The Huffington Post with a gnashing of teeth was hardly a shock.
But back in the real world, I cannot imagine I am the only viewer who is basically simpatico with Olbermann’s worldview, but who had come to find him and his show utterly insufferable. The glibness, the pomposity, the narcissism — all these foibles had, of late, reached gut-wrenching proportions.
It was not always thus. It is easy to forget just what the media landscape looked like in the early years of Olbermann’s tenure at the helm of “Countdown.” (He had, of course, had an earlier, unsuccessful stint at MSNBC, which culminated in one of the many enmity-filled partings that have dotted his career.)
The show began in 2003, when large swathes of the journalistic profession appeared to have been cowed — not just by the Bush administration per se but by a jingoistic atmosphere that lingered too long after 9/11 and took many unwise forms.
In that environment, Olbermann was fresh, even daring. The show’s increasingly forceful liberalism through its early years made for some riveting TV moments, the best-known perhaps his 2006 takedown of then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
The freshness curdled soon enough.
In his farewell remarks on Friday, Olbermann proudly proclaimed that his show was “anti-establishment.” In recent years, that description was a stretch, at best.
Everything from the increasingly contrived “Worst Person in the World” segments to the host’s persona — a kind of an ersatz version of Walter Cronkite, with infinitely more “attitude” but infinitely less real authority — had settled into a rut. Predictability and self-importance were the main features.
“Countdown” had a niche — a profitable one for both the network and its host, who was rumored to have negotiated a $30 million four-year contract in 2008 — and Olbermann apparently saw little need for change.
Meanwhile, his professed commitment to the questioning of authority all-too-evidently did not extend to himself. There were myriad stories about diva-like histrionics in front of — and allegedly directed against — staff. There were instances where his sneering at co-anchors had embarrassing public results.
But, more importantly, there was a years-long procession of pundits whose only apparent purpose was to confirm the correctness and brilliance of the host’s every utterance. The spectacle was one in which purportedly respectable journalists seemed to fall over themselves to play courtier to King Smug.
By last year, criticism of this trend had become so widespread that Olbermann responded, via a promo spot for the show. The ad, which showed the host proclaiming that “I ask a lot of these questions to find out whether or not I’m wildly incorrect about something,” was unintentionally hilarious. The only “establishment” being challenged by then was the one that is charged with taking action against false advertising.
There was a bigger problem, too. Olbermann rose to prominence in large part through attacking other media figures — most notably Bill O’Reilly — for both their gloating self-regard and their rhetorical recklessness.
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?
Later silliness — the risible condemnation of then-Senator-Elect Scott Brown as “an irresponsible, homophobic, racist, reactionary, ex-nude model, teabagging supporter of violence” — only strengthened the impression that Olbermann had morphed into a mirror image of those he so often attacked.
The blogosphere is already aflame with suggestions that Olbermann’s departure is linked to Comcast’s impending takeover of NBC. Maybe it is. Petitions for his reinstatement are growing as I type. Maybe they’ll be successful — though I doubt it.
In any case, for me at least, Olbermann’s act has long been threadbare. Goodnight and good luck, Keith — and good riddance.