With the strike of the Writers Guild of America dominating the discussion, The New York Times reported yesterday some exciting news in television that may be easily overlooked: The darkness has passed. But for how long?
Just as the Bush presidency nears its long-awaited end, it seems the mind-poisoning dominance of the Fox News primetime juggernaut is at an end too. Keith Olbermann, the popular sportscaster-turned-newsman who hosts “Countdown” on MSNBC, has for months openly challenged the prince of darkness himself, Bill O’Reilly, in both ratings and relevance. By competing directly with “The O’Reilly Factor,” once the unquestioned king of cable news, Olbermann has won over a significant number of viewers, even occasionally surpassing O’Reilly’s ratings among the all-important 25-54 age demographic, according to the Times.
Righteously overzealous as he is, Olbermann has proven quite a point with his successful insurrection. Contrary to what we felt inclined to accept for the past several years, the majority of Americans have not transformed suddenly into foot soldiers for the neo-con cause: They simply want a news show that does something more than tell them what happened. They want analysis. They want spin. But it has to be edgy and unique.
Just as Jon Stewart won over so many viewers with his well-aimed irreverence, Olbermann has reached out to viewers in ways other newscasters have been reluctant to do. It involves more than just being openly liberal or opinionated; Olbermann is biased and not afraid to say exactly what he means to imply. Whereas people like Chris Matthews feel the need to maintain some semblance of neutrality, Olbermann makes no such pretense. His fiery “Special Comment” segments, which nearly always evolve into a first-person tongue-lashing of Bush, leave little doubt to where his politics are.
Olbermann was a sorely needed opposing force to counter the gains made by the lunacy coming from the Fox News Channel. Perhaps we could even use a couple more like him to really even the conversation. The trend that has now started, however, promises to go just beyond that and maybe devolve into a bitterly divisive movement that closely emulates the many faults of O’Reilly and Fox News.
The Times reported that MSNBC has plans to give Rosie O’Donnell a primetime news show. That’s good so far: O’Donnell’s special brand of liberal rabblerousing may have been too much for “The View,” but it will fit in perfectly alongside Olbermann. It also reported that Matthews has taken his show, “Hardball,” decidedly left in recent months, hoping to ride Olbermann’s coattails back to the forefront of cable news. That’s fine too, because no one ever really mistook Matthews for a neutral messenger in the first place.
But the trouble begins with the report that MSNBC’s lone remaining conservative voice in primetime, Tucker Carlson, may be on his way out. I have no sympathy for Carlson, but the apparent push toward bringing in all liberals and eliminating conservatives is a disheartening indicator.
My problem with Fox News was never that it was too conservative: It was always that the network was too one-sided. In becoming the liberal equivalent of Fox News, MSNBC’s distortion of the conversation will become just as destructive. Sure, it’s a slight improvement that viewers will at least have the option of liberal voices to go with Fox News’s warmongering, but why must differing viewpoints be partitioned off onto an entirely different network? Far from having a lively debate of opposing viewpoints on one show, it seems we aren’t even willing to stand for diversity of thought on one network.
With political divisiveness rampant on the campaign trail and here on campus, exactly what this means for the prevailing notion of American democracy is a troubling thought. I love Olbermann for what he does, but for him to advocate that all shows on a cable news network must be a variation on the same ideologies (as he did in the Times story) is unjustifiable. Such a thought is born from either an inability or refusal to understand that political disagreements are rarely about right or wrong. They’re simply about a different viewpoint that, at its core, almost always has some merit.
Fox News accepted long ago that liberals are God-hating, flag-burning terrorist sympathizers. The damage that type of stereotyping has done to national political discourse is alarming – almost as alarming as what will happen if liberals take their turn to be equally as polarizing and prejudiced. Why is it that we cannot have a network with differing viewpoints and true disagreement? Isn’t that the most logical extension of American democracy to the airwaves?
Imran Syed is the Daily’s editorial page editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.