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March 21, 2008

Good Night & Good Luck

Keith Olbermann’s “special comments” may have started out as an Edward R. Murrow-esque thoughtful editorial, but over time they’ve simply become rants. Olbermann seems to be straining harder and harder to be both clever and salient at the same time, while, at the same time, losing the sober edge of Murrow’s piercing excavation of the issue at hand. Additionally, Olbermann’s now sophomoric disrespect shown to the president of the United States—a man I’m no fan of, either—seems to now be officially over the line, which tends to sap his rants of whatever small shred of credibility they once had. Much as I disagree with the president, he is, however, still the president. Criticizing him is easy to do (and great fun), but even I wince at how over-the-top Olbermann is now.

He seems to be devolving into self-parody, which presents a second wince when he co-opts Murrow’s “Good night and good luck,” sign off. I doubt Murrow would approve.


To be fair, Mr. Olbermann admitted a couple of years earlier that the choice of sign-off was never intended as much more than tribute to someone whose skill and ability he didn't believe he matched.

Priest, I remember you making similar comments regarding respecting the prez after (I think) Colbert's correspondents' dinner performance and maybe after Coretta Scott King's funeral. I'm wondering if you could tease this idea out some more. For you is this an issue of civility (that is, whoever the president is, no matter what, deserves a modicum of respect) or of strategy (that is, Olbermann has good things to say but people are going to tune him out if they perceive him as petty and sophomoric)?

The office of the presidency deserves respect, for sure, but it seems to me that, while the holder of that office is due a certain latitude and generosity for a very great while, it is possible for him or her eventually to no longer be deserving of the respect that comes with the office. Civility is not an absolute good, after all. In any case, major public figures disrespecting a president is not something new under the sun, though I realize that's not the same as saying it's a good thing.

I suspect the missing element for me here is that I'm not sure what Olbermann has said that you're referring to as "sophomoric," since I haven't watched him lately. (I'm not suggesting that he's not being sophomoric -- I just haven't watched closely lately.) It seems to me that, for instance, calling a president ignorant, incompetent, dishonest, weak, or even, heck, cowardly, would all be in bounds, but calling this particular president a "chimp-eared moron" would be out of bounds, and definitely sophomoric. For me Colbert's performance, for example, definitely fell into the former category, though YMM (and does, if I remember correctly) V.

I suppose I am just deeply mistrustful of any attempt to limit any type of criticism of a politician or office-holder out of a sense that they are owed deference because they hold a position of power. Sometimes presidents and senators and mayors and selectmen are moronic, and we should be able to say so. (Though that's not to say that we should endorse libel or slander -- e.g., Olbermann can call Bush a chimp-eared buffoon and I won't think it makes much sense as a piece of rhetoric, but I don't have any problem wish his saying it; on the other hand, accuse Bush of murdering Vince Foster, and then there's a problem.) It seems to me that's partly what got us into the mess we're in now.

Prof: I think it's a bit of both. First, we should have respect for the office, even if the guy in it drives us to drink. Second, by being so over the-top and s outrageous, Olbermann and company leave the gate open for the neocons to hammer them as nuts. Murrow made rational arguments and usually used his adversaries' own words against them. He was very sober, very respectful. He had unshakable credibility, and his attacks on McCarthy gave cover to the thousands who wanted to speak out against him but were afraid to do so.

As for specific names, Olbermann's called him "stupid" on more than one occasion, and not, "with all due respect, Mr. President..." but more like, "hey, stupid, look at this!" Out of bounds, I think.

I certainly don’t wish to limit criticism of the president. I'm more concerned about Olbermann, a guy I really admire, being taken seriously, which is difficult to do if you're ranting like a monkey.

Re: Bush murdering Foster: see, I wouldn’t be so upset about that accusation. After all, Bush is responsible for more deaths and injuries than bin Laden ever *dreamed* of committing. And nobody seems willing or interested in pointing that out.

Bush surpassed bin Laden *years* ago. Bin Laden is amateur night compared to Bush.

With all due respect.


Yeah, this is where we differ, I think, Priest. The President is supposed to serve us. We are not beholden to provide respect beyond the title. Once the chief executive has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is a chimp, I can't say I blame anyone for saying "hey stupid."

Just don't do it in public within earshot of the Secret Service, and you're fine.

Thanks for the reply, Priest. Although I tend toward Hysan's view of what is or isn't acceptable criticism of a sitting president, I appreciate your clarification re: Olbermann.

I wonder if Olbermann's increasing sophomoricity, if indeed that's what it is, is a symptom of the increasing factionalization of our political culture and the multiplicity of viewing options offered by the increase in broadcast news outlets. No single figure in journalism has the kind of authority and power that Murrow had in his heyday, or that Cronkite had when he spoke against Vietnam, and I don't know that it's possible for anyone to get it at this stage of the game. (Russert desperately wants to be that guy, but he is so not that guy that his desperation is palpable. It's hard to look at him some Sunday mornings.) Murrow and Cronkite were taken seriously by a broad cross-section of Americans, while Olbermann is listened to by people who mostly agree with Olbermann, Hannity by people who mostly agree with Hannity, et cetera et cetera. Perhaps KO (subconsciously?) thinks it's not worth making long impassioned arguments to people who already agree with him; easier to rally the base with a little red meat?

I dunno; I'm just rambling here. I suppose I should make it a point to see some new Countdowns.

(The Vince Foster thing was meant to be a joke about how, at least for a while there, any criticism of Bush's integrity, character, or judgment during or before his time in office was somehow out of bounds, whilst during the Clinton administration, we were regularly regaled with tales of Clinton murdering Vince Foster, running a secret drug empire, etc etc -- rumors we can expect to emerge again if Hillary is elected. But yeah, people should certainly be talking about the death toll on Bush's watch, especially given his recent comments about how he wishes he could be fighting on the front lines in Afghanistan, because he's just so seduced by the romance of it all. No, really.)


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