I thought the on-air personality who resigns on the air and never comes back to the show was something we only see on fictional TV. But tonight it happened on (technically) real TV. Keith Olbermann, MSNBC’s star personality, announced a few minutes ago that this would be his last episode, and NBC confirmed it.
The reasons for his departure will start to be talked about soon, but for now, given the timing, he has to be considered the first casualty of the NBC/Comcast merger.
(Update: Comcast says it had “nothing to do” with forcing him out. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen in response to the merger, though. Also, Olbermann said he was “told” to leave, but it’s still unclear whether this means he was fired or simply that NBC wouldn’t let him stay past this episode once it was decided that he was leaving.)
I have no idea if the new NBC management wants to move the network to the right, but the idea of MSNBC as a liberal equivalent of Fox News — it wasn’t, but it was the only thing that resembled a liberal U.S. cable news network — seems to be over.
Olbermann’s impact has dulled somewhat since the Bush administration ended, or maybe even before that. Countdown was a fresh and surprising show in the mid-’00s, simply because it was doing something nobody else was doing on U.S. news. Battered by competition from Fox News and reading Bush’s re-election (as well as the disastrous launch of Air America radio in 2004) as proof that the U.S. mostly wanted conservatism, CNN and, yes, MSNBC generally moved to the right, or at least away from having anyone who was too “shrill” in criticizing the Bush administration; you could turn on cable news and see a mix of conservatives and mushy centrists.
I don’t know what Olbermann’s ideology is, or even if he has one, but after Bush got re-elected he recognized that there were a lot of people out there who really didn’t like the Bush administration and wanted to hear “shrill” criticism. So he did it, and people watched — not as many as on Fox, but enough to improve MSNBC’s performance. He was a key figure in making it acceptable to engage in criticisms that many “respectable” pundits dismissed as uncivil, and to criticize Democrats and liberals from the left rather than the right.
I think Rachel Maddow, whom he supported, does it better, partly because she actually is an open ideological liberal and therefore, like many Fox pundits, she has actual policy positions you can agree or disagree with; Olbermann’s schtick is largely about emotion. But he really did do some important work in helping to revive the possibility of actual liberal media, as opposed to “the liberal media.”