Olbie Addendum

Lots of good comments on my Keith Olbermann post (plus one that accuses me of hating him for being a strong liberal voice, which strikes me as a very unusual interpretation of what I wrote). One thing I wanted to add, though, is that I don’t think Olbermann’s problem is a failure to be balanced. Pundit shows are primarily about entertainment — they have enormous drawbacks as news programs, but the format does work as entertainment — and part of the entertainment value comes from the fact that the host is picking a side and sticking with it. Of course a successful liberal pundit will never be as hard on a liberal politician; that’s just part of the whole idea of playing for a team. Whenever a Republican is in office, Rush Limbaugh and the Fox News pundits and Glenn Beck have to find something else to be outraged about other than the President. And they usually find it pretty easily.

What I find problematic about Olbermann is that because he never really set himself up as a liberal pundit in the way that Donahue did (with more success than he’s given credit for), or the way that some of the Air America hosts did (with very little success) he has no obvious “team” except the anti-Bush team, which will no longer exist after January 2009. What was interesting about his Obama comments was not so much that he’s defending Obama as that he was defending Obama from the right, praising him for standing up to the left. This is actually a very common trope among token Fox News “liberals” like Alan Colmes, but the willingness of TV liberals to attack their own team is one of the things that keeps them from being as popular as their conservative counterparts. Rush Limbaugh may criticize Bush occasionally but he will never, ever criticize Bush from the left or praise him for moving left on an issue. Ever.

Now, in terms of politics or ideology it may sometimes be right to praise a liberal politician for moving right on an issue, or vice versa. But pundit shows are not really about the issues, they’re about entertainment, and Olbermann is showing signs of losing his entertainment value as he becomes just another middle-of-the-road type. Without clear liberal beliefs or conservative enemies (apart from Bush), he comes off as kind of bland.