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Goodbye and Goodluck

I was more than a little saddened to see that Keith Olbermann was taken off his 8 PM perch at MSNBC. There was a time when I watched his show Countdown religiously, every night. I’d miss him over the weekend when MSNBC turns into just another stupid, exploitive cable station.

But I haven’t watched Keith in a while. He had gotten shrill, predictable, and more than a little sanctimonious. His “expert guests,” inside-the-beltway heavies like Howard Fineman, Richard Wolffe, Eugene Robinson and Jonathan Alter, were reduced to sycophantic yes men night after night; Olbermann’s questions to them would be long, rambling expositions of whatever he thought about something, ending with something like “isn’t that right?” and the answer would invariably start with “Yes, Keith and . . .” It was all so disingenuous and dogmatic and sad.

But even though I stopped watching, I was comforted knowing he was still on the air, that he was ready to pounce when we needed him. Because he always did.

Remembering back to the Bush years, Keith was the first, and for a long time the only, person in mainstream media who stood up to the post 9/11 mania, to the invasion of Iraq, to the hideousness that became the executive branch of government, and he called them out on no uncertain terms. Night after night. Nobody else had the balls. His early “special comments” were the impassioned, rational, wake-up-dammit, speak-to-the-power missives that no one else on television was making, and that we so desperately needed. And I rarely disagreed with a single word he said. Whatever else he does, whatever else happens to him, Keith Olbermann will go down as a giant of editorial journalism, and of the resistance to the fascist takeover of our nation by the neocon, corporate, Murdochian and teabag right wing.

He’s also responsible for bringing Rachel Maddow to the national stage. She has proven herself to be one of the most astute (and fun) political commentators the world has ever seen. And we have Keith alone to thank for bringing Rachel into our lives. Name one other person in the mainstream media who would give a shot to an outspoken, openly gay female news anchor with an attitude, someone with little on her resume but some airtime at a failing liberal radio network. And Keith first put her on mano-a-mano with arch-conservative former Nixon speechwriter Patrick Buchanan, who may be a lot of things, but he sure ain’t dumb. And she charmed him and smoked him at the same time. Keith trusted her and she delivered.

Keith built the MSNBC we know today. The only other person there who’s close is Chris Matthews—who means well, I suppose. But Matthews is, if anything, more annoying than Olbermann, a political rat who’s not really capable of building a thing, and who surfed Keith’s wake to success.

The scuttlebutt is that it’s the Comcast merger that did Keith in. To prove this is kind of like trying to prove that Sarah Palin’s violent rhetoric pulled the trigger on Gabrielle Giffords. I dunno about that. Look, since its inception, MSNBC has been owned by General Electric, for crying out loud. Do you really think a takeover by Comcast would make the atmosphere more oppressive?

Maybe we’ll never find out, although I’m hearing rumblings that Keith has been wanting out for at least a year. Maybe he was getting as bored with the shtick as we were. He always has been a little on the restless side, famously quitting ESPN in the ’90s and getting fired from Fox News for insubordination just before coming to MSNBC. That is to say, just before coming back to MSNBC, where he’d walked off his news gig in 1998 because he was sick of reporting about Monica Lewinsky.

So where does he go from here? There’s talk of his building an online “media empire” a la The Huffington Post. I just don’t see that working. I don’t see people flocking to a website to get a dose of Keith. There’s also talk of his joining an HBO project being developed by Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network, West Wing) about the behind-the-scenes goings-on at a cable news network. Which sounds interesting, but not interesting enough to get me to sign up for HBO again.

In either case, he’d be marginalized, a long way from the middle of the fray, which is where we need him to be. We need him in the fight in real time, dropping bombs on the hypocrites and corporate stooges that comprise much of the Republican Party and the right wing. Because nobody else does that like Keith Olbermann. Maybe he just needs to cool his jets a little, and then come back to nightly cable. I hope that’s it.

—Paul Rapp


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