Is Olbermann’s snide act on MSNBC the future of TV news?

Special to The Times

Former Times Television Critic Howard Rosenberg, a Pulitzer Prize winner for criticism in 1985, will be writing occasional commentaries about news on television and the Internet.

It seems like a couple of centuries since His Holiness Pope Walter reigned as God’s deputy on the airwaves. Even longer if you think about leave-’em-laughing funnyman Keith Olbermann.

The leer, the smug histrionics, the relentless needling, the shameless self-puffery, the accusatory rants excoriating Bushies and other Republicans as well as cable competitor Fox and its temperamental bully, Bill O’Reilly. And, of course, the comedy.


“Countdown With Keith Olbermann” is the bean ball between “Hardball With Chris Matthews” and “Verdict With Dan Abrams” in MSNBC’s weekday lineup. This trio has spent the election season heckling Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton from deep inside Sen. Barack Obama’s hip pocket and hammering Sen. John McCain since Day One.

Olbermann and Matthews co-anchored MSNBC’s coverage of this year’s party caucuses and primaries, and when Obama clinched the Democratic nomination this week, calming down these guys would have required a defibrillator. But the low point was New Hampshire, when they spent probably 15 minutes giggling at and making fun of the speech McCain gave after topping that primary’s GOP field.

All right, McCain couldn’t give a good speech even if he were lip-syncing Obama. Yet inept as he was, the news nihilism of Olbermann and Matthews was worse. And Olbermann hasn’t let up; he’s now attacking McCain’s grammar.

We worried in Walter Cronkite’s day in the ‘60s and ‘70s that a news anchor would sway public opinion merely by raising a brow in subtle response to a story. Oh the horror.

Yet today, mainstream TV and the blogosphere regularly market opinion and speculation as news, and few viewers would be shocked if Olbermann slapped on Groucho brows to get a guffaw. Anything -- anything -- to get a laugh.

Is this to be the standard during this period of media transition? What do we have, a few years at best, maybe 10 before news goes all Internet all the time and moves to fingernail-sized screens that we read with a magnifying glass? Technology-driven change is transforming news media, and news consumers, at warp speed. How many years before newspapers like this one are available in present form only as antiquities, like the illuminated manuscripts on display under glass at the Getty Center?


And how many years before junior Olbermanns proliferate?

He’s hardly the only horse in cable’s 24-hour news race who twists news to fit a personal agenda. Yet discounting Stephen Colbert, tantrum-prone O’Reilly can’t be copied because no one is capable of ingesting that much caffeine. Nor could anyone inflate like CNN’s Lou Dobbs without getting high on helium.

But Olbermann? A wisecrack here and a hard growl there, and you’re in business.

Will his popularity -- he’s a hero to relatively young viewers, at least -- encourage video and Web wannabes to out-Olbermann Olbermann? The house he plays to is still small by broadcast TV standards, averaging just over 900,000 viewers a night in the first quarter of 2008, according to Nielsen Media Research. But they adore his act.

Thoughts of Olbermann surfaced when I was at the gym early one morning working out with my fellow macho men. Three of these guys (they looked to be in their late 30s to early 40s) were in a huddle recalling Olbermann from some previous evening, and he must have been plenty funny because they were laughing hard, the way I do at “Seinfeld” reruns. I watched from my treadmill as one of them gave his rendering of the Olbermann Smirk. Oh, boy.

“Is Keith Olbermann the Future of Journalism?” the American Journalism Review asked last year. The piece quoted Chicago media critic Phil Rosenthal saying Olbermann “flows from funny to poignant in connecting the seemingly random dots of a day’s events, important and trivial, steadfastly clinging to basic tenets about what is and what isn’t news without being bound to traditional approaches.” He’s right about Olbermann loosening the vise of tradition, which can be a good thing. And Olbermann doesn’t just flow funny, at times he hemorrhages funny. But poignancy? Connecting random dots? “Steadfastly clinging to basic tenets about what is and what isn’t news”?

Get a grip. The man’s a big ham.

Olbermann has his own heroes. His sign-off -- “Good night and good luck,” after which he crumples a page of his script and flips it at the camera -- is a homage to iconic Edward R. Murrow. It’s an odd coupling, like a Cyclops saluting Brad Pitt.

Is Olbermann fun at times? Yes. Blows away some of the dust and cobwebs, yes. Taps our inner Howard Beale, yes. Calls out hypocrisy and says what he thinks, yes. His most famous riff:


“I accuse you, Mr. Bush, of lying this country into war. I accuse you of fabricating in the minds of your own people a false implied link between Saddam Hussein and 9/11. . . .”

But is his ends-justifies-means credo good for the news biz? The answer is no, even if you dislike the president and his policies as much as Olbermann does. I do, and can still testify that watching Olbermann collect Republican scalps like baseball cards is only marginally more rewarding than watching his favorite foil, O’Reilly, batter guests who don’t share his wacky views. These two gunslingers face off at 5 p.m., six-shooters blazing bombast. Olbermann delights in mocking O’Reilly, and face it, Bill-O (as Olbermann calls him) is so very mock-worthy.

But at least O’Reilly invites dissenters to his lair (if only to disembowel them), whereas “Countdown” is more or less an echo chamber in which Olbermann and like-minded bobbleheads nod at each other.

Not that he really needs to say much. On “Countdown With Keith Olbermann,” a smirk is worth a thousand snide words.

Howard Rosenberg can be contacted at