Is Keith Olbermann the Future of Journalism? the MSNBC Anchor's Unorthodox Amalgam of the Serious and the Silly and His Trenchant Criticism of the War in Iraq Have Boosted the Struggling Network's Ratings and Made Him a Hot Media Commodity. but Some Critics Dislike Blurring the Line between Fact and Opinion
Lisheron, Mark, American Journalism Review
Often, in any creative endeavor, timing is the difference between genius and an unsold canvas, a rejected manuscript, an expired contract.
Back in June 2003, not long after MSNBC, the little cable network that rarely could, first aired the prime-time news program "Countdown," television critic Phil Rosenthal took notice. There was no funereal recitation of the night's top stories, but a fast-moving mix of news, entertainment and opinion calibrated to bring in and keep young viewers. Orchestrating it all was Keith Olbermann, who, it seemed, had been working his entire broadcasting career to get to this show.
"Keith Olbermann is on to something. Something big," Rosenthal wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times. "'Countdown' 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 isn't news without being bound to traditional approaches.
"And who knows? 'Countdown' might just offer a glimpse of the future of TV news."
More than three years later, a growing number of viewers have caught up with Rosenthal, who now writes for the Chicago Tribune. Thank President Bush and Donald H. Rumsfeld and the war in Iraq. And Bill O'Reilly for the strangest kind of cheerleading. Or MSNBC, either for recognizing the future or for not having anything better to fill the 8 p.m. EST slot while Olbermann's show lingered in cable television obscurity.
Just now, "Countdown" is one of the most talked about programs on television. The ratings are soaring and the audience, by cable standards, is exploding. Olbermann has given a network with no identity the very kind of personality that attracts the viewers advertisers covet.
MSNBC is the little chick turned banty rooster, all fired up for a fight with rivals CNN and, in particular, O'Reilly's Fox News Channel. Olbermann, the droll, nettlesome, whip-smart, self-absorbed, hilarious, peripatetic television savant, is as happy as he's ever been, his friends say.
"The stars are in alignment for Keith, 'Countdown' and MSNBC," says a euphoric Phil Griffin, senior vice president of NBC News and the executive in charge of MSNBC.
Invariably, this success raises questions embedded in Rosenthal's fortune-telling. The gushing procession of television observers quick to claim Rosenthal's vintage discovery as their own seem to be saying that change is good, or at least inevitable, and always good copy. The popularity of "Countdown" cannot help but have some influence on a medium whose heart pumps on the life support of imitation.
But in trying to reckon whether Olbermann is, indeed, the future of television news, there is another question being asked about the basic tenets of news itself, what it is and what it isn't, that has some important stakeholders in the business worried. What if the reach extended beyond cable and beyond television? What if, as the subhead to a story in November by Kansas City Star TV critic Aaron Barnhart asked, Olbermann's "Countdown" is journalism's saving grace?
"Part of the problem here," says Peter Kann, the Pulitzer Prize-winning chairman of Dow Jones, "lies in fashionable new philosophies that argue there are no basic values of right and wrong, that news is merely a matter of views. It's a dangerous philosophy for our society and a dagger at the heart of genuine journalism."
Kann says he has never seen "Countdown." He does not mention the show by name in the speeches he delivers to students, businesspeople, reporters and editors. But at the top of his list of the 10 trends in mass media he says we ought to be most concerned about are two of "Countdown's" chief virtues: entertainment and opinion. The need to entertain almost certainly leads to distortion and misdirection, Kann says. Couple this with a blurring of the line between news and opinion, he adds, and the audience will eventually lose its ability to recognize what is true and untrue, will assume that news necessarily comes equipped with a way of thinking about it. …