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Media and Crisis Management


Posted on: July 29th, 2012

Potpourri: OlbermannJust what is journalism these days

With Olbermann’s acrimonious departure from Current… let’s take another look at a column I wrote about the news vs opinion several years ago… see what you think.

In 2008 Rolling Stone called MSNBC anchor Keith Olbermann “the most honest man in news” and quoted from his nightly political skewering: “’Mr. Bush, the question is no longer ‘What are you thinking?’ but rather ‘Are you thinking at all?’ He has described Fox News anchor Chris Wallace as ‘a monkey posing as a newscaster’ and begged Rush Limbaugh to ‘Please, go back on the drugs.’”  The witty acerbic host of Countdown gave another of his periodic rants against then-President Bush.  These 5-minute jackhammer delivered verbal firestorms of biting content brim with outrage.  Stimulating if you were anti-Bush; infuriating if not.

I think Olbermann crossed a line when he then became the prime anchor of 2008 MSNBC election coverage with an assist from Chris Matthews.  How could he take off his partisan hat and, presto-change-o, put on an objective one?  As a viewer, I couldn’t un-ring the bell that he was anti-Bush and probably anti-Republican.  Which Olbermann was I watching?  This duality – opinionated sometimes, objective others – drove me nuts and Olbermann wasn’t alone.  Take MSNBC reporter David Shuster for example.  One minute he criticized a candidate’s strategy and the next he narrated a supposedly objective campaign story.  At CNN Lou Dobbs ranted about illegal immigrants while also reporting regular business issues.  Which stories were objective?  How do you know?  Newspapers historically strain to persuade readers that editorialists don’t tell their journalists what to do, so how can TV viewers possibly divine the truth from reporter/pundits?  What can you trust?

The genuine journalists at NBC news worked to keep it balanced: the same for their counterparts at the other networks.  Those individuals had greater credibility because they avoided sharing personal opinions.

Nevertheless, it got dicey when the NBC and MSNBC teams overlapped every day.  The bomb-throwers and straight reporters collaborated.  It reminds me of when shock jock Don Imus had his MSNBC show.  Imus would astonish while serious journalists from networks, NewsweekNew York Times, and Washington Post would enlighten.  But at least you knew who was who.

When it comes to critical matters like elections and world shaking events I want reporters to tell it straight. Don’t tell me what you think.  Tell me the facts.  Shape-shifters who are opinionated one moment and objective the next are troublesome.  Case in point.  When I first wrote this column in 2008 the White House was attacking NBC News for biased editing of an interview with Bush.  The scathing letter said, “I’m sure you don’t want people to conclude that there is really no distinction between the ‘news’ reported on NBC and the ‘opinion’ as reported on MSNBC (with its) blatantly partisan talk show hosts like Christopher Matthews and Keith Olbermann…”

While not siding with the administration, the White House underscored my concern. Trying to have it both ways undercut NBC’s (and other networks’) perception of integrity.

Yes, we live in blog-a-world where everyone gets to say anything about everything.  It’s fun.  It sells.  Think Glenn Beck.  It’s like America’s earliest newspapers where each had a point of view.  Maybe it’s back to the future and I’m out of step.  I don’t care.  Reporters, give me the news.  Pundits, tell me your opinions.  News bosses stop the interbreeding.

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