Keith Olbermann is in the crosshairs over a recent New York Times article, which reported that bagmen for General Electric and News Corp. engineered a "truce" between the two networks, muzzling Olbermann and Fox's Bill O'Reilly for the mutual benefit of each corporation's concerns.
Much of the blogospheric discussion has centered around Olbermann's response to the furor, post-NYT article, which has been ridiculous and implausible. But it's also worth spending a little time thinking about Olbermann's initial response -- to the order from on high. As I see it, at that moment in time, Olbermann had four clear choices:
1. Resign his position in protest.
2. Refuse to go along with the edict, and risk his firing.
3. Publicly disclose what he had been told to do.
4. Lie to his viewers.
What he clearly decided to do was #4.
According to the transcript of his June 1 show, Olbermann explained to his viewers that he would no longer mention arch-nemesis O'Reilly -- because of the murder of abortion doctor George Tiller! "[T]his is no time for laughter," Olbermann intoned in his "number one story" of the night. "This is serious. Serious as death. As serious as George Tiller's death. So as of this show's end, I will retire the name, the photograph, and the caricature [of O'Reilly]."
Let me translate, with the benefit of hindsight: "No, MSNBC did not muzzle me. I muzzled myself, because a topic I had previously deemed newsworthy suddenly got serious." As a consumer of journalism, I tend to think that as unfolding matters increase in significance, there should be more journalism, not less. So, this explanation strikes me as deeply, deeply asinine -- and utterly incredible.
This reality is borne out by Olbermann's perplexing reaction to the controversy, which has been to blow hot snot all over New York Times reporter Brian Stelter's reporting, while simultaneously "honoring" and praising the accuracy of Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald's response, which was based entirely on Stelter's reporting. One cannot decry one report, one minute, and then "honor" the same conclusions the next. On Monday's broadcast he called Brian Stelter one of history's greatest monsters for a day. But then he declared in a statement that Glenn Greenwald's account, which deviated not one iota from the facts Stelter presented, contained "nothing materially factually inaccurate." This is what is known as "total B.S."
Long after the edict of June 1 went into effect, New York Times reporter Brian Stelter sussed out the agreement between the two networks and began reporting it out. When contacted by Stelter, Olbermann could have done one of the following:
1. Tell Stelter the unalloyed truth.
2. Refuse to comment on the record.
3. Attempt some Rovian-style parsing of the truth.
Again, it's clear that Olbermann chose that final option. What he told Stelter was this: "I am party to no deal." But that statement has no practical meaning whatsoever. As Greenwald points out:
I certainly believe that Olbermann is telling the truth when he says he was never a party to any deal and that nobody at GE or MSNBC asked him to consent. That's because GE executives didn't care in the least if Olbermann consented and didn't need his consent. They weren't requesting that Olbermann agree to anything, and nobody -- including the NYT's Stelter -- ever claimed that Olbermann had agreed to any deal. What actually happened is exactly what I wrote: GE exectives issued an order that Olbermann must refrain from criticizing O'Reilly, and Olbermann complied with that edict. That is why he stopped mentioning O'Reilly as of June 1.
Since then, Olbermann has been trying to have it both ways.
Olbermann will likely survive this episode. Why shouldn't he? He's obviously been a good company man! But his actions in this matter truly insult all of the viewers that look up to him as a non-coward voice in the media. He is, quite simply, playing his viewers for fools.