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Tough Love for Keith Olbermann

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It's not that I'm mad at Keith Olbermann, I'm just disappointed.

I first heard of him when someone sent me a bit torrent of his special comment on the anniversary of September 11th. Before that, I didn't think MSNBC even had shows; I thought it was just a blank screen with pretend stock quotes and Prince lyrics running on the bottom scrawl. Besides a kooky detour involving a reference to a Twilight Zone episode, his commentary voiced the pain and anger that I'd only heard around melancholy dinner tables and in disgruntled cafes here in Manhattan. He seemed honest, eager, and real. His indignation was forceful but tempered by the seriousness of the occasion. His anger didn't make him a cartoon character. What I listened to before the State of the Union might as well have ended with "That's All Folks!" rather than Olbermann's preferred sign off, "Good night, and good luck."

It may well be that people nowadays are so desperate to hear anyone speak in complete sentences, that when someone with intelligence, wit, and the barest whiff of gravitas comes along, we have the self control of a sorority girl offered a plastic bead necklace. (Perhaps this draught of intellectualism explains the Obama love fest.) When someone gets on television who actually does have these qualities, it's not enough to just let them coast along; they must meet their own standards. Keith Olbermann is not meeting his own standards.

Tuesday night there was a barrage of snarky one-liners that seemed to be winking asides to those in the know. It's those obnoxious asides that turned me off "Studio 60" and I certainly don't want them on 60 Minutes, or any other news program. When he's not playing disappointing cop / mind-numbing cop with Chris Matthews, his program still seems shoddy and increasingly shallow. Is it so much to ask for a quality news program where aggressive, ruthlessly honest reporting doesn't need to be balanced with the inane "zaniness" of segments like, "The Worst Person Ever?" Leading questions and sympathetic talking heads make Countdown come off as sophomoric, while editorializing that should remain in Olbermann's Special Comments segment borders on the cringe-worthy.

From hawking his book, The Worst Person in the World to ranting while a list of bullet points that frequently can't keep up with him appear on screen, Olbermann is becoming an equal opposite to Bill O'Reilly. Television news will always be nauseating to me, at least while the coverage of the State of the Union is one news anchor asking another anchor what they think before cutting to a talking head who brings in another news anchor from a corporate affiliate.

(During the Surge speech, I think it was about the time Chris Matthews and Olbermann brought in Tim Russert and Tom Brokaw to all talk about what they all thought Bush would talk about, that I nearly tossed my cookies. I haven't heard that sort of orgiastic spasm of male intellectual masturbation since my sophomore Joyce class.)

What I like about the show is how much Olbermann clearly cares about what's going on. Even when he sets aside the grandstanding of his special comments, he has a passion for discovering the truth, which all good journalists have. But he's too comfortable. He's begun to coast along, thanks to an all too agreeable audience and iff he doesn't stop pandering, he' going to end up more Howard Beale than Edward R. Murrow. I don't want a "Mad Prophet of the Airwaves." I want newsman.

(Of course, unless Christian Amanpour starts a nightly news show, because if she does ... Forget Olbermann, I'm going with her.)