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The O'Reilly vs. Olbermann Smackdown

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An entertaining, high-stakes fight is underway between the cable blowhards and their corporate overlords: Fox News and Bill O'Reilly vs. NBC and Keith Olbermann. Short take: Olbermann attacks O'Reilly, O'Reilly gets pissy; Roger Ailes demands NBC muzzle Olbermann, NBC declines; O'Reilly starts attacking execs at General Electric (NBC's owner) as traitors for the company's dealings in Iran.

The immediate takeaway is that O'Reilly and Ailes are thin-skinned; they can dish it out but they can't take it. And so they will go to absurd lengths to shut up their critics. I have a hard time believing that pique is the primary motivation, though.

Here's one theory: What's going on is an attempted precision strike to take out Keith Olbermann's unique space in the universe of cable yakkers.

Though he might balk at the term, Olbermann is a Fox-style liberal. There's no one else on TV who fits that description. Most of the "liberals" on TV news fall into the crypto-liberal category, like Dan Rather. Even George Stephanopoulos would call himself a newsman first. That's advantage Fox, which can tag them with the "liberal" label and force them to deny it. (Which they sometimes can't - double advantage. Or which they respond to by taking their cues from Fox - triple advantage.)

As a liberal on a traditional, non-ideological news network, Olbermann breaks this pattern. It actually is dangerous to Fox, whose raison d'etre is the notion that liberalism is secretly shading the competition's news programming. If liberalism is out in the open, and liberals and non-ideological reporters can coexist on cable news, Fox's project to obliterate those distinctions in people's minds - everything on NBC is liberal bias, so go with conservative bias instead - falters.

Olbermann has also tapped into something. His outraged rants against the likes of O'Reilly and Fox, and against George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, channel a kind of populist anger at Republicans that is surging as the Bush years wind down. And though Olbermann goes over the top at times, often his rants are right on. People should be outraged, for reasons too numerous to mention here. It's a wonder ratings-starved cable networks don't do more to harness this - there's gold there.

Once, Fox thought it had the market cornered on over-the-top populist outrage. No more. Hence the logic to the idea that Olbermann-must-be-destroyed. If Ailes succeeds, the networks will think twice before trying to replicate the Olbermann formula.

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