Keith Olbermann's sudden departure from MSNBC -- from the role of a lifetime, with excellent ratings -- brings to mind the bizarre exit of a stellar part-time clerk while I was publisher of LA Weekly.
This earnest employee had come to believe that a top manager at the paper was embezzling and, perhaps more important to the conscientious clerk, "walked very slowly around the building." After memorializing his charges in a lengthy memo -- the "embezzlement" involved free subscriptions to big advertisers, while the slow-walking was, on its face, an outrageous and fireable offense -- he swiftly marched into my office and laid down an ultimatum: "It's him or me: If he's not out by Thursday, I'm gone."
The manager survived. Sending free subs to clients was part of his job and though the pace of his intra-office perambulations was leisurely, it failed to rise to the level of good cause for termination. And sure enough, come Thursday the clerk disappeared, apparently more interested in the satisfaction of righteous indignation than the rewards of a job he seemed to love.
Righteous indignation was Keith Olbermann's stock in trade, and for years his willingness to speak truth to power while maintaining a sometimes hilarious sense of the absurd provided a bracing counterpoint to the "on the one hand, on the other hand" coverage of the mainstream media.
As Washington Monthly's Steve Benen points out,
Olbermann offered news consumers something we couldn't find anywhere else: honest, sincere, unapologetic liberalism. Olbermann helped shine a light on important stories that were ignored by other shows and other networks, helped give a voice to a perspective that was discounted throughout the mainstream media, picked fights with those who too often went unchallenged, and featured guests who were frequently and needlessly left out of the larger broadcast conversation. Olbermann did all of this, of course, while racking up big ratings (and big profits for his employer), proving that there's an audience for on-air commentary and analysis from the left, and clearing the way for others to do the same.
To be sure, Keith's outrage -- and outrageous ego often got the better of him. His blistering demand for Hillary to pull out of the 2008 primary race (her staying in turned out to be just fine) and his reference to Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown as "an irresponsible, homophobic, racist, reactionary, ex-nude model, teabagging supporter of violence" are just two examples.
But lately, perhaps projecting his rage at endless wrangling with MSNBC and the imminent arrival of the dreaded Comcast, he'd seemed more strident and solipsistic than ever. His last "special comment" -- a self-important form brilliantly parodied by both Ben Affleck on Saturday Night Live and Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report -- was a 14-minute screed in the wake of the Arizona shootings in which Keith singled himself out for praise. Unlike his colleagues -- the wonderful Rachel Maddow, the great Lawrence O'Donnell, the increasingly nutty Chris Matthews and the goodhearted but bombastic Ed Schultz -- Olbermann almost never had conservatives as guests. On what we'd soon learn was his last broadcast, he gave the very liberal Jonathan Alter grief for suggesting that maybe, just maybe it wouldn't constitute a betrayal of progressivism to suggest that future Social Security recipients (who haven't been born yet!) might have to live with, say, a slightly higher retirement age.
Watching Keith's apparently unmoored anger has often been confusing, but given what's now been widely reported, it makes more sense. The end was near, and he knew it.
Toward the end of my own years at the Weekly, the paper was making lots of money and had just been taken over by new owners. Feeling oh-so-valuable, I hinted to my boss that I might have to resign if a particular issue I cared about didn't go my way. He was, shall we say, unsympathetic, and, with enough ice in his voice to delay global warming, advised, "Do what you have to do." I didn't quit, but though I kept a lively pace when walking around the building, I was soon forced out.
Wherever Keith's leave-taking fell on the "You're fired"/"You can't fire me, I quit" continuum, the affair suggests an oft-told but rarely remembered lesson in hubris: You may be valuable, you may even be irreplaceable -- a genius and a money-making machine rolled into one. But no one's indispensable.
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