03/28/2008 10:54 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

"Countdown" with Keith Olbermann Turns Five

Countdown on MSNBC is one of the best things about cable news. Let's face it, CNN has flatlined at 8 pm eastern and FOX still trolls the vast rightwing conspiracy. This makes former sportscaster Keith Olbermann's lively romp through the day's events must-see TV for viewers eager to end the Bush years. It's an unabashed progressive antidote to Bill O'Reilly's fake "no spin zone."

The program officially launched on March 31, 2003, and has lasted against all odds and network gods. Congratulations, Keith. "Long Shot" Louie at Hialeah wouldn't put a fin on your fate back then, but you made it, pal.

Now, in the words of pugilistic Pat Buchanan, shut up! Just kidding. But at least lighten up, OK?

There was a time Olbermann's ammo was aimed almost exclusively at Republicans and administration incompetence. This made him a perfect fit to moderate the Democratic debate in Chicago last August, and he exhibited utmost fairness toward all eight candidates.

Things have definitely changed since then.

Never before in U.S. history has a woman or an African-American been a major party presidential nominee. This is a profound "first" either way, yet you wouldn't know it by Countdown's election coverage. For several months, it's been anti-Hillary Clinton to a degree unchecked, on matters big and small. Olbermann's constant criticism at her expense has grown more specious and less covert; Barack Obama backers are positively blissful about it.

Here's one of myriad examples: Ohio has 11.5 million people, 20 electoral votes, and is a crucial swing state. Clinton won its primary by a whopping 230,000 popular votes. Wyoming, on the other hand, has only half a million people, 3 electoral votes, and is decidedly Republican. After its caucuses, attended by fewer than 9,000 Democrats, Olbermann led his show by breathlessly touting the results of Obama's "landslide victory" over her as if it were Game 7 of the World Series. Amazing.

To paraphrase Countdown's signature tag line, "Which of these states should you really be talking about tomorrow?"

Certainly, the fight for the nomination merits Topic A status. But remember, this political process isn't a zero sum game like sporting events on ESPN, the loser jeered off the field by juvenile fans. Those of us who voted for Obama - or any other Democrat - get to stay fully and equally vested in the greater cause of November.

In truth, a record 28 million citizens have participated on the Democratic side so far, and Obama and Clinton are separated by a remarkably narrow 700,000 votes, 49% to 46%. Michigan and Florida's disallowed votes (almost 10% of America's dems) would make it even closer. Plus, a new Rasmussen poll finds 62% of Democrats want the campaign to continue, while 22% each (a tie) said the other one should quit. March Madness, indeed.

As those stats plainly suggest, everyone has friends in each camp. We can't "subtract the humanity from the equation," as Olbermann eloquently agreed in his 2002 Salon essay "Mea Culpa". If the goal is unity and high turnout in the general election, how does demonizing the choice made by much of his own fan base do the trick?

Candidates naturally go at each other in tight races, and these two have been less contentious than others. If Clinton has morphed into Monty Python's armless and legless knight ("It's just a flesh wound"), forthcoming voters will signal it. Besides, we're all concerned about hidden costs, no one more so than Olbermann's on-air colleague, Air America's Rachel Maddow.

At the Democratic debate in Ohio on February 26, the remaining finalists traded differences on health care and foreign policy, largely ignoring the elephant in the room. Afterwards, an MSNBC panel of guests provided analysis. Maddow had a depressed look on her face, glumly offering this:

"Honestly, the big picture here is, I think that John McCain wins the debate tonight. I think this was the Democratic voter enthusiasm suppression act of 2008."

If the Obama/Clinton battle leads to that grim reality, I bet Olbermann's incessant negativity contributes at the margins. Regardless of the eventual nominee, a sliver of their needed support at the polls next fall will be demoralized or angered. That's human nature, but piling on from the media sidelines, night after night, further deepens such detrimental attitudes. And mind you, Countdown claims solidarity!

In a recent conversation with the Washington Post's Dana Milbank, Olbermann prefaced a typical Clinton swipe by saying, "Again, I'm missing something because I'm relatively new to politics...." I took him at his word.

My advice, Keith, is to try and keep it smoothly in the fairway. Winning the White House will take all of us arriving at the 19th hole in good spirits. Happy Anniversary.