David Zurawik

Keith Olbermann debut: Two minutes short of success

I have to give Keith Olbermann and Current TV their due: For 58 minutes Monday night, they delivered an impressive premiere on the new "Countdown" show. Strong production values, reasonable discussions and no ugly over-the-top slanderous attacks on anyone.

And then with only a few minutes left, Olbermann, who behaved like a professional broadcaster most of the night, teed it up for contributor Markos Moulitsas to tear into on-air talent and management at MSNBC, Olbermann's last TV home. And all bets for a new and improved, socially responsible "Countdown" were off.

Moulitsas, the fast-talking founder of the Daily Kos, almost came out of his seat vehemently denouncing Joe Scarborough, host of MSNBC's "Morning Joe," and Phil Griffin, the channel's general manager. He called Scarborough a "loser," while kissing up to Olbermann, whom he termed a "national treasure." He accused Griffin of taking orders from Scarborough and keeping him off the air for 13 months because he had offended Scarborough.

In fact, Moulitsas almost made it sound as if he had been blacklisted. And since Olbermann was exposing it, that would make him not just a "national treasure," but also Edward R. Murrow. What kismet!

Except the angry words of Moulitsas had all the invective, petty jealousy and general sense of intramural nutsiness that you might find late at night in the dorms of a small undergraduate college after a hotly contested student government election. And I am sure the attack on Griffin and Scarborough had every bit as much interest for a mass audience as such a collegiate donnybrook might have.

Talk about insider madness, lack of editorial judgment and self-indulgence. If Olbermann keeps this up, Current co-founder Al Gore might think back to his pre-Olbermann audience of 23,000 viewers an hour on average as the golden days of the channel.

More on Moulitsas later, because I want this to be representative of the whole 64 minutes (Yes, Olbermann ran over the scheduled hour -- accidentally on purpose, I suspect, so that Moulitsas could rant). But I do want to talk about that first 58 minutes and how promising the show looked until Olbermann used a proxy to let his darker feelings get full play on the screen.

Here are some of the things I liked about the first edition of Olbermann's new show:

The opening interview with filmmaker Michael Moore. I loathe the kind propaganda Moore makes, but he and Olbermann had a highly informed conversation about President Barack Obama's failure to do things the "right way" and go to Congress to get permission for our latest adventure in Libya.

I know this is textbook pseudo-attack talk from the left on the president for not being leftist enough. And I understand it comes from the leftists who will all vote and campaign for him in 2012. But these two ideologues had an enlightened conversation about it. Credit where credit is due.

And the production values were impressive. I didn't see any major opening night jitters or gaffes -- and that is saying something.

The producers did their homework. A piece on how right-wing radio talk show hosts like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh sell their endorsements and editorial air time off to the highest bidders gained tremendous credibility from the videotaped segments the producers found of both Beck and Limbaugh shamelessly whoring themselves out on air. And there are no other words for their behavior. Good job by "Countdown" in exposing it.

On the other hand, the day's "worst persons" segment was fairly lame. The worst person was a disruptive woman on a train -- and the video that Olbermann kept hyping showed me nothing I hadn't seen a thousand times.

And lest I not cover the full range of production values, let me add that Olbermann's upper lip looked a little shiny at the start of the show. I know, I know, I am talking about cosmetics not substance. But TV is first and foremost a medium of cosmetics  --and only rarely one of substance. Even Olbermann should know that based on his schoolboy understanding of Murrow.

And whether he was nervous or the makeup or lighting folks failed, the slick area between the upper lip and the nose did make me think of Richard Nixon -- another icon, a bad one, of the era.

Did I mention that I felt Olbermann's "special comment" with its artificial construct of Olbermann and his audience as democracy's "last line of defense" was too far over the top to contemplate -- even coming from the mouth of this Bizarro Planet version of Murrow?


I don't expect any Olbermann fans to believe this, but I hope Olbermann does succeed in building  the Current audience beyond 23,000 an hour. I would like to see CNN pay in its prime-time gut for compromising the entire network with Eliot Spitzer. And I suspect Olbermann could build it out exponentially.

But for that to happen, Gore or someone is going to have to rein Olbermann in on reckless and self-indulgent attack segments like the last one with Moulitsas.

You don't have to be Ed Murrow to know that the interviewer should have challenged the pioneering blog founder's wilder claims and personal attacks on Griffin and Scarborough. One blantant lie by Moulitsas: that "Morning Joe" is TV's lowest rated morning show. But did Olbermann challenge or correct him? Don't be silly. This was a staged conversation that had nothing to do with truth.

Even if the wildest claims of Moulitsas about being blacklisted at MSNBC were true, that wouldn't explain why he was nowhere else on TV for 13 months, as Olbermann claimed.

Could it be because no one but Olbermann would put a guy on his show who makes these kinds of reckless attacks?