In a recent advertisement he taped to promote his own show on MSNBC, Keith Olbermann earnestly says, “The point of the show is to illuminate. It is not to throw off heat; it is to throw off light.” He’s right about one thing: If televised “heat” is generated by varying points of view and the sparks that fly in vigorous discussion, the temperature in the “Countdown” studio is below freezing.
Yes, Olbermann is notorious for only inviting guests who will reinforce his own point of view. So as a little experiment, I decided to look at every single question Olbermann asked of his guests this past week (just four shows because of the July 4 holiday) and break down his questions by the kind of responses they provoked in his guests. Are guests just the nodding yes-men they seems to be?
At the risk of sounding like a yes-woman, well, yes.
In this official, rigorous, super-scientific survey, I found four patterns of questions and responses.
1. EXPLICIT AGREEMENT: In which a leading question provokes clear agreement as a response, such as “Yes,” “You’re exactly right,” and “Yes, yes, yes, dear God, I’ll say anything to keep being asked to come on TV and agree with you because seeing my face on television is the only source of my meager self-esteem.”
EXAMPLES FROM THIS WEEK:
OLBERMANN: He has PhD in bogus-ity, does he not?
OLBERMANN: Is that as crazy as it sounds?
GUEST: In my view it is.
2. IMPLIED AGREEMENT. Leading questions that evoked tacit, but not explicit, agreement with the question’s premise.
EXAMPLE FROM THIS WEEK:
OLBERMANN: After the Olympics, shouldn‘t the president not say anything at all about sports?
GUEST: He has become the walking, talking “Sports Illustrated” cover curse of this century
3. SUBSTANTIVE EXPANSION. In which the question is sufficiently open-ended to provoke an answer that includes genuinely new information. The closest thing you’ll see on “Countdown” to journalism.
EXAMPLE FROM THIS WEEK:
OLBERMANN: How it is possible for Jindal and Haley Barbour to go in and criticize the administration response to the oil disaster without not only just the measure of credibility, but a measure? [You’ll notice this question is not exactly unbiased. Or clear.]
GUEST: Well, they are both in the interesting position of being more defensive of BP than BP itself is.
4. DISAGREEMENT. In which the guest disagrees with a question. Extremely rare!
EXAMPLE FROM THIS WEEK:
OLBERMANN: Is there any expectation that if Governor Manchin gets the ruling he wants on this, that he could have a special election in 2010, that he would actually leave the seat open until then?
GUEST: I don‘t think so. [Guest is swiftly beheaded at commercial.]
And now, the grand total for this week … drum roll please …
EXPLICIT AGREEMENT: 36
IMPLIED AGREEMENT: 13
SUBSTANTIVE EXPANSION: 22
Yes, that’s right. The ratio of agreement (49) to neutral responses or disagreements (24) is slightly more than 2:1. In other words, “Countdown” guests are indeed little more than nodding puppets.
Luckily puppets are easy to procure, because Olbermann lost one this week. Regular nodding head Markos Moulitsas, founder of Daily Kos, was banned from appearing on MSNBC after “publicly antagonizing” MSNBC morning host Joe Scarborough via Twitter. This is coming just weeks after Olbermann quit writing for Daily Kos in a huff, then returned a few days later. Boys, if you can’t all learn to play together nicely, I’ll take your low-rated cable show away.
As for the rest of the week (back to a full rundown next week!): Olbermann prayed to Oprah to “crush” Rush Limbaugh (Tuesday), called for Clarence Thomas to resign (Wednesday), and said the immortal words “if I were a third as smart as Glenn Beck, I‘d still be a sperm” (last Friday). He also compared Sarah Palin’s new video to Osama bin Laden’s, complaining that the video was offensively boring, then playing it on-air and spending a seven-minute segment picking it apart. Guest Alex Wagner of Politics Daily said of Palin’s “mama grizzlies” theme: “It’s interesting that she’s chosen animals not known for their nuance and their firm grasp of the ins and outs of issues.” Stupid grizzly bears, why can’t you be more like those notoriously wonky badgers?
Finally, on Thursday, Olbermann boldly claimed that Glenn Beck’s latest on-air gaffe was “worse than Mel Gibson’s equal-opportunity racism.” This is a surprising judgment call from a man who is prone to cry racism when he sees a young girl ordering a vanilla cone at Dairy Queen. Sure enough, Olbermann gave Gibson the *bronze* for Worst Person in the World Thursday for a vicious tirade including a racial slur. Then he named Beck the top Worst Person in the World award for making a mistake about the exact point that television cameras were allowed on the Senate floor. I need to stop being shocked at Olbermann’s complete absence of proportion; it’s like receiving defibrillation five nights a week, which can’t be good for my heart. If only I could get my hands on some of the stuff Olbermann gives his guests to make them calmly smile and nod their way through “Countdown” every night.