If you were one of the 400 members of the listserv Journolist, perhaps one of the most vicious insults you could hurl at a colleague is: You’re just like Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity.
If the reader holds neutral — or even positive — views about the Fox News hosts, the insult may not sting. But in the cloistered world of liberal listserv enclaves, Hannityism is a cardinal sin. After all, Fox is a “dangerous,” “deranged” “cesspool” that, possibly, the FCC should be investigating.
The feelings against MSNBC host Keith Olbermann, then, must run deep.
“He’s become O’Reilly on the left– completely predictable, unfunny, and arrogant,” said Georgetown University Professor Michael Kazin in May 2009. “To my mind, what they do is no different form Hannity and O’Reilly,” said the New America Foundation’s Michael Cohen, “At least Hannity and O’Reilly engage with the other side (if mainly just to yell at them). Olbermann is just an echo chamber.”
(Cohen later elaborated he was arguing that both MSNBC and Fox News play to political extremes).
At issue was a segment Olbermann had run about Carrie Prejean, the former Miss California who stirred debate in 2009 when she defended traditional marriage.
Following the segment, the subject on Journolist was “I hate Keith Olbermann again,” and the members of the list let it rip.
The Nation’s Katha Pollitt began the group’s rant. “He and Michael Musto did this whole long riff about beauty contestant Carrie ‘opposite marriage’ Prejean’s breast implants, stupidity, breast implants, tacky clothes, earrings, breast implants. They went on and on about how she was ‘part plastic’ and pathetic. You’d think they were celibate vegans who spent their lives zen meditating. It was just a whole TV humiliation of her, and it made me feel sorry for her, which wasn’t easy,” Pollitt said.
Michael O’Hare, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said the segment was “about as funny as a rubber crutch. Odd when a reasonable person’s internal alarm doesn’t go off in a situation like that …’I’m going to ridicule a girl who’s obviously at her personal limits just trying to look conventionally pretty on national TV? What does that make me’?”
O’Hare even suggested friends stage an intervention for Olbermann. “If anyone on the list is a friend of Olbermann, friendship demands that you give him a head-up about this lapse,” he said.
Julian Zelizer, a Princeton professor and CNN contributor, said Olbermann’s root problem is his misogyny. “I can’t take him anytime. I think to write off his mysogyny (sic) as limited to Musto is just not accurate. That very much defined much of how he talked about Clinton as well as others.”
Zelizer was referring to a series of instances during the primary campaign between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama when critics from both sides of the aisle criticized Olbermann for allegedly sexist treatment towards Hillary. Olbermann was forced to apologize.
The Washington Independent’s Spencer Ackerman said a brutal parody of Olbermann reflected his true nature. “I hate both Ben Affleck and Saturday Night Live, but this should end all debate about the merits of Olbermann,” he said, linking to the parody.
Salon’s Rebecca Traister agreed Olbermann regularly displayed his contempt for women. “Olbermann has a terrible record of going out of his way to talk about young, attractive women he believes to be stupid in grotesquely dismissive and oversexualized terms.”
Traister had written the same thing in her columns for Salon, for instance calling Olbermann out when he “felt free to call [Paris] Hilton a slut on air and speculate about whether anyone had ever ejaculated in her face.”
Blogger Lindsay Beyerstein said maybe the time was now to take down Olbermann. “When we liberals were fighting for political survival after 9/11, it was important to be disciplined and to pick our internal battles very carefully. Now that the Democrats are in charge and progressivism is ascendent, we can afford to demand more from our leaders.
“We can certainly afford to smack down Keith Olbermann when he spouts misogynist garbage,” she said.
University of Chicago Professor Harold Pollack said at the end of a long hard day, the last thing he needs is an hour with someone like Olbermann.
“KO can be smart and funny, but I’ve basically had my fill. My life is full of shtiky and rude blowhards already. Why add another?” Pollack said.
That day, even Olbermann’s defenders damned him with faint praise.
“To say that he’s an O’Reilly on the left is also wrong. He has good guests and both he and Maddow tackle stories that get left off networks,” said playwright and freelancer Rich Byrne. “Do I wish there were no Special Comments? Yes. Do I wish that he was less pompous at times? Yes. But Olbermann has been an overall plus in the cable news universe.”
David Roberts said that Olbermann played an important role in providing liberal views to the masses. “Even if all Olbermann and Maddow are doing is mirroring Hannity and O’Reilly from the other side (which is utterly preposterous, by the way), that’s a far better situation than before they came along. It’s empowering to hear that your views are legitimate, that they are part of the national conversation.”
Or, as then Harper’s editor Luke Mitchell put it, “Olberman is irritating and his obvious sexism is reprehensible. But yes, someone going on TV and saying that torture is bad is a net positive.”
Olbermann did not respond to a request for comment.
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