Keith Olbermann, we like you (or we’re trying to, anyway): We watch, because we’re paid to

Ruth Graham Contributor
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Week after week, I come here to bury Keith Olbermann, not to praise him. I mock his opinions, his verbal tics, his pompous demeanor and his orange face. But just for kicks, I’m going to try something different this week and see if I can find something to celebrate about this sad, angry little man who is wrong about everything.

Whoops! Off on the wrong foot. Trying again: I’m going to see if I can find something to celebrate about this human male who has a television show. Best I can do. Baby steps!

FRIDAY, AUGUST 13: Ok, tonight Olbermann engaged in a fairly detailed discussion (for Olbermann) about the insurance industry with guest, Wendell Potter, a former insurance industry executive and current senior fellow at the Center for Media and Democracy. Olbermann’s main concern seemed to be the “medical-loss ratio,” which concerns the percentage of health-insurance premiums that insurers are mandated to spend on “medical services” rather that administrative costs or profit. This is pretty technical territory for a guy who usually prefers shouting paranoid monologues to imaginary tormentors.

Don’t worry, there was plenty of paranoia. Olbermann’s introduction warned that “As we speak, the nation‘s state insurance commissioners are meeting in Seattle, and a horde of lobbyists from the insurance companies is descending on them. Their goal: to game the system.”

Potter pointed out that he was present at the meeting as an invited consumer advocate, and that “I think the insurance commissioners are listening to us.” Well, that’s no fun. And sure enough, in case you were curious about the outcome of all this nefarious lobbying, the insurers lost out and liberal lobbyists triumphed. Sorry, sorry, liberal grassroots organizers won. (Remember the iron-clad rule of left-wing punditry: Conservatives have mustache-twirling lobbyists; liberals have grassroots organizers.)

Ok, this segment sounds pretty useless and obnoxious after all. But, in my quest to find something positive to say about each episode of “Countdown” this week, I must point out that it was vaguely about the topic of fiscal responsibility, which we can all agree is good. Stay tuned next week for a follow-up in which Olbermann gets really indignant about the efficiency with which your tax dollars are being spent!

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MONDAY, AUGUST 16: Tonight (and tomorrow), Olbermann complained about the position his ex-girlfriend, Laura Ingraham, has taken in opposition to the proposed mosque in downtown Manhattan. Very mature.

Moving on, the increasing difficulty in telling the difference between Olbermann’s “Oddball” and “Worst Persons in the World” segments got worse tonight. “Oddball” is supposed to cover weird news stories from all over the world that just happen to have a video component, like Kansas mayonnaise-eating contests and Peruvian running-around-in-circles festivals. I’d say about 92 percent of “Oddball” segments can be reduced to “Look at those crazy people who don’t live in New York City or Washington, D.C.!”

By contrast, “Worst Persons in the World” is supposed to cover, well, the worst people in the world — often Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh, because in Olbermann’s world, cable-television hosts are the most influential people imaginable. Well, tonight, the bronze for Worst Person in the World went to a bear. “Bubba the Bear” has apparently been breaking into homes in Nevada, and, in Olbermann’s words, leaving “stinky basketball-sized deposits” behind. Recently a homeowner tried to shoot him, but the bullet did no damage.

Let’s see, a lonely lumbering creature, impervious to attacks, who comes into people’s homes and leaves a lingering stench … Remind you of anyone we know?

Ahem. Staying positive. Bear stories … can … be … funny. There, I did it.

TUESDAY, AUGUST 17: Another example of the cheapening of the “Worst Persons” segment: Tonight’s top Worst Person was an Oklahoma woman who ran away from her fiancé, appeared to fake a kidnapping and was found later with another man in a motel room. Her behavior wasn’t mature or legal, and she’s been arrested and will face the consequences. It might be a funny story to those who don’t know her, and a tragic one to those who do. It has absolutely no significance to a national audience. An in what universe does it make her “The Worst Person in the World”?

At some point we must confront this problem with Keith Olbermann: Behind his caring liberal facade, he fundamentally lacks human empathy. Democrats pride themselves on being the party of compassion, and yet Olbermann mocks the poor and the desperate almost every night by making a small-town criminal one of the “Worst Persons.” More broadly, he can’t understand why anyone in the country disagrees with him, ever, and therefore loathes anyone who does. In Olbermann’s sad universe, the opposition’s motives are invariably dark; their minds, feeble; their emotions, insincere. Child development experts have estimated that babies develop empathy at about 18 months, but Keith missed that stage. The only mind he has any understanding of is his own, and sometimes I doubt even that.

Oops. I promise to be more positive tomorrow!

WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 18: NBC and MSNBC devoted pretty much the entire evening’s coverage to the departure of the last American combat troops from Iraq tonight, an exclusive they secured by agreement with the military. Though the withdrawal was largely symbolic, some of the footage was really compelling! So, just to be clear: It’s ok to triumphantly imply “Mission Accomplished” when you have kick-ass exclusive video content to accompany it.

Then again, it’s hard to really complain about excessive war coverage. So the positive note for Keith would be that the only network that will employ him happens to be the same one that secured some exclusive coverage of an incremental change in America’s presence overseas. Kudos, Keith! I’m sure you’ll be claiming full credit in no time.

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THURSDAY, AUGUST 19: Tonight Olbermann welcomed Howard Dean to — are you sitting down? — debate an issue on which they disagree. Olbermann is in favor of building a mosque in Lower Manhattan, and Dean thinks another location might possibly better. I know, earth-shattering!

What’s more earth-shattering is that I have been watching “Countdown” for about seven months now, and this is the first time in my memory that Olbermann has engaged directly with the opposition. Sure, in this case “the opposition” is the former chair of the DNC and founder of the lefty PAC Democracy for American, but, hey, baby steps.

Here they are, in conversation:

DEAN: Maybe we should try discussion this time instead of shouting at each other across the cable shows and Internet.

OLBERMANN [GENUINELY BAFFLED]: But who do you have the discussion with?

Ladies and gentleman, we just witnessed a man’s mind begin to open, in real time. Of course it immediately snapped shut again. But hey, it’s a nice way to end a week in celebration of of the little things. Next week: Back to normal!