The other night on his show “Countdown,” Olbermann responded to a gaseous piece of nonsense written by Ted Koppel. Koppel had held forth in the Washington Post about the death of news, by which he meant the fact-based reports from the golden age of journalism — which, as Jack Shafer noted in Slate, happened to coincide with Koppel’s own career in the mid to late 20th century. Koppel then scolded Fox News and Keith Olbermann for dismantling this great tradition with their partisanship and disregard for facts.
Olbermann’s response, it must be said, was brilliant. It reminded me of a powerful papal encyclical. Olbermann made the point that, even in the age of Cronkite and Brinkley and Murrow, journalists picked what stories to tell and which ones not to. They were subjective. They fought battles and went on crusades. And then came the crucial part: they had their biases, but were also guided, Olbermann said, by “facts and honesty and their conscience.” Again, the kind of thing you’d see coming from the pope or another great philosopher.
That is, except for the massive blind spot and contradiction at the heart of Olbermann’s editorial. Keith Olbermann, idiot savant, lucidly dissected the pomposity and contradiction in Koppel’s argument. But Olbermann’s own fanaticism, which has caused something of a defective conscience and a tendency towards dishonesty, prevented him — prevents him — from practicing the very virtues he so perceptively extols.
If someone is an honest journalist, or even an honest human being, there comes a time when some of your beliefs are challenged. One might have been for the Iraq war, only to have that support shaken when no weapons of mass destruction were found. Conversely, one could have been against the war, only to come to support it after democracy began to take hold in Iraq. Or you could, like journalist Nat Hentoff, go from being pro-choice to pro-life when science and your conscience lead you to make conclusions about human life. You may be against gay marriage until you make a gay friend. And so on.
The thing is, people who are not fanatics use careful deliberation when these moments occur. They consult their conscience, but also talk to friends, read articles, deliberate with religious leaders, meditate and think about the issue. They are open to other points of view. This is not to say that there is not what Catholics like myself call the natural law — the law that tells us that certain things are always wrong. No one in their right mind defends rape.
When faced with issues of the day, people who are fanatics — including a lot of dinosaur media journalists — shut down: The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it. Or: Conservatives are evil; therefore one will not appear on my show. In his response to Koppel, Olbermann noted that he has criticized President Obama more than Fox News, and that this was proof that he is not in the bag for the Democratic Party. But as everyone including a fourth grader can see, Olbermann attacks Obama from the left. Olbermann is a fanatic for leftism. He’s not in the tank for Obama — he’s in the tank for Marx.
Actually, that’s too strong. Olbermann’s leftism is of the 1960s variety. The old left of the early 20th century was a false religion, believing in the inexorable historical evolution that would birth socialism. It was a belief system. The 1960s left became more about personal and cultural issues without much concern for the future. It didn’t as much know what it was for as what it was against. As James Piereson explores in his great book “Camelot and the Cultural Revolution: How the Assassination of John F. Kennedy Shattered American Liberalism,” after the murder of John F. Kennedy American liberalism became what American conservatism in the 1950s had been — aggrieved, paranoid, backward-looking. Piereson argues that this stemmed from the guilt that liberals felt at the fact that Kennedy was killed not by a right-winger, but by a communist. Instead of fingering the real culprit — the very communism they had been soft on — liberals blamed the death on the “fanatical” right. They turned Kennedy into a civil rights martyr instead of a cold warrior. And for the last 40 years they have been not as much proposing a coherent philosophy about the human person and what makes a good life as raging against the chimera of the boogeyman right. Combine that with the kind of lack of inner self explored in Christopher Lasch’s landmark 1979 book “The Culture of Narcissism,” and you have, well, Keith Olbermann — raging, paranoid, defensive, with an outsized idea of self to make up for his lack of a strong inner self. And a deep, deep paranoia about conservatives.
Someone with that kind of mentality and those kinds of issues is not often a very honest or honorable person. In “The Culture of Narcissism,” Lasch noted that the narcissist personality has an oversized notion of not just his enemies, but anyone who contradicts him — they become monsters, not human beings. Reason does not come into play. To Olbermann — and his sidekick Rachel Maddow — conservatives are a menagerie of dangerous freaks, incapable of human reason or decency. I mean, why even have one on the show?
This is a betrayal of the very values that Olbermann so eloquently laid out in his response to Koppel. Say what you will about Bill O’Reilly, he at least lets liberals on his show — indeed, he seems eager to go on places like “The View” to mix things up with the left. O’Reilly is also, most of the time, a reasonable person with a working conscience. His argument against drug legalization is that there are already enough toxins in our lives, and more will not be beneficial to the common good. His question as to why, after gay marriage, three or four or ten people cannot get married has yet to be answered. And his simple factual statement that Muslims were responsible for 9/11 was met with the kind of childish explosion of rage that one read about in clinical psychiatric journals — or “The Culture of Narcissism.” For Keith Olbermann, facts don’t matter. In a conscience that has been warped by leftism, certain things are beyond argument: gay marriage and abortion are good. As are high taxes, larger government, and peace no matter what the costs. Conservatives are evil. The Nation said it, I believe it, and that settles it.
That’s what was so bizarre about Olbermann’s response to Koppel. Here we had a man laying out a case with sharp reason. Yet he will continue to ignore his own advice.
Mark Gauvreau Judge is the author of several books, including Damn Senators and God and Man at Georgetown Prep. His articles and essays have appeared in various publications.