Recently one of my friends sent a tweet out, asking what we, her Twitter followers, thought was the greatest television commercial of all time. As someone who was lucky enough to live through the middle and late 1990s, that last period of popular culture that had so much going for it, my immediate response was the landmark Orlando Jones “Make 7-Up Yours” spots, commercials that endure to this day. Now that I’ve thought longer about it, though, I think there is one commercial that stands out in my mind now, one of the very earliest “This is SportsCenter” commercials where Alexi Lalas’ attempts to serenade an ESPN anchor with an acoustic guitar and vocal rendition of “Michael Row Your Boat Ashore” to help soothe him and ruined by another anchor grabbing the guitar from Lalas’ hands, smashing it to pieces, and hanfing it back to him before storming off angrily. The contrast between the singing and the guitar smashing, the jump cuts during the smashing that only increased the feeling of violence, and the absurdity and novelty of the “This is SportsCenter” campaign was still fresh.
The anchor who smashed Lalas’ anchor was, of course, Keith Olbermann, near the end of his ESPN tenure where he and Dan Patrick did nothing short of revolutionize the sports recap show, if not sports journalism itself. Although their pioneering work has led to sports news shows being nothing but second-rate Olbermanns and Patricks trying to recreate their formula, it’s still a vast improvement over how boring and staid sports journalism had been beforehand. Even though I have next to no interest in football at this point, except in seeing how many square miles of Cincinnati get obliterated when Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens’ egos eventually collide, I still make a point of catching Olbermann and Patrick’s game recaps on NBC’s Football Night in America, and part of their genius is that their humour is so wide-ranging and universal that, even if you don’t follow football at all, you can still follow along, laugh a lot, and learn everything you need to know about that week’s games and the NFL as a whole.
I’ve been a fan of Olbermann’s since his ESPN days and have written about him frequently in various forums. When the Robert Gibbs “Professional Left” story picked up speed yesterday afternoon, Olbermann tweeted that he was preparing one of his signature “special comments” on the Gibbs controversy. I was in the middle of tweeting a reply to Olbermann, to the effect of, “Will this special comment be full of Bush-era ‘how dare you’ Olber-rage, or Obama-era ‘I’m sorry for being critical Democrats, please don’t stop letting me interview your congresspeople’ simpering?” Before I could pare that down to a hundred and forty characters, though, Olbermann tweeted that “There will be neither fire nor brimstone in tonight’s Special Comment, because I do not disagree with Mr Gibbs’ right to criticize.” I deleted my reply before I sent it, and set out to write my own response to Gibbs’ comments since I knew Olbermann’s would not be adequate.
Sure enough, last night on Countdown, Olbermann did list all the ways in which this administration has not lived up to its promises of “change” and “hope,” but when it came time for his own commentary, instead of excoriating Gibbs for going after the people who so rightly feel betrayed by the broken promises and general ineffectiveness of this administration, he gave Gibbs, and the administration he speaks for, the figurative slap on the wrist. With the exception of Geraldine Ferraro and her ludicrous race-based statements about Candidate Obama during the 2008 primary season, Olbermann has never gone after Democrats with the same vigor and bluster he has used against Republicans and conservatives. Certainly some of the things people like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld said during the Bush presidency were far worse than Gibbs’ comments, but although the words may have been worse, they both served the same purpose, to scare people further towards the right-wing of American politics.
Just before his special comment last night, Olbermann interviewed Michael Moore about Gibbs’ comments, and near the end of the interview Moore claimed that the controversy over Gibbs’ remarks wouldn’t matter because the left would vote for Democrats come November anyway. That assertion is not only absurd, but it is provably false, as poll after poll has shown that those who identify as liberals are not planning to vote in the midterm elections in the same numbers as their conservative counterparts. It is the “enthusiasm gap” that Olbermann and other talking heads have talked about so much, and the main reason for it is precisely because this administration has let down liberals by backing down on so many things. Even in a best-case scenario for Democrats where they maintain majorities in the House and Senate, those majorities are all but guaranteed to be reduced. Freshly strengthened from November’s results, you can bet that congressional Republicans will filibuster even more, use every parliamentary trick at their disposal to frustrate even the watered-down agenda this administration manages to get to the floors of the House and Senate. If you thought these past eighteen months of Washington gridlock were bad, 2011 and 2012 will make them pale in comparison.
In his special comment Olbermann spent a great deal of time going after the right-wing of this country for demanding total compliance and “marching in lockstep” with one another. Although an exaggeration, it is certainly true that that Democrats have a “bigger tent” than Republicans when it comes to the policies their politicians espouse, as has been made all too clear by how “Blue Dog” Democrats have frustrated this administration’s agenda nearly as much as Republicans have. However, the Democrats’ proclamations of being “all-encompassing” ring hollow when so many in the Democratic Party, from Robert Gibbs to Rahm Emmanuel to the campaigns of Al Gore and John Kerry, belittle and demean those of us who cannot bear to be under that “big tent” because we cannot tolerate the constant pull of the party to the right, how it has done just as much to quash real American liberalism over the past eighteen years as the Republican party has.
Say what you will about the Tea Party, but if nothing else they have shown that the Republican Party is at least capable of recognizing when there is a considerable movement on the edge of the party base, and harnessing that energy and power to fuel their own growth. Much has been made of Sharron Angle and Rand Paul, and how their extreme candidacies may well stop Republicans from gaining Senate seats they shouldn’t even have to fight for in this political climate, but there are plenty of other Tea Party candidates running as Republicans in elections this November who will win their elections and come to Washington. When Republicans see activity and anger at their party’s edge, they at least listen to that anger and try to use it for their own benefit. When the Democratic Party is confronted with anger on its left, all they do is scorn us and attack us, and continue their push further and further right.
For all that MSNBC is portrayed by some as being, if not a network of socialists, then at least a network of socialist sympathizers, it operates as a mouthpiece for the Democratic Party at least half as much as Fox News is the Republican Party’s bullhorn. When was the last time Ralph Nader appeared on Countdown? When was the last time Cynthia McKinney appeared on Hardball? Yes, Bernie Sanders is a frequent guest on some MSNBC shows, but always in his context as an independent senator who caucuses with Democrats and, like Olbermann, acknowledges the problems that keep so many liberals from being part of the Democratic Party, but only in a hushed, almost apologetic tone. Keep in mind that Chris Matthews interviewed that neanderthal who started the nauseating trend of Tea Party members to carry firearms to protests of the president’s appearances. If that man can be granted interview time on MSNBC, why not a Nader, or a McKinney, or a Matt Gonzales, or even an Anita Rios?
In the past, Olbermann has often likened himself, and the special comments that catapulted him to the forefront of the American political news scene, to Peter Finch’s character in the movie Network and his legendary proclamation of “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” We on the American left did not stop being mad after George W. Bush left office, and if anything this new administration has only made us more angry by compromising itself into ineffectualness, more furious by repeatedly failing to live up to the “hope” it tried to cultivate in us in 2008, more madby turning around and shouting back at us for daring to say that they aren’t the greatest administration since FDR’s. By sitting on his heels, by not raising his voice at this time when it is so urgently needed, Olbermann, and all the other “left-wing” hosts of MSNBC and elsewhere, are doing the Democrats’ work in making people think that there is no alternative to Republican misanthropy than the Democratic party and whatever positions it takes in its primary mission, not to make this country a better place, but to get more Democrats elected.
Olbermann has a choice to make. He can continue to ignore and belittle the American left — I’ll even write a joke he can use on Countdown tonight to shoo away this issue with his trademark snarkiness: “The Green Party held its national convention today in a phone booth outside of Newark” — or he can realize that he has become one of the very forces that made Peter Finch’s character “mad as hell,” and he can decide that he’s not going to take it any more. I hope, if not for his sake then the sake of this country, he chooses the latter. He needs to start treating Republicans and Democrats the same way he treated Alexi Lalas’ guitar.