I will miss Keith because he challenged my thinking, even my faith. Watching the broadcast was like taking a political science course at a stand-up comedy club. Much as I enjoy and respect both Maddow and O'Donnell, neither has the heft of Olbermann, who has never, in six years, managed to find a substitute host who could actually fill his shoes. I can only hope Olbermann reemerges as soon as he is legally able, and the fun can begin again. His sudden and inexplicable departure is a disaster both for the overall identity of that network and for public discourse in general.
Left-wing superstar political commentator
and news anchor Keith Olbermann, whose nightly Countdown With Keith Olbermann broadcast fairly defined the otherwise indefinable cable news channel MSNBC, made a historic exit while we were on break, leaving his millions of fans without notice or explanation. Olbermann, a CNN sportscaster turned MSNBC news anchor, had a reportedly turbulent relationship with the news channel even while driving MSNBC from snickering obscurity to becoming the liberal equivalency of Fox News—a claim that offends Olbermann, but I'm on deadline and can't think of a better way to put it. Fox News, which both Olbermann and the White House has characterized as a de-facto political action network, spends 95% of its air time parroting Republican talking points. Over the past years, MSNBC, as a whole, has emerged as the strongest and most reasonable rebuttal of Fox News propaganda. Using the word "equivalency" demeans that effort, as MSNBC and Olbermann have frequently criticized the president and the left wing liberals when they deserve it. MSNBC and Olbermann also tend to deal more in facts than philosophy, while Fox allows frequent puff interviews wherein conservative candidates repeatedly spew GOP talking points, ridiculous "facts" which routinely go unchallenged, and pimp Fox News viewers for donations without limit or network restraint. Network and other mainstream news sources, in some misguided effort to appear unbiased, routinely ignore and/or fail to challenge Fox, but MSNBC has evolved into the leading critic of conservative propaganda and, despite Olbermann's at-times over-the-top rhetoric, the most credible refuter of right-wing propaganda.
Olbermann's voice all but defined MSNBC as he and his cohorts Rachel Maddow and West Wing Executive Producer Lawrence O'Donnell birthed a three-hour nightly block of unapologetically liberal views on the issues of the day. More than occasionally over the top (Olbermann's signature rant, How darrrre you, sir! became fodder for Jon Stewart's The Daily Show), Olbermann was, nonetheless, the light shinning through the long, long winter's night of the Bush Administration's spiral toward bankruptcy and war. He seemed, at times, to be the only major newscaster willing to stand up and criticize the sitting president during wartime. His thoughtful, detailed, pristinely-researched deconstruction of conservative political nonsense has branded him a nutty reactionary, but one who nonetheless speaks truth abrasively and thunderously to power and whose journalistic ethics—despite the circus antics—remain beyond reproach. Olbermann gave great solace to those of us who thought we might be losing our minds as America, broke and immersed in two wars, actually elected George Bush in 2004. His searing, poignant, comical, lunatic "Special Comment" segments—where Olbermann really took off the gloves—became the stuff of legend. Before the 2010 Massachusetts special election, Olbermann called Republican candidate Scott Brown "an irresponsible, homophobic, racist, reactionary, ex-nude model, Tea Bagging supporter of violence against women, and against politicians with whom he disagrees." And he was right.
Olbermann's influence is felt in a wide variety of places, including this ministry, where I am regularly taken to task for being "too political." It never ceases to amaze me how no pastor, not a single pastor I know, seems to have much in the way of an opinion about, well, anything. They get up Sunday mornings and holler at you and that's about it for the week. No thoughts about the Tucson shootings, no reflections on the revolutions under way in the Arab world, on the president's State of The Union speech or Felycia Barnes, whose disappearance continues to be barely a footnote on national news—in direct contrast to the similarly-aged Natalee Holloway whose vanishing polarized the nation. If Olbermann had too much opinion, our spiritual leaders have too little. Just a blank web page and an open mic—opportunities for men of God to educate and influence God's people. I do not personally know even a single black pastor even remotely interested in such things, and, like Olbermann, this very ministry has been criticized for having an opinion about what goes on in the world. Without some practical application, a Christ-led life exists only in the abstract. We give our relationship with Christ meaning when we engage the issues of the day. Not in an organized political sense—the "moral" right movement telling people how to think—but when we question, challenge, propose, inquire. When we think. Whatever else Olbermann was, he challenged us to think. Even to disagree with his point of view. Too few pastors challenge our thinking. Most pastors I know don't challenge us, they tell us what to think, they tell us right and wrong. But they bounce little or none of their biblical truths off of the reality of the world we live in. They exist in the ecumenical snow globe and seem content there, as their dismissed flock wanders out of the sanctuary and back into a reality the pastor has no opinion of because he does not live in it. He lives off the church's dime and is insulated by a circle of butt-kissers who tell him his farts don't stink. The early church lived in dangerous times. Persecuted and hunted, knowing what was going on beyond their circle was critical to the church's survival. It still is. Yet most every pastor I know, friend and not-so-friendly, are content to merely shake up the snow globe once a week and collect their check. They have absolutely no fire in the belly to deploy God's word in any meaningful fashion beyond their quaint and often irrelevant Sunday sermons.
I will miss Keith
because he challenged my thinking, even my faith. Watching the broadcast was like taking a political science course at a stand-up comedy club. MSNBC is now entirely faceless as bloated corporate giant Comcast looms to take control (NBC was sold to Comcast earlier this year). The common wisdom is Comcast will mainstream MSNBC back to what it was—a lifeless, dead-on-arrival flavorless shadow of CNN and Fox News. They believe the net has gone too far left. They may be right. But the network has life. It's fun, it's exciting, and it creates much-needed ballast to a political arena gone insanely conservative. Changing it to The Generic News Network may please some of the conservative businessmen running Comcast, but it will prove lousy for ratings and worse for public discourse. Much as I enjoy and respect both Maddow and O'Donnell, neither has the heft of Olbermann, who has never, in six years, managed to find a substitute host who could actually fill his shoes. I can only hope Olbermann reemerges as soon as he is legally able, and the fun can begin again. His sudden and inexplicable departure is a disaster both for the overall identity of that network and for public discourse in general. How dare you, sir.