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OLBERMANN’S ENABLERS! KO’s misogyny was his worst trait. Here’s how we liberals reacted: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, JANUARY 28, 2011

Their own private Europe, now shared: This morning, Paul Krugman explains the recent problems of England and Ireland, refuting Paul Ryan’s bungled claims as he does.

How could Ryan have been so wrong about what happened over there? In this passage, Krugman explains it:

KRUGMAN (1/28/11): American conservatives have long had their own private Europe of the imagination—a place of economic stagnation and terrible health care, a collapsing society groaning under the weight of Big Government. The fact that Europe isn’t actually like that—did you know that adults in their prime working years are more likely to be employed in Europe than they are in the United States?—hasn’t deterred them. So we shouldn’t be surprised by similar tall tales about European debt problems.

Later, Krugman coins another phrase: “Again, American conservatives have long used the myth of a failing Europe to argue against progressive policies in America.” (Our emphasis, on a nice phrase.)

It’s true. Conservatives have endlessly talked about the “terrible health care” in that alleged “failing Europe.” Unfortunately, when these conservatives speak, other conservatives listen! Perhaps forty percent of American adults self-identify as conservatives. When they hear their leaders make these misstatements, they tend to believe that they’re accurate.

They especially tend to believe it when our side doesn’t say boo.

For decades, their side has effectively driven disinformation about European health care (and other topics); in response, our side has tended to nap. We noticed the results once again reading yesterday’s Daily Beast.

According to our sardonic analysts, the Beast is becoming the “blog of lists,” but it’s edited by a very smart woman. In part for that reason, the analysts cringed, recoiled and writhed when they read this bungled synopsis:

DAILY BEAST (1/27/11): Social Security to Run Dry by 2037

Congressional budget experts said Wednesday that Social Security will be running a permanent deficit until about 2037, when the fund will run out of money.

In large part, such bungled reports result from decades of pseudo-conservative disinformation. By the way: If an average American read that synopsis, why wouldn’t he or she assume that SS will be belly-up—bankrupt, broke, out of business—as of 2037?

The AP report to which the Beast linked wasn’t quite as bungled. Even so, we’d have to say that decades of liberal indifference about basic messaging thoroughly infects the prose, from the first paragraph on:

OHLEMACHER (1/27/11): Sick and getting sicker, Social Security will run at a deficit this year and keep on running in the red until its trust funds are drained by about 2037, congressional budget experts said Wednesday in bleaker-than-previous estimates.

The massive retirement program has been suffering from the effects of the struggling economy for several years. It first went into deficit last year but had been projected to post surpluses for a few more years before permanently slipping into the red in 2016

This year alone, Social Security will pay out $45 billion more in retirement, disability and survivors' benefits than it collects in payroll taxes, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said. That figure nearly triples—to $130 billion—when the new one-year cut in payroll taxes is included.

Congress has promised to replenish any lost revenue from the tax cut, but that's hardly good news, either, adding to the federal budget deficit. In another sobering estimate, the congressional office said government red ink this year will increase to $1.5 trillion, the most in U.S. history.

[…]

The projected deficits add a sense of urgency to efforts to improve Social Security's finances. For much of the past 30 years, the program has run big surpluses, which the government has borrowed to spend on other programs. Now that Social Security is running deficits, the federal government will have to find money elsewhere to help pay for benefits.

"So long as Social Security was running surpluses, policymakers could put off the need to fix the program," said Andrew Biggs, a former deputy commissioner at the Social Security Administration who is now a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "Now that the system is running deficits, it simply becomes clear that we need to act on Social Security reform."

That statement by Biggs is really quite striking. But Ohlemacher’s attempt to explain the status of Social Security strikes us as quite bad. It wasn’t until paragraph 16 that he told readers what will happen after 2037. (“At that point, Social Security would collect enough in payroll taxes to pay out about 78 percent of benefits.”) Meanwhile, this is how that second highlighted passage might have read, if liberals had pounded away at accurate messaging over the past thirty years:

OHLEMACHER REWRITTEN: For much of the past 30 years, the program has run big [annual] surpluses, which the government has borrowed to spend on other programs. This is the way the program was designed by President Reagan and his Greenspan Commission on Social Security; borrowing the annual Social Security surplus has reduced the amount of borrowing the government had to do from other sources. Now that Social Security is running deficits, the federal government will have to do all its borrowing from such sources.

The AP report was written quite poorly; the Beast only made it worse. But then, this sort of thing has transpired for decades. One side has devotedly invented and pimped misleading claims—and one side has stared into air.

We’ll correct Krugman in only one way:

Do conservatives have their own private Europe? Do they have their own private account of Social Security? Actually, no—they have shared their private ideas! By now, everybody shares these ideas, in large part because our side has rarely tried to speak up, rewrite or fight. Or, as Dylan so aptly put it:

Well, time passed and now it seems/Everybody’s having them dreams.
Everybody sees themselves/Walkin’ around with no one else!

Everybody is having them dreams—dreams which have ceased to be private

Special report: Our’n and their’n!

PART 3—OLBERMANN’S ENABLERS (permalink): What the fudge? Today’s New York Times includes a pair of letters about Keith Olbermann’s tenure at Countdown. The first comes from (presumably) the novelist Anne Bernays, an Olbermann fan who writes from the banks of the Charles:

LETTER TO THE NEW YORK TIMES (1/28/11): To his fans, Keith Olbermann’s departure from MSNBC is undoubtedly a body blow. He came across in his nightly show as a devout liberal, quick to respond to injustice, thoughtful, somewhat (and appealingly) irascible and, above all, civilized.

I can’t imagine anyone else sitting down in a large, comfortable chair and reading aloud—to his own and his audience’s delight—from the work of James Thurber.

I’m distressed by what I can only guess were those too benighted to recognize or value his unique gifts.

May he land on much friendlier turf sooner rather than later.

Different people will make different judgments, of course. That said, we’d have to list ourselves among those who were benighted. On balance, we didn’t find Olbermann’s work to be primarily thoughtful or “above all, civilized.” On balance, we didn’t generally tend to find his irascibility appealing.

On balance, we thought his weekly reading of Thurber in the last year—a tribute to his late father—represented a new high (or a new low) in the cable news culture of self-reference/self-involvement. We often wondered if anyone actually watched those Friday-night readings. Apparently, some people did.

On balance, we haven’t been fans of Countdown—or of the overall culture of the news channel it spawned at MSNBC. That said, we’ve been interested by the views of people who did admire Olbermann’s work—though we’ve sometimes been puzzled by their chronologies, as was the case when Will Bunch wrote the following at Media Matters. Bunch quoted a bit of Olbermann’s own chronology, then mused upon it a bit:

BUNCH (1/24/11): He became a hero to so many TV viewers (and saved MSNBC, which was really in its proverbial "last throes") in the mid-2000s because his journey was not that of a liberal ideologue but simply an American citizen who was appalled at the lies coming from the Bush White House and increasingly looked for ways to use his platform as a national journalist to relate something he came to see as not just a news story—but a threat to the Republic.

Olbermann alluded to this odyssey when he signed off MSNBC on Friday night:

“The show gradually established its position as anti-establishment, from the stage craft of Mission Accomplished, to the exaggerated rescue of Jessica Lynch in Iraq, to the death of Pat Tillman, to Hurricane Katrina, to the nexus of politics and terror, to the first special comment.”

It was a gradual thing, indeed. My clear sense as a regular viewer of "Countdown" during those mid-2000s years was that Olbermann's initial outrage was not that of a partisan but that of a journalist, that he was incensed that the government was lying over matters like the Lynch and Tillman cases. It was only several years into it that he realized that—with George W. Bush and Dick Cheney ensconced in a second term and lingering talk that "real men go to Tehran”—he needed to do more. And so was born “the special comment”—his first one coming in August 2006, rebutting a speech that then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had delivered to the American Legion.

Many admirers cite that first “special comment,” from August 2006. This said, Bunch’s sense that Olbermann only emerged as a liberal about that time is a bit hard to square with Olbermann’s self-description, in which his program’s emergence as “anti-establishment” began with “Mission Accomplished.” In fact, Olbermann said little about the stagecraft of Bush’s splashdown in real time, in the summer of 2003; as Bunch suggests, Countdown’s special tone and tenor hadn’t really emerged at that time. We’d like to see someone do a careful history of Countdown, describing the arc of the program’s development—and weighing its alleged strengths against its obvious weaknesses.

That isn’t meant as a criticism of Bunch’s short history, though we would be inclined to criticize one part of his assessment. Early in his discussion, Bunch discusses a "talking point" which is “certain to drive progressives crazy.” As he does, we think he plays the enabler a bit, in a familiar way:

BUNCH: Both the supersized breaking news coverage on rival (and thus not so disinterested) CNN on Friday and the inevitable discussion panel yesterday on that network's "Reliable Sources" with Howard Kurtz occasionally touched on a “talking point” certain to drive progressives crazy—which is that Olbermann has been the perfect left side of a mirror image with angry conservative Fox hosts like Bill O'Reilly or Glenn Beck.

Well, they all can be loud and take strong points of view, but otherwise the comparison is more than a tad ridiculous. Olbermann's list of worst transgressions would be headlined by an over-the-top rant about Sen. Scott Brown—which he quickly apologized for!—and violating a policy he said he didn't know existed by giving money to three Democratc candidates. Compare that to the unapologized-for sins of Beck—explicitly using violent rhetoric like last summer's "shoot them in the head" comments or claiming that President Obama has "a deep-seated hatred of white people"—or O'Reilly's frequent harangues against "Dr. Tiller the baby killer," who was later murdered by a right-wing zealot.

Beck's words have not only inspired death threats against an elderly female professor but actual gunmen like Pittsburgh's Richard Poplawski, who bought into the host's conspiracy theories before killing three cops. I challenge anyone to find an act of Olbermann-inspired violence or threats (and while you're searching, check out his record as host of "Countdown" in supporting charitable causes).

The irony here—and it's a big one—is that one of Olbermann's best contributions to our political dialogue was going after the bogus idea of false equivalency, that people on the left and the right are always equally bad in equal proportions while only centrists are the possessors of beauty and light and truth. Ironic because no one has been a bigger victim of false equivalency than Keith Olbermann himself.

Question: Has anyone ever actually said “that people on the left and the right are always equally bad in equal proportions?” Or is Bunch setting up a bit of a straw man, penning a slightly embellished complaint? However one might answer that question, Bunch’s rebuttal is itself a very familiar “talking point,” a talking point liberals widely recite in Olbermann’s defense.

Olbermann has been “a victim of false equivalency,” we liberals tend to say. When we do, we establish a very low bar for our own side’s conduct. When we reject the false claim of equivalence, we give our side a pass as long as we can cling to this claim: We aren’t as bad as Fox! Given the conduct observed at Fox, this standard is quite easily met. Since no one in American journalistic history has ever been as bizarre as Glenn Beck, we thus establish a very low bar for our own side’s performance. Building this rather flimsy defense, we may tend to enable the imperfect, possibly failing conduct of our own side’s leaders.

We’d have to say that Olbermann was often ill-served by this type of tribal self-defense. Consider his gruesome, unyielding misogyny—one of the factors which led us, years ago, to start losing respect for his program.

Presumably, everyone has imperfect impulses; this was one of Olbermann’s worst. But how strange! When we began to criticize this conduct, we were amazed, for years, by the failure of other liberals to offer a similar challenge. We were puzzled, for years, by the silence which from the suburbs. Could it be that other liberals don’t see how gruesome this conduct was? We wondered about that question for years. And then, at last, in July 2010, we all received an inside look at the perceptions and attitudes behind this long silence, courtesy of the off-the-record comments and statements which emerged from the Journolist flap.

Liberals offered many objections to various aspects of the Journolist flap, which emerged from reporting at the Daily Caller. That said, we’ve never heard anyone claim that the quoted remarks below didn’t occur, or that they were somehow “taken out of context.” In this passage, the Daily Caller’s Jonathan Strong quotes liberals and progressives talking about Olbermann’s “misogyny”—off the record, of course:

STRONG (7/23/10): 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.

[…]

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 ascendant, 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.

With regard to the Prejean matter, might we recall the sheer stupidity which accompanied Countdown’s misogyny? In their gruesome segments attacking Prejean, Olbermann and Musto savaged her in blatantly misogynist ways—because she had taken the same position on same-sex marriage that was held by Barack Obama! Yes, the misogyny was quite vile. The stupidity may have been even worse.

(Up in Cambridge, some may have found these naughty boys to be “appealingly irascible.”)

We criticized this conduct out loud. The brave souls quoted by Strong did not. Don’t be misled when Strong says that Traister “had written the same thing in her columns for Salon.” The single statement he quotes comes from this long piece—a piece in which Traister herself was largely devoted to mocking and trashing Hilton. (Nugget statement: “It's time to admit that Paris Hilton, that creepy dollie, must be destroyed. Metaphorically, of course.”) That one lone statement about Olbermann’s conduct appears fleetingly, quite deep inside the lengthy piece.

When these Journolist conversations appeared, we searched for any sign that Traister ever discussed this gruesome conduct in a genuine, stand-alone piece. If she did write such a piece, we never found it.

Remarkable, isn’t it? During years of similar transgressions, Olbermann “felt free to call Hilton a slut on air and speculate about whether anyone had ever ejaculated in her face.” And yet, these fiery liberals never stood up and challenged his conduct in public!

We lost a lot of respect for Traister as we compared her private comments to her years of public silence—as we read the comments she was willing to make, but only when speaking in private. “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?” How weird—we had noticed that problem too! But then, we had discussed it out loud.

In our view, Olbermann was very poorly served by the silence of these lambs—by the silence of the other fiery liberals who refused to speak out on this matter. The gentleman might have improved his conduct if others in the liberal world had spoken—but they chose to shut up. Careers were maintained as these self-dealing children stayed creatively silent. But Olbermann’s interests were badly served—as were the basic interests of the progressive world.

Are our’n really better than their’n? It’s a claim we liberals love to make. (Note to Bunch: O’Reilly does a fair amount of charity work too. What point are we trying to make?) In this matter, as in quite a few others, our’n behaved a great deal like their’n; simply put, our’n displayed the gross hypocrisy we like to impute to their side. And presumably, many people noticed. Here is the second letter in today’s New York Times:

LETTER TO THE NEW YORK TIMES (1/28/11): Please note the hypocrisy of the many liberal-minded people now protesting the forced exit of Keith Olbermann from MSNBC. Many of the same people were insisting that lack of civility in politics played a role in the Tucson shootings.

Mr. Olbermann’s deeply personal and caustic attacks on people he disagreed with made him the poster child for incivility. His supporters appear to oppose incivility unless it is directed at people they don’t like.

The other tribe’s true believers have their story-lines too. Was Olbermann “the poster child for incivility?” Actually no, he was not. But many people will notice the double standards our fiery tribe will often display. Our’n are a lot like their’n, they will often conclude.

In many ways, they will be right. High-minded people will swoon over Thurber. Others will notice the truth.

Go back and reread those quotes from Strong. That’s what our “liberal leaders” thought—although they refused to tattle.