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PERSON OF THE YEAR! Bill Wolff arrived from the world of sports—and gave us rubes pro wrestling: // link // print // previous // next //
THURSDAY, DECEMBER 31, 2009

Coming in January: Next week, or the week after that, we will be starting a second site. We need a history of the Clinton/Gore years. At that site, we’ll do our part.

But will he play in Peoria: New Year’s Eve can be a tough night. Where would we go tonight, we’re constantly asked. Our response: Why not jet in for the show at Peoria’s Jukebox Comedy Club, where the comics are always hilarious?

Tonight, the Jukebox presents a “former civil engineer.” But will he play in Peoria?

For ourselves, we recall our own first New Year’s Eve, in 1983, with Bill Maher, at the intimate Richmond Comedy Club. (It was Bill’s first New Year’s Eve outside New York. Here at THE HOWLER, we love Bill Maher. No one else can do what he does.) By now, tens of thousands swear they were there for the legendary event. Our own recollection? About half the 120 or so milled about till quite late, demanding their money back. And no—it wasn’t our fault!

New Year’s Eve can be a tough night. Why not a civil engineer? People! Can’t we all get along on this one night of the year?

(Final point: Never drink and laugh.)

PERSON OF THE YEAR: THE DAILY HOWLER is forced to announce Bill Wolff as our media “person of the year.”

Not that there’s anything right with it!

Wolff, of course, is in charge of prime-time programming at MSNBC, a well-known cable “news channel.” This year, the station introduced The Ed Show, a program whose host, Ed Schultz, expresses genuine progressive instincts. We don’t always agree with Schultz, of course. But he comes from all the right places.

But primarily, this was the year when MSNBC went all “progressive” in prime time. In the fall of 2008, Wolff added The Rachel Maddow Show to the pre-existing Countdown with Keith Olbermann. Counting re-broadcasts, these programs fill seven hours of air time every weeknight. (Except on Fridays, when this channel hurries off, as fast as it can, to start its “true crime” weekend “crock block.”)

Seven hours of Keith and Rachel each night! You’d think this would be good news for progressives—for progressive interests. We’d have to say it hasn’t worked out that way. So it goes, perhaps, when we let GE—and sports guys like Wolff— define progressive politics.

Incredibly, Wolff’s total background was in low-end cable sports (and humor) when he was hired to run prime-time news. We’d have to say this background has started to show in this channel’s devolving programming.

Olbermann has become a full-blown clown as this year has progressed. His sexual politics are as bad as any ever seen on cable; it’s stunning that liberals and progressives have accepted this for so many years. But his political cluelessness—and his desire to clown—have massively dragged down his program. When he isn’t playing his well-worn tapes of Carrie Prejean prancing about in her swim wear, Olbermann has devolved into a familiar type—the loud and utterly pompous male anchor, Ted Baxter with a dollop of politics. There’s no way it serves progressive interests to have such a boor on the air.

How clueless does Olbermann often seem? Consider the preening, peculiar “Special Comment” in which he implored progressive viewers to refuse to buy health insurance under a proposed federal mandate. Swivelling from camera to camera as he pretended to be Murrow II, Olbermann lectured Obama about this part of proposed reform:

OLBERMANN (12/16/09): Some speaking for you, sir, have called the public option a fetish. They may be right. But to stay with this uncomfortable language, this bill is less fetish and more bondage. Nothing short of your re-election and the re-election of dozens of Democrats in the House and the Senate hinges in large part on this bill. Make it palatable or make it go away or make yourself ready, not merely for a horrifying campaign in 2012, but for the distinct possibility also of a primary challenge.

Befitting the season, sir, these are not the shadows of the things that will be, but the shadows of the things that may be. But at this point, Mr. President, only you can make certain of that. There is only one redemption possible. The mandate in this bill under which we are required to buy insurance must be stripped out.

The bill now is little more than a legally mandated delivery of the middle class—and those whose dreams of joining it slip ever further away—into a kind of Chicago stockyards of insurance. Make enough money to take care of yourself and your family and you must buy insurance, on the insurers’ terms, or face a fine.

This provision must go. It is, above all else, immoral and a betrayal of the people who elected you, sir. You must now announce that you will veto any bill lacking an option or buy-in, but containing a mandate.

On and on and on it went. In fairness to Olbermann, there are huge problems with requiring people to buy health insurance which is vastly over-priced—a problem Olbermann has done very little to examine in his year of Prejean-ogling. But how can health reform proceed in the absence of a mandate? To cite just one well-known example: Can insurance companies be required to disregard pre-existing conditions in the absence of a mandate? Wouldn’t people just wait till they got sick before they bought their “insurance?” The question is obvious, but it didn’t seem to occur to Olbermann, who swivelled, emoted, preened and clowned—and, as usual, did next to nothing to illuminate the groaning problems with our proposed reform.

As far as we know, mandates are part of all national systems, whether these systems include insurance companies or not. (In this country, to cite one example, workers are “mandated” to pay into Medicare.) Swivelling about and fixing his hair, Olbermann-Baxter continued his lecture, this time instructing Harry Reid about some imaginary world:

OLBERMANN (continuing directly): And Sen. Reid, put the public option back in, or the Medicare buy-in, or both, or single-payer, for that matter. Let Lieberman and Ben Nelson and Baucus and the Republicans vote their lack-of-conscience and preclude 60 "ayes." Let them commit political suicide instead of you.

Let Mr. Lieberman kill the bill, then turn to his Republican friends, only to find out they hate him more than the Democrats do. Let him stagger off the public stage to go work for the insurance industry. As if he is not doing that now.

Then, Mr. Reid, take every worthwhile provision of health care reform you legally can, and pass it via reconciliation, whenever and however you can. And by the way, a Medicare buy-in can be legally passed via reconciliation. The Senate bill with the mandate must be defeated, if not in the Senate, then in the House.

Health care reform that benefits the industry at the cost of the people is intolerable. And there are no moral constructs in which it can be supported. And if still the bill and this heinous mandate become law, there is yet further reaction required. I call on all those whose conscience urges them to fight, to use the only weapon that will be left to us if this bill becomes law. We must not buy federally mandated insurance if this cheesy counterfeit of reform is all we can buy.

Reid could just “put single-payer in, for that matter!” In all candor, it would be hard to be much more clueless than KO was in this passage.

In fairness, Olbermann was right in major ways as he swivelled and burned. The proposed reform does “benefit the industry;” it actually benefits many industries, though Olbermann may not quite understand that. (Olbermann’s viewers don’t likely understand that either, though they do know all about Levi Johnston.) But is there really “no moral construct” in which this reform “can be supported?” How about a moral construct in which millions of people—including parents of children—get subsidies to buy the insurance they could never afford before? (Some parents die from lack of insurance.) Subsidies which may be so large that these people will end up paying a price for insurance which is actually in line with world norms?

This plainly isn’t a perfect solution—though Olbermann did nothing this year to help his viewers understand the size of the looting which characterizes American health care. But:

If parents of children are kept from dying, does that make the propose arrangement more “tolerable?’ Turning and burning and playing the fool, Olbermann didn’t quite say. Then, he went on vacation again, leaving tapes of his dirty jokes to air each night this week, insulting the values—and the intelligence—of any progressive viewer.

Maddow is better than Olbermann (especially on foreign affairs). But she isn’t better by much. Her cluelessness about domestic politics is a constant revelation. This Monday night, to cite one example, Maddow delivered a Long Standard Screed (complete with misstatements) about Jim DeMint and the nomination of Errol Southers to head the TSA. Like the editorial board of the Washington Post, DeMint opposes unionization of TSA screeners; our own view would be different. But after a long, clueless screed about the matter, Maddow offered the following comment to her guest, Melissa Harris-Lacewell, who Maddow thanked “for interrupting your holiday in New Orleans and joining us.” As usual, Maddow was “completely mystified” by some bone-simple politics:

MADDOW (12/28/09): I agree with you in the sense that I believe that Republicans would love to make national security and terrorism a political issue. They feel like that would be—that would help them in 2010. And at the same time, I’m completely mystified by Jim DeMint.

Jim DeMint might be the presidential nominee of the Republican Party. He’s this rising star in national Republican politics. What he does, other senators do soon thereafter.

And here he is proudly proclaiming that the real issue in the TSA is the labor unions, and he’s blocking the nominee to be the head of airline security. It seems like there’s got to be a political cost on the other side of that. At least, I would expect there would be.

Maddow is “completely mystified” by DeMint’s political posture. She “would expect” that there would be “a political cost” for this stance. Our question: Does Maddow know how badly Democrats were hurt by this issue back in 2002? How big the “political cost” was to Dems? Quite possibly not. In fact, Maddow is constantly stating her “complete mystification” over some bone-simple political matter. But then, Harris-Lacewell didn’t have much to offer on this matter either. “What does it mean?” she asked:

HARRIS-LACEWELL (continuing directly): Well, you know, maybe our first question is like, “What is going on in South Carolina?” You know, this is our second South Carolina legislator making real news this year.

But I think the other thing is a kind of position towards working people, right? What does it mean that you think we are safer if the people who work for us in airports are less well-paid, have fewer benefits, have less security?

It’s a bit like saying, "You know, let’s be sure that we put our children with child care providers who aren’t unionized and don’t”—oh, actually we do that, right? We put our children with child care providers who, in fact, don’t get good benefits!

I mean, it’s a backwards sort of way of thinking that the people who are serving the thing most precious to us, our children, our lives, in airports, that they would be paid insufficiently, that they would have less job security. In fact, exactly what we want is the opposite.

Now, there are arguments on both sides about unions, but clearly the idea that we are safer if our baggage handlers, you know, are paid less is ridiculous.

“There are arguments on both sides about unions!”

At any rate, Harris-Lacewell also seemed utterly clueless about the possible shape of the politics here—and about the actual nature of DeMint’s position. “What does it mean that you think we are safer if the people who work for us in airports are less well-paid, have fewer benefits, have less security?” she clownishly asked. Our question: Shouldn’t Harris-Lacewell be able to answer that question before appearing on progressive shows as an expert on this matter? Second question: Is that really her best explanation of what DeMint’s complaint is?

In fact, Bill Wolff’s programs seem to exist to dumb young liberal viewers down, even as they get the heady experience of tribal solidarity. Increasingly, these are silly, clownish shows designed to run us rubes into the ground. Maddow may be the biggest culture snob who has ever appeared on cable TV. She rarely seems to have any idea about the political impulses which drive many American voters (often in unfortunate ways). She knows those impulse are very wrong; she just doesn’t know what those impulses are. Given her stunning cultural condescension, there’s little sign that she’ll ever find out.

Just a guess: It’s very hard to build a winning progressive politics this way.

On Bill Wolff’s programs, hosts mock, and misstate, the views of The Other. It’s entertaining; it makes our tribe feel superior. But almost surely, progressive interests can’t be served this way.

Big corporate interests—in Olbermann’s phrase, “the industry”—are thrilled when we rubes break up into tribes. Division and conquest is the time-honored way The Interests maintain control of rubes’ lives. Increasingly, Wolff’s gruesome prime-time block is designed to drive these tribal divisions. We get to ogle Prejean—and we get laugh at her “ding-battery.” In the course of all this nonsense, we’re falsely told that we’re smart.

(To Olbermann’s credit, it has been a while since he asked Janeane Garofalo to explain how the other tribe’s limbic brains work.)

GE grabbed Wolff from the world of low-end sports entertainment. He had no background in news at all! Increasingly, this orientation seems to show in the content of his prime-time programs. Bill Wolff arrived from the world of sports—and handed us rubes pro wrestling.

Almost surely, progressive interests can’t flourish this way. Returns for the stockholders can.