I don’t know why The New Yorker finds it impossible to cover media well. This was true when Ken Auletta had the beat. It’s doubly true under New York Times writer Peter J.
Boyer. (The illustration is the cartoon of Olbermann accompanying Boyer’s article.)
Boyer’s latest, a political takedown of Keith Olbermann, is typical of the genre. Sanctimonious, filled with false equivalence between lies and truth, and (often) as laughably wrong in its facts as anything Olbermann himself satirizes, it misses the mark in so many ways it’s hard to know where to start.
Not that a takedown article couldn’t be written. But such an article would note how MSNBC has become a "studio network," with such sparse ground resources it’s forced to go with non-stop talking heads. Thus the network-wide emphasis on politics, where it’s always easy to get talking heads to bounce against one another and where you never have to worry about heat generating any light, like, say, policy.
Policy, not process, is what news organizations covering Washington should be giving us. But it’s what they never, ever give us, anymore. Instead it’s all process, the "inside baseball" of how we’re going to make things seem to be, with no reference as to how things really are.
That, and not some desire to have our ideological itch scratched, is why we’ve moved to the Internet, and why people like Olbermann appeal to us. If you’re going to be worthy of my time you had better be witty, and you had better bring me some facts I haven’t likely heard. Olbermann does both.
Now, as to Boyer:
- Boyer calls Olbermann’s Special Comments "jeremiads" which make him the "Edward R. Murrow of the Angry Left." Notice how he capitalizes both Angry and Left, as though this were somehow illegitimate. Never mind that we’ve been proven 100% right on Iraq, 100% right on Bush, while Boyer and his boyos have been 100% wrong. Boyer’s sanctimony here seems designed to get him dinner with someone like David Broder. It’s sickening bias, just what he’s accusing Olbermann of.
- Boyer criticizes Olbermann, in his biographical section, of not suffering fools and of tiring of the Monica Lewinsky story. As if this were a bad thing. Mr. Boyer, in retrospect, was the Lewinsky story really worth 1/10th of the attention it received, or was Olbermann, again, correct in his judgment of it? Criticizing someone when they’re right is no criticism.
- Only Peter J. Boyer would defend Fox News at this point. Why is propaganda to be equated on an equal basis with facts? Because both are on the TeeVee? No, Mr. Boyer, lies and truth are different, and anyone who will call lies truth, after the case has been proven, should not be working in this business.
- Boyer writes, "O’Reilly’s audience is more than twice as big as Olbermann’s, which airs in the same prime-time period." Actually, no. Their audiences are now of roughly equal size, Olbermann beats O’Reilly many nights, and the debates where he anchored not only drew bigger audiences than CNN, they were competitive with what ESPN was showing.
You call Olbermann’s success an "evidence of viewer cocooning" and claim he has no real news judgment, then admit that CBS considered him to run what’s now Couric’s show, and likely was the better choice. Which is it, Boyer-o? Oh, the fact CBS considered him for Rather’s place means they’re secretly "in the tank" for the "other" side — and I’m fairly certain that’s how you’re looking at it. Not because you’re right wing, but because you wrote a whole book attacking CBS 20 years ago. You’re still just a witness. Start acting like one.
- Producer and Olbermann friend Phil Griffin says “Keith went into sports and changed sports,” but you never consider the point, using it only as a takedown of Griffin. In fact, if you did any research at all, you’d know that Olbermann did in fact change sports. TV sports snark didn’t exist before he and Dan Patrick started co-anchoring SportsCenter. Their act was so good that an ESPN copycat, Craig Kilborn, became the first host of The Daily Show. (Of course he lacked the one thing Olbermann has in abundance — talent.) ESPN is still selling its reputation for snark on its own TV ads, 10 years after Olbermann left.
- You use the late Tim Russert to try and take-down Olbermann as nothing more than a talk radio head or a blogger, not a "real" journalist. But you ignore the real financial story. Russert and his bureau gravitated to MSNBC because they were the cheapest programming the network had, at a time when the network needed cheap to stay alive. It’s still cheaper to put a talking head in a studio than do any kind of hard news. This is the story, not the triumph of opinion. Follow the money. And this story began at Fox, not at MSNBC. Which you don’t examine.
- You insult Olbermann by criticizing his "questions about Clinton’s arithmetic" during the nomination process, again without ever recognizing, or letting us in on the fact, that Olbermann was, in fact, correct. Factually correct. Criticizing someone when they’re right only means you’re wrong.
- You constantly imply that Olbermann is a product of the blogosphere, then note near the end that his audience averages age 59 — "a fair description of a Hillary Clinton supporter." Why? What fact would lead you, or anyone, to believe that the Countdown audience loves Hillary Clinton? Age and sex aren’t enough — not given the small audiences modern cable generates. Do the math before you attack someone.
- You conclude that "Phil Griffin has to repair a fractured audience base," because Olbermann’s coverage angered Clinton supporters. But the ratings tell a different story. (So, it should be noted, do the polls.) Again, facts matter. Your opinion, Clinton’s opinion, even the pushback of her supporters against Phil Griffin, matter nothing next to facts. And you don’t bring facts to the table to support your statement that Olberman has a "fractured audience base." You sanctimoniously throw out your opinion as fact, which is precisely what you’re accusing Olbermann of doing.
I know I’m considered too old for this, but I am a free lance writer, and if The New Yorker needs quality my e-mail address is easy to find. So are those of 1,000 other writers, any one of whom can cover media with far more insight than Peter J. Boyer.