What I like most about K.O., as he is called offscreen, is his passion. He goes after the dragon--which, as Murrow's producer, Fred Friendly, used to say, is the real function of news.
Olbermann's Special Comments, as they are labeled, make up the core of my pitch as his volunteer advocate. They were off the radar scopes until September 2006, when Rumsfeld said anyone who was critical of the "war on terror" or the war in Iraq or of Administration policies was the equivalent of the people who appeased Hitler in the 1930s. "I'm not a big fan of being called a Nazi appeaser or even a parallel Nazi," K.O. said. "I took that personally." And he began eviscerating Rumsfeld.
He has done twenty-two of the "specials" (as of July 19), all of which earn a place for him on the Mount Olympus of commercial TV anchors. The July 4 special on his reaction to Scooter Libby's pardon, explaining the historical imperatives for Bush and Cheney to resign, was the Gettysburg Address of K.O.'s commentaries:
I accuse you, Mr. Bush, of lying this country into war. I accuse you of fabricating in the minds of your own people a false implied link between Saddam Hussein and 9/11. I accuse you of firing the generals who told you that the plans for Iraq were disastrously insufficient.... I accuse you of subverting the Constitution, not in some misguided but sincerely motivated struggle to combat terrorists, but to stifle dissent. I accuse you of fomenting fear among your own people, of creating the very terror you claim to have fought. I accuse you of exploiting that unreasoning fear, the natural fear of your own people who just want to live their lives in peace, as a political tool to slander your critics and libel your opponents. I accuse you of handing part of this Republic over to a Vice President who is without conscience and letting him run roughshod over it....
For ten minutes, Olbermann spoke with fierce clarity and surgical precision, drawing a comparison to President Nixon's resignation. He had obviously done his homework. His recitation of Bush's crimes concluded with his observation that the President had been "an accessory to the obstruction of justice" in the Libby case. "From Iraq to Scooter Libby," Olbermann said at the time, "Bush and Cheney have lost Americans' trust and stabbed this nation in the back. It's time for them to go." The highest praise I can give is to say I can imagine Ed Murrow speaking those words.
I'm not saying Olbermann is Ed Murrow. He is, however, what Ed Murrow might sound like today, changing with the times as a good newsman should.
I also realize the format of Countdown, with its mix of serious and lite news, might seem a little schizophrenic to older folks who haven't kept up with the crazy way the culture is evolving. But it's what has to be done to get the literally tens of people who watch MSNBC to pay attention.
My final recommendation is that what would make The O Factor--or whatever they would call the Olbermann-anchored evening news--work is for CBS News to bite the bullet and be the first to go to an hourlong format, something the network began debating in Walter Cronkite's day. The network under Bill Paley wrestled with its conscience and always lost, preferring a half-hour of lucrative syndicated trash following the news.
Would it work? There would be gnashing of teeth, rending of garments at Black Rock. There would be outrage from the on-the-air zombies now doing the news from the Land of the Living Dead. If the new concept caught on, they too would need to find something to say about the news they are mindlessly reporting. It would change the face of network TV news.
TV is an art form that suffers from kleptomania. They would rather steal something that works than try anything original. So much attention will be paid to The O Factor that the other networks will be looking for their own Olbermanns, newsmen with differing values and opinions. After all, in Ed Murrow's day, right-wingers Fulton Lewis Jr. and Walter Winchell were also on the air.
A whole new audience will emerge for the network evening news when it stops being, as Arianna Huffington put it, "the referee, pretending there are two sides to every issue." As Murrow suggested, there actually could be three, or even one.
Naturally, CBS won't buy the Kitman Plan, because I'm giving it to them free of charge. In TV news, they don't believe anything is good unless they spend millions to ruin the likes of Couric and Rather. And that's the way it is.