Keith Olbermann’s abrupt departure from MSNBC last week really frosted progressive spines because, coming just days after the midterm elections, it felt like the second shoe dropping: it wasn’t enough that we can’t count on the Democratic Party, we can’t even count on MSNBC’s primetime line-up. Even though Keith’s suspension lasted only two days (and was maybe even self-imposed), everybody knows that the only big media outlet that mans-up to the Fox Republican Party every day is for sale, to cable giant Comcast. Was a Keithless Countdown just a trial balloon, as more than 300,000 petitioners demanding his return feared?
Keith’s return Tuesday night will undoubtedly break ratings records and polish his status as a tribune of the left, possibly making him, in the end, even more secure at his post. But his suspension did seem unfair, and scary. It was only the most recent in a series of corporate disciplinary actions against journalists that, one way or another, usually redound to the right’s favor. When CNN axed Rick Sanchez and Octavia Nasr for supposedly anti-Semitic remarks, it was succumbing to conventional neocon wisdom; when NPR fired Juan Williams for supposedly anti-Muslim remarks, Fox News rode in like a white knight, offered him a $2 million contract, and self-righteously campaigned to defund the (minimally) federally funded public radio net. After all that, Olbermann’s disappearance seemed to fulfill Bill O’Reilly’s prediction that, once the election results were in, the MSNBC hosts "may commit suicide."
Fortunately, as the weekend wore on, it became apparent that Olbermann’s suspension was just another of NBC’s endless squabbles with its talent, more about Keith showing respect for the suits than a change in partisan direction. (We hope.) MSNBC has spanked its talking heads before, from David Shuster (suspended for taping a pilot with CNN) to Donny Deutsch (briefly suspended for criticizing, believe it or not, Keith Olbermann). But this time, MSNBC prez Phil Griffin, having consulted with outgoing NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker (the genius who welched on a deal with Conan O’Brien in favor of Jay Leno), lost the support of the all-important stand-up comic demographic (more on that later). Moreover, the scolded employee received a sudden outpouring of affection, a welcome boost for Olbermann, who’s been somewhat eclipsed of late. NBC would never let Keith pack his fans into a rally on the DC Mall, but he could get at least as many people to sign a petition for him, and that’s something.
But the larger pattern for liberals is icy clear nonetheless. From Obama not putting single-payer on the table to his firing of Shirley Sherrod for fear of what Fox News might say to the Democrats pre-emptively caving to the GOP on tax cuts for the rich, it’s painfully obvious that when Fox Republicans growl, Dems and the mainstream media back down.
The problem comes down to the fact that one side wants to play by the rules while the other side doesn’t believe in rules. MSNBC slapped Olbermann’s wrist for breaking NBC News’s rule forbidding journalists from making political donations without prior approval from the network’s president. (On Sunday, Mike Allen of Politico, which broke the story of Keith’s contributions, reported that Olbermann said he didn’t know he had to get permission and refused to make an on-air mea culpa.) Yet even discussing the fine points of Olbermann’s transgressions gives the lie to the notion, aided in no small part by Jon Stewart, that MSNBC is the left-wing equivalent to Fox News.