Minus some new graphics and backdrops, the new Countdown with Keith Olbermann is identical to the old Countdown with Keith Olbermann. It includes his best—his delight in ridiculing the powerful and the awful, and his worst—his delight in ridiculing the weak and the merely foolish. For the premiere Monday night, Olbermann chose to publicly humiliate a previously unknown woman as the Worst Person in the World.
The woman, riding a train to visit her parents, had apparently been talking loudly and swearing on a cell-phone conversation when a conductor told her keep it quiet. The woman gets obnoxious, saying, “Do you know how well educated I am?…. I’m not a crazy person. I’m a very well-educated person.” Another passenger tapes and then posts the scene on YouTube, where it becomes yet another “sensation.” “You haven’t seen the video of the woman on a train? The greatest cell-phone video ever?” Keith giddily asks us, as if we just must keep up with the permanent mob’s latest piñatas.
He didn’t stop at showing the video. He gave out the woman’s name, and quoted from her LinkedIn profile, where she (like the other 50 million people on LinkedIn) claims to have “excellent management and communications skills” with “a passion for pushing the limits on expectations.” Those were ironies Keith couldn’t help but grind in. And get this knee-slapper: She’s “likely to be driving to her folks from now on rather than taking the train—today’s worst person in the wooorld!”
We’ve all had bad days and have said things we regret, but do those moments really deserve YouTube and then “Worst Person” notoriety? Even the person who originally posted the video has removed it (for reasons that aren’t clear). Keith, however, revived it and gave it a whole new audience. But he seems unaware that the segment is far more embarrassing to him than to the woman, who you only end up feeling sorry for. As one of Olbermann’s commenters wrote: “Keith, are you going to do stories that make a difference or just post cellphone videos to ruin the lives of people who are trying to get work on LinkedIn? Sickening.”
Olbermann’s had a hot-and-cold relationship to WPITW. After Jon Stewart’s Rally for Sanity, in which he equated Olbermann and other media liberals with Fox News’s O’Reilly and Hannity (I defended Keith against that gross false equivalency), Keith actually dropped the segment. “Its satire and whimsy have gradually gotten lost in some anger,” he explained. “So in the spirit of the [rally], as of right now, I am unilaterally suspending” it. He soon brought it back, though, but with an awkward “whimsy” alert, calling it “(Not Really) The Worse Persons in the World.”
As tired as the bit now is it still has value. The lies and sleaze of pols and pundits are simply made more memorable when stuck with a “Worse Persons” label. Last night, for instance, the WP runners-up were Sarah Palin (for trade-marking the term “Sarah Palin”) and Fox News’s Chris Wallace and Bill Sammon (for editing out of Wallace’s interview with Jon Stewart, Stewart’s mention of Sammon’s memos that tell those freedom-loving Fox News hosts what propaganda to mouth on any given issue).
But by taking as much glee at shaming some little guy as he does the Sammons of the world, Keith is doing his own false equivalency dance.
And this meanspirited tendency is almost the mirror image of the mission statement Keith proudly announced for the new show last night.
“This is to be a newscast of contextualization,” he said. “And it is to be presented with a viewpoint: that the weakest citizen of this country is more important than the strongest corporation.”