If you picked up the New York Times on October 18, you’d have had little reason to think it was a particularly significant day in American history. While the front page featured a photo of George W. Bush signing a new law at the White House the previous day, the story about the Military Commissions Act–which the Times never named–was buried in a 750-word piece on page A20. “It is a rare occasion when a President can sign a bill he knows will save American lives” was the first of several quotes of praise from the President that were high up in the article. Further down, a few Democrats objected to the bill, but from the article’s limited explanation of the law it was hard to understand why.
But if you happened to catch MSNBC the evening before, you’d have heard a different story. It, too, began with a laudatory statement from the President: “These military commissions are lawful. They are fair. And they are necessary.” Cut to MSNBC anchor Keith Olbermann: “And they also permit the detention of any American in jail without trial if the President does not like him.”
What? Did the Times, and most other outlets, just miss that?
Indeed, they did. Olbermann, who decried the new law as a shameful moment in American history, went on to proclaim that the Military Commissions Act–which he did name–will be the American embarrassment of our time, akin to the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 or the 1942 executive order interning Japanese-Americans.
It was a perfect story for the bold and eccentric host of Countdown With Keith Olbermann, which airs weeknights on MSNBC. A former anchor for ESPN’s SportsCenter, Olbermann likes to call the news as he sees it–especially when almost everyone else in the media seems to be ignoring a critical play. As it turns out, that tack on the news is increasingly popular these days, upending the conventional wisdom that incisive analysis and intelligent critiques don’t win viewers on mainstream television.
Olbermann first cast off the traditional reporter’s role in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, delivering a powerful indictment of the government’s handling of the rescue effort. “These are leaders who won re-election last year largely by portraying their opponents as incapable of keeping this country safe,” he said bitterly. The government “has just proved that it cannot save its citizens from a biological weapon called standing water.”
At the time, other newscasters, most famously CNN’s Anderson Cooper, also unleashed their outrage, spawning speculation that the natural disaster might also become a watershed event for broadcast news. But most anchors quickly returned to business as usual, censoring their own criticisms no matter how bad the news continued to be. Not Olbermann. Encouraged by rising ratings, he’s since turned his distinctive take on the government’s incompetence into a regular part of his show.
Last August he took the tone up a notch when he aired the first of his hard-hitting Special Comments. Regularly invoking some of the most shameful examples of American history to frame the Bush Administration in historical perspective, he’s likened the President’s recent acts to John Adams’s jailing of American newspaper editors, Woodrow Wilson’s use of the Espionage Act to prosecute “hyphenated Americans” for “advocating peace in a time of war” and FDR’s internment of 110,000 Americans because of their Japanese descent. Ours is “a government more dangerous to our liberty than is the enemy it claims to protect us from,” declared Olbermann the day after the President signed the Military Commissions Act.