Civility and truth: Keith Olbermann lays the boots to Ted Koppel and the myth of objective journalism

A few days ago Ted Koppel uncorked on the “partisanship” of today’s broadcasting news in an op-ed at the once-proud, once-respectable, but now utterly reprehensible Washington Post. In doing so, he attracted a great deal of praise from all kinds of people, including at least one or two of my highly respected colleagues.

As I argued in a perhaps ill-tempered comment on a Facebook post, Koppel was flat-out full of it. In equating the bullshit that goes on at FOX, the official mouthpiece of America’s conservative political apparatus, with what Keith Olbermann does at MSNBC, Koppel was engaging in the worst sort of false equivalence. In doing so, he demonstrated the truth of just about everything critics of the mainstream media have charged about the institutions of “objective” journalism. Say what you will, but Koppel’s WaPo lament was nothing if not fair and balanced.

Oddly enough, I’d offered a similar challenge to Dr. Denny’s post a few days earlier. In it, he offered an admirable regret over the death of civility in our media, but he, like Koppel, lumped Olbermann in with the likes of Limbaugh, Beck and O’Reilly. We traded comments and I certainly respect his perspective, and I especially appreciate how tiresome the sniping can get.

My argument in both cases, though, was straightforward. KO has perhaps had his uncivil moments. In truth, so have I, and mine have been bad enough that they contributed to the erosion of some important personal relationships. These are times that try men’s souls, I suppose. But in a court of law, the truth is always a defense. So it should also be in journalism. If Olbermann has been angry and intemperate, he has tended to rely on facts, whereas those with whom he is being conflated begin lying as soon as they wake up in the morning. This is not a partisan cheap shot, it is documented and demonstrable fact.

Do we seriously only care about decorum? Is a man speaking the truth as bad as a man who lies every time his lips move because he doesn’t behave as politely as we’d like?

By now my opinion is probably evident.

It was only a matter of time before Olbermann weighed in to defend himself, and his comments ought to be a must-view for anyone who sets out to practice journalism, in this country or any other. In scope and gravity, in the critical essence of the challenge it represents to what has become of legacy, faux-objective institutional journalism, it stands alongside Hunter Thompson’s comment in the epilogue to Better Than Sex. In case you’re not familiar with that passage:

Some people will say that words like “scum” and “rotten” are wrong for Objective Journalism — which is true, but they miss the point.  It was the built-in blind spots of the Objective rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place.  He looked so good on paper that you could almost vote for him sight unseen.  He seemed so all-American, so much like Horatio Alger, that he was able to slip through the cracks of Objective Journalism.  You had to get Subjective to see Nixon clearly, and the shock of recognition was often painful.

Let’s be clear: it is wrong to dismiss the accomplishments of our golden age of journalism, epitomized (as Olbermann rightly notes) by the likes of Cronkite and Murrow. However, what those men did bucked the influence of power and money in ways that we simply don’t see these days. As KO notes, their shining moments were not landmarks of objectivity. On the contrary – they were absolutely awash in the selection dynamics of subjectivity. Ironically, this was also true of Ted Koppel’s best works (in the video below, pay very close attention at about the 10:30 mark for an explanation on why this is true that is bound to warm the hearts of media and cultural studies students everywhere).

In his comment, Olbermann firmly but politely stomps Ted Koppel’s balls off. Not the Koppel of old, the Koppel whose defining work stands as the sort of vital journalism that all aspiring reporters and editors should aspire to, but of the contemporary Koppel, a man who has apparently invested a great deal in a skewed myth of himself drawn from a history that never quite understood the truth about itself. That truth? There was never anything terribly objective about what Koppel was doing.

What follows are 12:37 of absolute must-see TV. Pay particular attention at the 5:00, 6:00, 6:30, 10:30 and 12:00 marks, because those are the points where the truth weighs especially heavily.

If I have behaved inappropriately toward my colleagues I apologize for my behavior. But I offer no apologies for the point of view, and encourage them to consider the possibility that civility and truth don’t always go hand-in-hand.

13 replies »

  1. I posted Koppel’s op-ed on my Facebook wall earlier this week, and I stand by that decision. In at least one sense, men like Glenn Beck and Keith Olbermann are the same – half of America’s political spectrum tune them out immediately. Not the same spectrum, mind you, but a half just the same.

    Olbermann mentioned the two times in Cronkite’s career he came out and provided his opinion as news. Two times in two decades? Olbermann can’t go two episodes without expressing his opinion on two topics (it’s probably in his contract, in his defense). It was because Cronkite didn’t do it often that it carried the weight it did. People trusted Cronkite to tell them how it was; on the few occasions that he told them not just how it was, but how HE saw it, they knew he wasn’t blowing smoke. That objectivity that Cronkite provided America provided him with the personal capital to go subjective and not be dismissed immediately.

    When I say this, I don’t mean it to criticize Olbermann. He’s good at his job, provides solid reasoning and digs at the truth. I don’t watch him, or any cable news, often, but when I do, I tend to agree with him. He is a journalist, unlike anyone I’m aware of over at Fox News.

  2. The abiity to hear what either side poses as news is the most dangerous facet of politically spun news. Name calling, hyperbole and the likes do little but seperate us as a nation( part of the plan, maybe?). Is what Beck says aboout inflation/ our economic situation true? (spot price on gold=$1370+/-, cotton up 30%, food going up up up). Is the social impact of austerity measures, evironmental degradation, and George Bush et. al. just spin from the Olberman camp? The truth is the truth. we can only help each other and ourselves if we hear the actual story and avoid the 24/7 political campaigning calling itself news.
    Good grief Charlie Brown, just plug your ears and hum your choice of The Battle Hymn of the Republic or the Soviet National Anthem. As long as there a=is a spun audience, there will be spun news. Listen to all sides, consider the spin, do your own research, make your own opinions, decide if anything matters, light yourself on fire in protest of useless war or national soverignty. There is a war on for your mind!

  3. Really? I don’t think that’s the case. The first few paragraphs defend objectivity while the last paragraph notes that as a whole Olbermann does not equal Beck.

  4. But you kind of ignore the central premise. To wit: there is no such thing as objectivity. As Olbermann points out, every moment of Koppel’s grand “objectivity” was steeped in the subjective.

    You’re trying to defend a perspective that’s illusory, and you’re also trying to say that they’re both right when they simply aren’t. In point of fact, they are suggesting things that are diametrically opposed, right?

  5. Oberman seems to insinuate that “report, don’t advocate solutions” is old fashioned. Fox took the Rovian style ( you’ll recall that Rove convinced America during “nu-cular George’s tenure that
    family values was a purely Republican concept ) …and distortion has become pervasive. Oberman may indeed include facts but we’re sliding down that slippery slope when stories trump stats.
    If PBS and Lehrer is old fashioned reporting- hooray, so be it. It’s the only “news” remaining.

  6. Finally, I agree with Sam on something! Objectivity is a myth, but subjective perspectives based on something other than obvious falsehoods, combined with coherent analysis and reasoning ought, in an ideal world, to prevail over nothing but absurd falsehood invented to support hate- and fearmongering. But there is a difference between advocacy of particular perspectives on “truth” (which is what Olbermann presents, and does so with the clear admission that he is a commentator and not an “objective” journalist) and mere “spin,” especially when all Fox et al is spinning is a complete and total web of lies.

    I just saw a bumper sticker in which someone was still demanding “Show us the birth certificate!” as if any more evidence that the birth certificate exists and is legitimate could possibly persuade those people to believe anything they don’t already believe. And as if there was ever a shred of evidence or reasoning to question Obama’s citizenship and Hawaiian birth in the first place.

  7. My problem with Olberman is that he re-centers the right. While I think he’s much closer to the truth most days, his petty responses to “Bill-o” and that ilk only serve to lower him to their level. His rationalization for his campaign contributions came off as “they do it so I might as well too”. In doing so, he makes himself out to be a counterbalance rather that the moderate voice of reason he wants to be.

    If he really believes that his work is in the vein of Cronkite and Morrow, he needs to rise above that crap and just focus on the stories. Maybe he should spend more time watching Amy Goodman at Democracy Now and less time watching Fox.

  8. Interesting.

    I dont exactly agree. I think the objective mainstream press is actually pretty subjective. Every journo I know is a liberal. They just seem objective to me because I agree with them.

    But the bigger point is Sam wins the argument. Anyone who quotes Dr. Thompson wins any argument. Any time.

  9. True, there is no such thing as objectivity. Not real objectivity anyway, but i think Tom’s point is salient. Cronkite and Morrow were able to sway many people when they ventured into full-blown opinion because they stuck mostly to telling the facts. Of course they chose which facts to present and when; in that they were subjective. But that’s a lot different than a constant stream of opinion with some facts to back it up.

    Frankly, i don’t care if the political discourse is completely civil. I’m just tired of it being completely stupid.

    It’s not as if i don’t like opinion, but it’s also not like most of the published opinion in America is any sort of actual argument. Then for every opinion issued at least four more people have an opinion on the original opinion. Then ten more people have opinions about the four reaction opinions. Pretty soon it doesn’t even matter what the facts that prompted the original opinion are.

    I don’t watch TV news, so i can’t speak with authority, but KO pisses me off. He tries way too hard to be Murrow and/or Cronkite. I like hyperbole more than the next guy, but he tends towards so overblown that it makes me cringe. He’s one of those people i get embarrassed for. I certainly don’t need him to tell me that Bill O’Reilly is an ignorant knobgobbler.

    And i don’t think Hunter is a good comparison, though his statement is true. Hunter wrote. That’s a much more precise and forceful way to use language than slathering on makeup and talking to a camera. Hunter would have looked like an ass too if he had gone on TV regularly to say the things he wrote. But at least he would have been able to go more than a sentence without laying on an overly dramatic “Siiir.” (Though he’d have been fired for saying “fuck.”)