Olbermann Departs, as Media Consolidate Further

People are blaming the abrupt departure of Keith Olbermann from MSNBC on that company’s merger with Comcast and Olbermann’s loss of the protection and patronage of Jeff Zucker, the former head of NBC programming. MSNBC says that the issue has nothing to do with Comcast.

It seems Olbermann is too extreme for US television. But Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity, now they are mainstream. What universe could that proposition be true in? That of cranky old white billionaires. And television news is owned by them. Not by you.

Whether Comcast is the villain of the piece directly, things like the Comcast merger with MSNBC are responsible for there being very few voices on American television (and despite the proliferation of channels) like Olbermann’s. And for there being relatively little news on the “news” programs. Time Warner, General Electric and Comcast (partners in NBC), Viacom, Disney, and Rupert Murdoch’s Newscorp own almost all television news. In other words, six big corporations determine what you will hear about the world if you get your news from television. There are fewer and fewer t.v. news outlets that do not belong to one of these six, a process called media consolidation.

For reasons of profit-seeking, when Disney acquired ABC, it looted the company’s news divisions. Profits are not to be had in hard news, but rather in tabloid news. It used to be that human interest stories would be ‘dessert,’ but they have become the main meal.

Ironically,former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw was one of Olbermann’s biggest critics, afraid that the latter’s flamboyant and polarizing style would tarnish the reputation of regular NBC newsmen for objectivity.

What Brokaw seems not to have noticed is that NBC and MSNBC did, like most television news, a miserable job of covering the Iraq issue in 2002-2003–mainly buying White House propaganda. The powerful bias toward the point of view of the rich and powerful and well-connected in Washington demonstrated by all the major tv news outlets in 2002-2003 makes Olbermann look like a staid centrist.

Senator Al Franken, a former NBC employee, fulminated against the Comcast/ MSNBC merger:


But the FCC has passed it.

We’ll miss Keith. But it isn’t about him. It is about the ever-narrowing character of public comment in the US, about the few having most of everything. It is about media consolidation.

49 Responses

  1. Let’s hope that net neutrality is preserved well enough to keep your blog on the web.

  2. .. another nail in the coffin…. But I bet the vast majority of Americans won’t even understand what has happened ….

    When empire starts to die it does so on multiple fronts. And that’s why it is impossible to recover.

    • It’s true, most Americans won’t understand (or CARE) what happened.
      This is just the way the corporate monster likes it.
      We’ve become a nation of dunces, who’ll cling to their delusions even while sliding down the slop cuute.

  3. He was one of the very,very few who was on to the neocon led Bush/Cheney scam of WMD’s. What a network news exec he would have made, if he would have been given the freedom to inform the American public, which he would not have, but I can dream.

    • It used to be that one could speak truth to power, and not be labeled a radical or polarizing figure. Edward R. Murrow, whom Kieth Olbermann admired and modeled himself after-right down to the “Good night and good luck” signoff-is one example of this.
      The corporate monster NEVER considers fair play or apologises for its crimes against us. It doesn’t have to as it’s bought off everyone we pay with our tax dollars to look after our best interests.
      There’s only one ending to all this, and it isn’t a happy one.

  4. The villain is Comcast only in the first order.

    The real villain is the U.S. political system, now owned by all the dysfunctional corps of the U.S. economy, like big media, med. ins. corps., PhRMA, energy, etc.

    Good-bye internet.

  5. Prof. Cole:

    Your article may not be “about” Keith—but it is likely that his departure was all about Keith, and his rocky relations with management. While evidence of bad blood became widely known after he was suspended for making political contributions (even Bill Kristol defended him on that one), in fact, his problems have been deep, personal, and of many years’ duration.

    Given Maddow, Schultz and O’donnell”s place on the Rossiter Spectrum it’s hard to argue that Comcast is purging anyone. As the doctors like to say when you hear hoofs think horses and not zebras.

    • Other difficult figures such as Beck are still on the air, so being difficult isn’t the reason, especially if one is highly rated (look what Charlie Sheen gets away with). If you’re in East Africa at a watering hole and a lion has shown up, and you hear the sound of thunder, a zebra stampede is the best explanation.

    • Schultz got the deep six with his new time slot and Cenk Uygur moved up. I will not watch Cenk who is the corporate dream when he bashes Obama and says little of substance. Maddow is the best. The media is owned by rich men who don’t want to support their families. They like the violent insanity of the right and spend billions to keep the lies coming. There is no balance and the false equivalencies are specious. None of the mess in the US is by accident. Next will be the internet devoid of content. Notice how the FCC has been captured.

      • Maddow is the best, except she never talks about the Palestinian situation; of course none of the channels owned by the big six corporations do that.

    • R. Miller:

      Comcast has not as yet started. Let’s wait and see what MSNBC will look like in six months or a year from today.

      Professor Cole has no trouble in seeing and pointing out what most of us are experiencing difficulty in figuring out.

      By the way, I sincerely hope that’s the sound of hoofs and not hobnail boots that we’ll be hearing!

  6. We should be concerned that now, with peak oil (peak easy oil / plateau liquid fuels), grain reserves below 30 days and chaotic weather patterns destroying crops all over the world, an independent voice has been removed from sight.

    I get BBC, DW, Al-Jazeerah etc. and so I do not watch corporate news, but the people next door are kept ignorant by their devotion to FOX.

    I wonder if big changes are in store for us all, and if so, whether we will know what is happening?

  7. There are other news sources; I particularly enjoy checking out the news sources from other countries, as it provides an interesting perspective on what takes place here in the U.S.

    BBC, CBC, ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corps.). If you’re not multi-lingual, (and more of us should be) some foreign countries where English is not their usual langauge do maintain an English language part of their web sites, even limited English language broadcasts.

    We don’t have to be the captive audience of these few controlling companies, if we don’t want to be. We only have to become savvy enough and willing to make the effort. It is not that hard.

    • You are correct, but I believe the point here is that media consolidation is making it more difficult to find real news from objective sources like the ones you listed. This means that, going forward, more and more Americans will be failing those pop quizzes which repeatedly demonstrate how misinformed Fox News followers are.

      A misinformed electorate is much more dangerous to democracy than an uninformed one.

      • Besides, most Americans have already been indoctrinated to believe the outside world is evil, communistic and plotting to steal America’s rightful prosperity and supremacy. So they won’t even expose themselves to enemy propaganda by listening to foreign stations.

  8. Keep in mind that Olbermann had the highest-rated show on MSNBC, just as Phil Donahue had the highest rated show on MSNBC when he was fired.

    And the people who put this merger together are the same group of people who want to turn the internet into another version of cable TV.

    • So much for libertarian claims that capitalists would never sacrifice profits in order to indoctrinate the public to favor tax cuts, war, racism and other inegalitarian institutions.

  9. Juan Cole, you have hit the nail on the head. How right you are.

  10. Free Speech is no longer free and that is the problem. The next step is the internet and we all know that is underway. I suppose the constitution didn’t take into account that access to free speech could also be controlled by those with enough money to influence access. They just don’t want us talking to each other. TV is done for me except for my fun HBO shows. I love Rachel and Lawrence O’Donnel but they aren’t Keith. And if it was only about Keith that would be bad enough but it is mostly about a more than disturbing trend. This trend was in full blast but somehow having Keith there to tell up about it made this country of Heartbreak a little more tolerable.

    • Think about WHO the Constitution was written by and for.
      The rich, landed, white gentry.
      Not women
      Not people of color
      Not those with no wealth, or
      Those with dissenting opinions.
      That’s why we have the electoral college, to get around the popular vote.
      That’s why we have a crooked “supreme” court.
      That’s why we have corporate personhood.
      Let’s face it; the deck is stacked in favor of the wealthy, and against everyone else, and has been from Day One.
      Not to worry; this house of cards will surely fall, and those who have nearly everything will lose the most, while those of us with the least will lose practically nothing.
      The Great Equalizer, doancha know?

  11. Scary stuff. America is heading into the abyss. Check internet chat boards: the discussion is often about how Obama is a “communist.” LOL. If the size of talk radio is 15 to 25 million people, we can assume that up to 25 million honestly believe Obama is a “communist.” Never mind that Obama received more campaign donations in 2008 from the commercial banks and the defense industry than all other candidates, including McCain. He hired Goldman Sachs alumni and just hired GE’s CEO. America is becoming a farce and cannot compete in the world with such idiocy dominating the mindset of millions of American voters.

  12. Outside of a revolutionary takeover of broadcasting facilities, there’s very little that can be done, is there?

    • As someone who has been selling at retail at events around the country, I do believe that Americans are at least 50% progressive IN THE CULTURAL SENSE. This does not necessarily translate to politics, but I do believe in my brain and heart that there are at least 15 million, and perhaps 30-40 million or more adult Americans who are smart enough to know why we need progressive politics.

      I have a long (by today’s internet standards) article at my website on the problems of organizing this amorphous population, see “Presidential Politics Are a Distraction for Progressives,” it was published at FireDogLake and ThomHartman.com around Dec. 16, and I was pleasantly surprised by the very positive comments and lack of negative comments.

      We aren’t getting out of here without a heck of a lot of work.

      • Problem is, what if the end game of our owners is to create a neo-feudalist society in which the masses are allowed market freedom, meaning the right to watch gay porn or listen to rap music in our homes, but all political expression is rigidly ruled by a volunteer militia of theocratic rednecks, a sort of Invisible Empire like the KKK or the Mississippi Citizens’ Council? This network would recruit from the same discarded economic classes in the Red States that the Army, police and prison guards draw from, and in fact would include many of them off-duty, as they would inevitably have far-right prejudices. They would get paid two or three times as much as their neighbors in these armed enforcement jobs, and come to be a new elite in the boondocks, while commuting to the evil cities to keep them under occupation. Public dissenters, radical professors, and union organizers will have accidents.

        No one believes this possible because they take the Tea Partiers’ libertarianism at face value, but let’s recall that the KKK was enforcing the Confederate agenda of states’ rights, unlimited private property rights, and the “natural” destitution of the poor and minorities.

  13. No great loss. He is a man of limited intellect backed by a team of biased researchers. Sad to think that so many of you are so drawn to a sports reporter with a solid vocabulary but a small mind.

    • And just HOW did you come by that profound revelation?
      A “small mind”? Compared to whose? Yours?
      Just WHO would you choose to speak truth to power?

    • Patrick–

      You are a typical republican tea bag. Just like your heroes–Sean, O’Reilly,Sara, Rush–you make assertions without producing any evidence to support them. The reasons you do this are several–including (1)your extreme arrogance and (2) the fact that you have no evidence to produce because what you are saying is not true.

    • Well, we used to have progressives of unlimited intellect like Martin Luther King but the Right murdered enough of them to quiet things down.

      See “Beyond Vietnam, A Time to Break Silence”.

      link to hartford-hwp.com

  14. The late, great journalist David Halberstam once observed that anyone making hundreds of thousands of dollars simply cannot be an effective journalist. He was speaking in particular of the nightly news anchors for the major broadcasters, but of course this is applicable to all who work in media. I may be sympathetic to the views of Maddow et al., but even they do not get to the heart of most stories, nor do they do the investigative work democracy so desperately needs. I greatly appreciate Professor Cole’s continued observations about where our information is coming from and how it is shaped – his comments on the US coverage of the Tunisian uprising have been especially helpful. As other posters have noted, staying well informed requires looking at multiple sources and, preferably, knowing a foreign language.

  15. The saddest part may not be that Olbermann will be contractually barred from going to another network, but that there probably ISN’T another network that would have the courage to put him on even if he was free. Comedy Central or HBO would be the only two, and they already have Stewart and Maher. 8:00 p.m. weeknights will be a lot less fun from now on, and fairness in broadcasting a lot rarer. (No, Keith wasn’t fair, but without the counterpoint to FoxNews he provided, there’ll be less incentive to be fair.)

    • I completely disagree with your assertion that ‘Keith wasn’t fair’. Keith’s news reporting and commentary was mainly provided from the viewpoint of the left, but it frequently exposed wrongdoings of those on the left, and it was always factual.

      In today’s media environment, that seems pretty darned fair.

      • I meant fair in the sense of balanced reporting, not as a slight to him. I watched the show every chance I got. However, “Worst Person in the World” wasn’t ALWAYS fair, though mostly it was accurate. Again, no slight to Keith, but by responding to the unfairness of the Right playing “fair” wouldn’t have been effective.

  16. Olbermann will be missed for the small tidbits of truth and reality that he imparted while at MSNBC, that is a certainty. What is not as certain is that enough people will ever wake up to the real truths about our Government in time to do anything about them. One huge truth was actually uttered one day on FOX news by none other than Carl Rowe. He was proud to say that the politicians are the great thespians of our day. Meaning that the Democract and Republican paradigm is nothing but a smoke screen for the oneness of purpose they all have. That of draining the American middle class and setting up a dictatorship to rule over not only our country but the world. If Keith’s departure does nothing but cause some to look more closely at what is happening today then that would be the good to come from this. Godspeed Mr. Olberman

  17. The sad irony here is that Olbermann is considered to be a radical left winger by our corporate media. This sentiment could not be any further from the truth. It seems that anyone who can deliver news in a fairly logical and objective manner is automatically labeled a fanatic. If Olbermann is an extremist I have some beach front property in Arizona to sell you.

  18. I get none of my opinions and news from broadcast news. I follow several international websites to find out what stories are important, and might be interesting enough to read about more. They all do a better job of covering American current event better than any of the American networks. For American pop culture, there’s Chelsea Lately and The Soup.

  19. will be fun to see if fox makes a play to hire olbermann-and i’m not sure he wouldn’t go. make a great sunday morning show with keith and the fox yentas all squawking up the henhouse.

  20. So sad to see Olbermann depart the scene.
    He was shown the door by those lacking the intellect to stand face-to-face with him with a convincing counter-argument to his opinions and expostulations.
    SOMEBODY has to stand up for the little people in this country, and who better than Olbermann, Kucinich, Grayson, and others, now departed from the limelight?
    Don’t expect Limbaugh or the gasbags on fox noise to fill the void.

  21. Do we at least go CANCEL our cursed Comcast and replace it with a TV satellite dish?

  22. Contrary to the implication of your comments, Prof. Cole, I don’t seem to recall any adamant liberals like Olbermann on national television, certainly not during primetime hours, before or after deregulation or the merger wave started. American capitalism as a whole is politically, economically and socially conservative compared to most of its counterparts, and has been for a very long time. Hence, I wouldn’t expect anything substantially different in the corporate media.

    As an example, recall that late journalist Edward R. Murrow, reknown among liberals for having gone after Joseph McCarthy in the 1954, was initially in the late 1940s one of the leading journalistic purveyors of the Soviet and domestic communist menace stalking America. The irony was that by the late 1950s, CBS and others had found Murrow’s “controversial” exposes too much trouble, and his career headed downhill after that.

    • Concern about Soviet and domestic communism in post-WWII America was not without some justification. It was McCarthy’s helter-skelter, uncontrolled witch hunt that caused Murrow concern. Once clear-headed exposes become ‘too much trouble’ for the media, we’re all in deep trouble. Not sure if that’s what Olbermann’s departure was about, but I sure hope not.

  23. We’re not united. But they have the money to pretend we are.

  24. Watching Olberman (or all of MsNBC), you wouldn’t know the Palestinian-Israeli conflict exists.

    I come to this website to discover what corporate media fails to report on the Middle East.

  25. Yes, true, EJ. But none of the channels on any of the six corporate owners of all mainstream tv news covers the I-P conflict. It’s as if it does not exist, and has not since 1967. The same taboo covers all stand-up comedians.

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