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Recently, Doug Krile and OlbyWatch Editor Robert Cox debated the burning question Does Olbermann blurring the line between news, comedy and commentary undermine the NBC News Brand?. After a spirited debate going four rounds, we then convened an expert panel of judges to critique the debate and declare a winner:
Steve Spruiell. NRO's Media Blog
Now the results are in.
The envelope please...
Deggans is the television critic at the St. Petersburg Times where he writes a daily column on the TV page. His stories appear frequently in the Floridian and entertainment sections. He blogs at The Feed, a blog on TV, media and modern life. Deggans has served as music, media and TV critic at various times over 10 years. He also writes for the Huffington Post and Newsmax.
"I don't think either side won, to be honest. First, let's note that, even though Countdown's ratings are rising. Olbermann's audience is infinitesimal compared to the network's ratings. Frankly, Olbermann will not affect NBC's news brand because not enough people see what he's doing, especially compared to the audience watching other NBC News products such as Dateline, the Today show and Nightly News.
Secondly, I'm not sure I see what the big deal is here. Everybody from Lou Dobbs to Brit Hume to Chris Matthews has walked a fine line between commentator and news anchor. Fox has pioneered the blurring of lines between commentary and news reporting and Dobbs and Matthews will be front and center for their channels' coverage of the midterm elections.
Is Olbermann sounding lefty these days? Sure, he is. Do viewers make much of a distinction between him, Chris Matthews, Tucker Carlson and Joe Scarborough? No, they don't. And in that list I just wrote, you'll find two conservative commentators.
If real news breaks during Tucker's show or Scarborough's show, you better believe they'll wind up reading it off the teleprompter like any other anchor. And NBC News has already featured Carlson, Matthews and Scarborough delivering political analysis on the Today show right alongside Washington bureau chief Tim Russert, further blurring the lines between commentary and news reporting.
Hate to be the Debbie Downer here dudes, but the cable news audience has already decided it doesn't care about this kind of role blending -- and if they don't care, cable news executives don't care either. And expecting a guy like Olbermann to stop his shtick when it is sparking ratings is like expecting somebody to stuff toothpaste back in the tube: an impossibility.
Lastly, I can't believe I've been included with such a cool group of judges. I'm sure they'll have much more compelling thoughts about this whole argument."
Dr. Victoria Zdrok
Dr. Zdrok is an editor at Penthouse where she writes two columns - "Vices and Vanities" and "Ask Dr.Z". Zdrok, a lawyer and pyschologist, is a leading "sexpert", dating coach and relationship advisor. She can be heard every Wednesday night on "Sex Connection" on Howard Stern's Howard 101 channel on Sirius satellite radio. She maintains a sex advice site at SexySexpert.com and a glamour site at PlanetVictoria.com. Zdrok holds the distinction of being the first Playboy Playmate from the Soviet Union (Miss October 1994) and was the 2004 Penthouse Pet of the Year.
"Why should Fox News have the only "fair and balanced" newscasts on TV? Every well-read person to the left of Dick Cheney's speechwriter knows that Fox spits out neocon propaganda in the guise of "news;" but the average viewer doesn't have the time or the inclination to figure this out. Worn out by work, screaming kids and a nagging spouse, the average viewer tunes into the news mainly for a little entertainment and some quick headlines; and, in that environment, any strongly stated opinion sounds like the True Gospel. For this reason, the liberal majority in this country needs a comparable voice, and Olbermann fills that bill. He's the only newscaster in this country who could face down Ann Coulter in a mano-a-mano of cliched insults; and so the media desparately needs him! The news networks can't be "fair" or "distinguished" when they are dealing with a pack of lying hyenas armed with a bushel of Rovian sound bites. Olbermann's biting satire and "tell it like it is" opinions on the issues of the day are the only fingers in the dike which are today holding back the deluge of Right Wing hypocritical hyperbole. For that reason, he's a credit to the NBC News brand.
All that said, I find that Robert Cox wins the debate on style and technique. He's wrong on the issue, but he defends his losing position with more eloquence and seemingly studied argument. Unfortunately, too many liberals these days engage in Cox's style of gentlemanly debate and argue for "balance" in their news, while their Right Wing opponents win all the propaganda wars. We all should remember that the Declaration of Independence was not based on "fact" ("All men are created equal" means slavery is OK? A tax on tea to pay for the French and Indian War was a serious imposition on Colonial liberty?). But as a piece of propaganda, the Declaration was one of the greatest manifestos in human history! If our Founding Fathers could write their "news" in the form of such propaganda, so should we who seek to uphold their values."
Barnhart is the television critic at the Kansas City Star where his stories appear frequently on the cover of the Star's FYI and A&E sections and page one. He blogs at TV Barn. You can hear Barnhart on the radio Mondays at 4:15 PM CT with Paul Harris on KMOX-AM (now streaming live at Harris Online), monthly with Walt Bodine, on KCUR-FM and Mondays at 11 AM ET with Chip Franklin on WBAL-AM in Baltimore.
"Doug Krile never engaged the debate. He didn't even get interested in the debate until Round Four, when he finally started to put some gusto into his arguments. Which were, mostly, that the ends (ratings) justify the means (KO's peculiar brand of journalism) and that TV news-talk is showbiz, so "lighten up, people." This, as Bob Cox noted again and again, is a pitiful justification for KO and "Countdown." As I argued in a recent Sunday piece the very fact that KO is succeeding in making inroads, at least at MSNBC, where he is now their top-rated personality, means that he could have quite far-reaching effects across the organization. This is not Geraldo redux, for those who remember his run of glory at NBC News in the late 1990s. Olbermann is anchoring the closest thing to a nightly newscast of record that MSNBC has, he is espousing what we can safely assume are points of view very popular among his peers, and for those two reasons alone no one should take his growing influence at NBC lightly.
Cox also gets credit for bringing up KO's failure to attribute many of his sources, though the habit goes beyond left-wing blogs to include several of my colleagues in the MSM, at least one of whom has told me s/he will never write about KO again because "Countdown" lifted a clever piece s/he wrote, sans attribution, and turned it into a clever segment on the show.
That said ... there are good arguments to be made against Cox, whose energy was wasted in this debate trying to rouse Krile from his slumber. First of all, his ratings analysis is weak, in part because he tries to argue KO's insignificance with it, a fact that is immediately run over by the sheer volume of complaint on this blog. You can't go on and on and on every single day about how KO is ruining MSNBC/NBC/journalism and at the same time insist that his ratings suck and it's the MSM's fault we're all talking about him. Well, you could argue both points at the same time, but everyone this side of Mark Koldys will assume you're at least half full of shit.
It's not just the October ratings - third quarter 2006 Nielsens show that KO is the number one news personality at MSNBC. Is this in part because HUT levels (households using TV) are higher at 8 than at 7, when Hardball is on, and many more people are available to watch Keith than were available to Chris? Undoubtedly...but Chris didn't want to be in Bill O'Reilly's rear-view, either, so KO took the thankless time slot and reaped the reward. David Letterman's people, who have plenty of experience spinning Nielsens and wouldn't be bamboozled by an NBC ratings memo, recently booked KO on the show, a few days before O'Reilly appeared with Dave. Clearly they think he's a hot commodity. Yes, Dave loves sports and sportscasters, and a lot of the booking of guests these days is about keeping the host engaged, but still, if KO was a ratings loser, no way he gets on CBS.
But to the larger point. You could argue that by reviving the bracketed commentary segment in a newscast, and giving it teeth (and not the false teeth you see on the "freeSpeech" segment of the CBS Evening Snooze), KO has made journalism matter again by tying facts to ideas. Every story counts on the "Countdown," because instead of exhausting his precious airtime giving you all sides and then more or less saying, "Stay tuned," KO's attitude is: You know what? We're smart people around here. We're soaking in this stuff all day. You viewers are pretty smart, too. You've got access to a lot of news media. What say you we give you the facts, then tell you what they really mean, and dispense with all this on-the-one-hand nonsense, and you check out some sources and don't be too surprised if you find out, hey, we were RIGHT.
That, in a nutshell, seems to be the KO approach. Temperamentally, he's really not that far from David Brinkley, now is he? Brinkley was a first-class elitist snob, and did a poor job disguising that fact on air. And yet, millions watched. And journalism did not die a horrible death after falling in the shower. And by the way, Paul Harvey's being on ABC News Radio all these years has not been terrible for ABC News Radio, either (what's terrible is that Entercom radio recently decided they just can't find any room for Paul Harvey on any of the EIGHT radio frequencies they own in Kansas City, and so in this top 30 Heartland market you can only listen to him on the Internet ... but I digress).
Those are arguments that should've been made, but weren't. Had they been made, the keeper of OlbermannWatch might have been forced to dig deeper and offer more than his usual points about how KO is ruining NBC News. As it is, Bob Cox did make strong if superficial arguments, which lacking serious challenge carried the debate."
Spruiell is a media reporter for National Review and runs NRO's Media Blog. Spruiell has a Journalism degree and a a Masters in Public Affairs from the LBJ School at the University of Texas. Spruiell holds the distinction of being both criticized by liberal media watchdog Media Matters for America and being award a bronze medal by Keith Olbermann as the the Worst Person in the World.
"Doug staked too much of his argument on the hypothetical that, if the Democrats were in power, Olbermann would be just as tough on them as he is on Republicans. First, Olbermann's an ideological leftist; to the extent that he's hard on Dems, it's for not being tougher on Republicans or more committed to leftist policy goals. Second, we already know how Olbermann treats Dems when they're in power -- in 1998 he resigned rather than continue to cover Bill Clinton's impeachment for MSNBC. I think that to a certain extent, Doug has a point that news shows are going to have to mix more opinion and light fare in with their serious reports if they want to continue to get ratings -- mostly because by the time the evening news comes on, we've already read the day's news online. But there's a difference between hosting an opinionated, whimiscal news broadcast and believing yourself to be the second coming of Edward R. Murrow when you're really just a filthy, loathsome propagandist with an hour of cable news time to burn. Decision: Robert Cox."
I am sorry to report that Amato backed out of his committment to serve as a judge not "at the last minute" but "after the last minute". Amato waited more than a week - until after I had published the list of debate judges on OlbyWatch - to inform me that he was no longer willing to particpate. I am not terribly happy about this as it will cause some (i.e., OlbyLoons) to question whether he had agreed to participate in the first place. For those doubters, you can email me and I will forward you a copy of my emails and IMs with John so you can judge for yourself.
We also asked you, our readers, to vote as well. We asked "Does Olbermann blurring the line between news, comedy and commentary undermine the NBC News Brand?"
A. Yes, Cox won the debate 75%
B. No, Krile won the debate 19%
C. Not sure 5%