Timid MSNBC scales back on its best asset: Keith Olbermann

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MSNBC decided over the weekend to pull Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews from live coverage of political events. For months NBC has been fretting over whether the two liberal-leaning anchors have broken the old TV news formula and rules. Yes, of course, they've broken the rules and that's why people like them.

Olbermann and his brash style of news analysis is why MSNBC is the top cable news network among 18-34-year olds. Matthews and his unrelenting questioning of Democrats and Republicans alike is why MSNBC drew 37,000 more young viewers than it did last year, while flavorless NBC News only grew that part of the audience by 2,000. Olbermann and Matthews are the reason why MSNBC is always on at the gym or anyplace else younger viewers pick the news channel.

The standard TV rules seem to require news readers to present issues in a flaccid, straight faced he-said, she-said style. The old standard is to defer to elected officials and whatever they say. If facts are challenged, it's from someone who's put up by the other side to argue or in a segregated "fact-check" segment. The emotional range of a TV news anchor is supposed to go from earnestness to consternation and, on rare occasions, to earnest consternation. The Daily Show and the Colbert Report would not have an audience if network news didn't provide such a mockable target.

Traditional TV news is cowed by authority figures. Network news dutifully reports anything a celebrity, politician or corporation says if they say it with authority. TV network news has no way to respond to the Orwellian naming conventions of the Bush Administration ("Healthy Forest Initiative", "Clear Skies Act," etc.) Network TV news is flummoxed when politicians just repeat political talking points. They interview elected officials and let them get away with dodging questions by repeating slogans. Look at this clip of Chris Matthews nailing an Obama supporter for not knowing his legislative accomplishments. This is how every journalist should do the job.
Have you seen the TV news network's response to right-wing Fox calling itself "fair and balanced"? Me, neither. Because there hasn't been a broadcast network response. The best response has been from MSNBC and Comedy Central.

Jon Stewart and Keith Olbermann have more in common than just being smart, funny liberal commentators and heroes. Their target isn't just Republicans. They're hitting the media that endlessly, thoughtlessly repeats whatever they're told. There is more hard research, more questioning of conventional wisdom on Countdown and the Daily Show than there is on most network TV broadcasts.

What makes NBC News people so uncomfortable with Olbermann and Matthews is not the way they took on Republicans at the convention, it's the way they take on the conventions of news.
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