Countdown to Zero

Maybe it was a business decision, and MSNBC’s new owners at Comcast want to remodel the network into something that has appeal beyond the lunatic fringe.  Maybe it was a one-trick pony realizing his vein-throbbing rants wouldn’t play well in the “new tone” the media so loudly insisted upon, after blaming aggressive conservative rhetoric for setting the table in Tucson.  Maybe MSNBC staff gave the Comcast brass an earful after years of putting up with a demanding prima donna.  Or maybe he was really depressed about the failure of Hawaii’s governor to find President Obama’s birth certificate.  I know a lot of people were really looking forward to that.

Whatever the reason, Countdown has reached zero, and Keith Olbermann has left the building.  To the surprise of both his modest audience and most of his co-workers at MSNBC, Keith Olbermann announced that Friday night would be his last appearance on the network.  He was only halfway into a four-year contract valued at $30 million.

The full story of Olbermann’s departure will emerge over the weekend, but for right now, it’s all very murky.  His final, subdued Countdown segment left the impression that it wasn’t entirely his idea.  The timing of Comcast’s takeover of MSNBC is hard to ignore.  Stories have circulated for years of Olbermann’s brittle temper and shabby treatment of staff behind the scenes, and he’s had a few on-air meltdowns, disappearing suddenly for days at a time during tantrums.  His November suspension for making unacceptable political contributions didn’t exactly end with humble contrition.

Olbermann and Chris Matthews turned MSNBC into a laughingstock with their juvenile antics during the big political conventions in 2008.  Some of his delusional rants have veered into outright slander, as when Scott Brown’s victory to fill “Ted Kennedy’s seat” in Massachusetts sent him off the rails.  He was a vicious misogynist, especially toward female conservatives, having famously called columnist Michelle Malkin a “fascist” and a “mashed-up bag of meat with lipstick on it.”

Somehow Olbermann survived all that.  He’s been the top attraction at the low-rated cable network – a big, angry fish in a very small pond of foul-smelling water.  The rumor mill churns tonight with stories that his departure was less a “firing” than a mutual parting of the ways.  Perhaps Comcast laid out some plans for the network’s future that he couldn’t live with.

Comcast had to do something.  MSNBC’s niche as the 24-hour director’s cut of a Two Minutes Hate was not a path to ratings glory.  The new Republican leadership in the post-tidal-wave House was probably not eager to grant access to a monolithically hyper-partisan network.  For all the liberal caterwauling about Fox News, Rupert Murdoch’s vastly more popular operation has always done a solid job of reporting serious news, and while their overall editorial position is clear, they’ve made efforts to welcome articulate liberal commentators.  Juan Williams can tell you a funny story about that.

There’s a qualitative difference between outspoken commentary by the likes of Bill O’Reilly, and the vein-popping, deranged rants Keith Olbermann served up.  It’s the difference between hot sauce and acid.  The Left’s failure to understand Fox’s success is the reason they haven’t been able to compete with it.  The Olbermann departure may be a signal that MSNBC’s new owners aren’t interested in tired fairy tales about “Faux News” as excuses for stagnant ratings any more.

There will be a lot of melancholy conservatives mourning the loss of the Clown Prince of the Left this weekend.  Don’t be too sad.  We have a lot to do in the coming years, and little energy to waste on bickering with a hyperventilating nitwit.  The Left has articulate spokesmen who can mount its ideas with clarity, so we can educate and inspire the public by defeating them.  Keith Olbermann was not one of those spokesmen.  He turned America’s flat-screen televisions into sandwich boards for street-corner rants that added nothing to our discourse.  Maybe MSNBC can change its dopey slogan from “Lean Forward” to “Onward and Upward,” in honor of his departure.