Friday, January 28, 2011

Talked Out

Posted on Columbia Journalism Review ( - Jan. 26, 2011

By Steve Daley

Like a lot of folks I was surprised by the apparent sacking of Keith Olbermann at MSNBC, if for no other reason than it’s unusual for marginal enterprises such as cable networks to rid themselves of their most popular commodity.

But as I read the postmortems and the sendoffs, it occurred to me that it had been some time – a long time, actually – since I had watched Keith Olbermann. Or anyone else in that boisterous, opinionated and way-up the-remote-dial realm.

When Comcast sent Keith packing, it struck me that I had put myself on an ersatz boycott of what used to be my favorite “news” programming and managed not to notice.

The thing is, I am the target audience for this stuff. I’m an election junkie, a defrocked journalist, a person with ironclad political beliefs and an Irish temperament. But somewhere back in the days of George W. Bush I just stopped watching.

No, it’s not W’s fault, though he and his minions sure didn’t help back when they were getting that war in Iraq going.

It’s a kind of rhetorical combat fatigue, a sense that all these years later you aren’t going to hear anything that is in any way new and different. It’s a feeling that you’d be just as well off watching “Bones” on Fox rather than anything else on Fox.

The malaise built slowly, if I may borrow a concept from President Carter.

The Sunday morning talk shows went first. There was a time – it was May, 1992 – when I could spend the better part of an afternoon with friends chewing over the job that NBC’s Tim Russert had done on “Meet the Press” to a dithering presidential candidate named Ross Perot.

But nowadays, no matter who is in the big chair, watching a pair of over-coached Senators, one from each party, racing through the approved talking points on immigration or TARP seems a poor way to spend a Sunday.

When all the world was young I marveled at the interview prowess of Ted Koppel in his “Nightline” days and may have contributed to the legend by writing at least two adoring pieces about him when I was media critic at the Chicago Tribune.

As a consumer I confess I was hooked in the early 1980s when “The McLaughlin Group” made its bumptious debut, giggling as Jack Germond tussled with and outsmarted Robert Novak, Pat Buchanan and Morton Kondracke.

Now it seems that for me the lure of the advocacy format has gone the way of caring about the Super Bowl and drinking at lunch.

Just between us, I have never watched Glenn Beck or Bill O’Reilly. Or Ed Schultz. At least not for more than minute or two. And I’m pretty sure I don’t have to.

It’s mostly bipartisan on my end. Al Franken in the U.S. Senate? Fine. Al Franken on the radio? No, thanks. The allure of Sean Hannity is lost on me; he’s “Fox and Friends” Steve Doocy with an anger management problem.

Lawrence O’Donnell is every slick Capitol Hill VIP staffer who only talked to the New York Times and the Washington Post. While I enjoyed Stephen Colbert’s skewering of the Washington press at that 2006 White House Correspondent’s Dinner, he is, well, exhausting and not as clever as he thinks he is.

Rachel Maddow seems to be wicked smart and sassy, or so it says here. But even her considerable charms are lost on me. I turn it on, I listen for a bit, I go away. And I think I know why.

Opinion is now a team sport. Interview shows, talk shows, panel shows are set pieces and to some degree they always have been. I like this pundit, you like another. This one got the better of that one the other night.

What exists in cable-ville now is a set of armies storming across open ground, interrupting, smirking and eyeball rolling to the cheers of their partisans, left and right. Now it is a team game – my team versus your team, no quarter, army ants with all the racial and gender slots filled.

Make no mistake: I haven’t checked out. I read what’s left of the good newspapers and scour websites such as this one. And, to be honest, the social network makes sure I don’t have to miss a good rant by Maddow or, until the other day, Olbermann, if I don’t want to.

Finally, this is not an argument for civility, whatever that means. It’s part of my lifelong war on boredom. And my solution is a simple one: “Bones.”