With his return to television Monday, Keith Olbermann has joined the long list of people who do more harm to their cause than good.
Acting like a liberal cartoon drawn by Ann Coulter – president of the not-helping-their-cause-club – Olbermann ranged from dry and dull to overblown and pompous.
Debuting his new "Countdown" on Al Gore's Current TV, Olbermann and his guests talked enough to go beyond the show's one-hour running time and cut into one of Current's many, many documentaries about drugs. Olbermann warned viewers – no surprise here – that he would go over the time limit a lot.
He saved the night's only news – or rather, petty allegation – for the end of the show, when Daily Kos founder and "Countdown" contributor Markos Moulitsas claimed that he had been banned from Olbermann's old network, MSNBC, because he made Joe Scarborough cry in a Twitter fight and refused to apologize.
Uh-huh. That must be the kind of infringement on his editorial freedom that Olbermann hoped to escape at Current.
In his new gig, he promised to stand up for the working class and against aristocrats, and compared the current political climate in the U.S. to the one during the Civil War. (But without the slavery and battles – a distinction he forgot to make.)
He made it clear from the start he wouldn't be a Democratic water boy. To prove his political independence, he began with a lengthy examination of whether the Obama Administration was in violation of the War Powers Act in Libya. (Here's hoping he won't try to deflect every conservative criticism for the next year or so by pointing out that his very first segment critiqued Obama.)
His first guest was Michael Moore, another contributor to the show, who toned down his tendency toward hyperbole to join Olbermann in an eminently reasonable — but kind of dull — discussion about why Obama hasn’t sought Congressional approval to keep U.S. troops engaged in Libya.
"'Cause it’s the easy way to do it," Moore explained.
The exchange summarized the problem with Olbermann's new show, at least in its first episode.
Without the news apparatus of mean, Moulitsas-blocking NBC behind him, he has little news to break. That leaves him to either hold pleasant-enough but not very groundbreaking discussions with Moore and other guests, or engage in self-righteous puffery like the Scarborough baiting and ridiculous Civil War analogy.
Since his new deal with Current also makes him the network's head news honcho, Olbermann may want to get some of his troops – sorry about the war analogy – out into the field to bring back some fresh information for his show. And not just about the drug underground that Current covers so well.
Until he can break up the routine with some reporting, he'll be forced to find a middle ground between boring and pompous commentary. He succeeded in his first Special Comment, which was sharp and well-delivered, if a little long. It explained the mission of the show:
"This is to be a newscast of contextualization, that it is to be presented with a viewpoint: That the weakest citizen of this country is more important than the strongest corporation; that the nation is losing its independence to the malfeasance of one political party and the timidity of another. And that even though you and I should not have to be the last line of defense, apparently we are. So we damn well better start being it. "
Good stuff. But then he decided to share an endless quote from an 1863 Abraham Lincoln profile by Harriet Beecher Stowe that he seemed to have included only to prove he had read an 1863 Abraham Lincoln profile by Harriet Beecher Stowe. He said the quote pertained to both the actual Civil War and "the silent civil war being waged against us now."
Stowe's quote described "the war for the working classes of mankind as against the usurpation of privileged aristocracies." Conservatives would surely use it as evidence that Olbermann was waging class warfare if only a) anything in the 1863 article could be reduced to a sound bite and b) Olbermann weren't wearing such a nice suit and watch as he read it.
Next, after a segment about Clarence Thomas' conflicts of interest (summary: He has them), Olbermann went into a series of goofy news stories about dancing children, robots, those sorts of things. The light touch felt like the attempt of an aloof boss to disarm everyone with a Borat impression.
Another segment covered stealth advertising on conservative radio shows (summary: It exists) — but the reporting was from Politico's Kenneth P. Vogel, not "Countdown."
Olbermann's "Worst Person" segment hit the usual suspects (Sarah Palin, Fox News) before settling on the "well-educated" woman who berated a train conductor in New York after the conductor asked her to end a loud cell-phone conversation. The woman became a universally reviled YouTube sensation.
At least we can all agree: Her behavior was despicable. But Olbermann really wasn’t adding any kind of independent voice by joining the pile-on. If he was just trying to point out someone who can top him in terms of pomposity, he succeeded.
The show closed with Moulitsas, explaining his Twitter fight with Scarborough: "Apparently I made him cry, he went crying to Phil Griffin, your old boss, and he decided that I would not be allowed back on MSNBC until I apologized to Joe Scarborough. I offered to buy him a fainting couch for Christmas, some hankies to wash away the tears, but apparently none of those were good enough. They needed an apology."
Then Moulitsas called Olbermann a national treasure, and Olbermann told everyone to stay tuned for a doc about heroin.