Lawrence O'Donnell: Death by Voice Coach

Guest blog: O'Donnell denies it — but lately he leaves this viewer waiting for the last word

If Chucky Cheese is one of the worst things that can happen to an adult, a voice coach is one of the worst things that can happen to a journalist. Working with a camera and cookie cutter, they take aspiring anchors and commentators and reshape them into characters not found in nature.

I don’t have proof, but – watching “The Last Word” lately, I could have sworn one of those Svengalis had gotten his hands on Lawrence O’Donnell and created a “new & improved” version. I happen to be a great admirer of O’Donnell. But I so prefer the original to his didactic doppelganger.

When he first began subbing for Keith Olbermann on “Countdown” in 2009, I was instantly hooked on O’Donnell. He was the kind of person you so rarely see at the anchor desk: a remarkably decent, caring guy who spoke like a real human. He was also strikingly modest, given his impressive credentials. A Harvard grad and aide to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, O’Donnell served in crucial government posts, such as Staff Director of the Senate Finance Committee. He had Chris Matthews’ inside knowledge of politics and the incredible smarts of Rhodes Scholar, Rachel Maddow. O’Donnell wrote scores of episodes of the much-loved show ‘The West Wing” and, as an actor, made a much-acclaimed appearance on “The Homeland” and has an ongoing role in “Big Love” on HBO. He’s also a published author and humanitarian. His K.I.N.D. (kids in need of desks) project has provided over 40,000 desks for kids in Malawi who had never seen a desk in their lifetime.

The more Lawrence O’Donnell anchored, the more I grew to love him. Apparently, so did MSNBC. In late Sept. 2010 they gave O’Donnell his own show: “The Last Word.” But networks are notoriously fickle: today’s golden boy is tomorrow’s orphan. When MSNBC moved Ed Schultz into O’Donnell’s coveted 8pm slot, perhaps O’Donnell saw his star falling, because that’s exactly when he began to change.

His natural, easy-going manner was gradually replaced by a much slower, more deliberate delivery that bore the telltale signs of a voice coach, like “punching one word in every sentence.” His pace is occasionally so plodding at this point, you could conceive a child between his words (particularly if you were married to my ex-husband).  

O’Donnell doesn’t dispute his delivery may have changed, but denies any formal training claims. Shown a draft of this essay, he repllied, “Although I know I need one, I have never consulted a voice coach. Every other word in this piece is the gospel truth except maybe the sex stuff."

He apparently thinks we’ve changed, too – because he now repeats the same thought over and over, as if it were the only way his much dumber audience could hope to grasp his very advanced concepts.

O’Donnell frequently inserts himself in his stories now. He told us three times, in under five minutes, that a mobster authorities had been chasing for decades “lived just around the block from me.” In January, he devoted the better part of two evenings to the tongue-in-cheek suggestion that he be chosen to fill a soon to be vacant senate seat.

MSNBC may be delighted  – and his show’s ratings certainly haven’t suffered — but some of these changes are anything but audience pleasers. O’Donnell’s new habit of “teasing” an upcoming story as many as four or five times in a broadcast – presumably in an attempt to keep us watching – is enough to cause gastrointestinal problems. By the time the actual report airs, it’s lost all interest to exasperated viewers.

I can’t prove Lawrence O’Donnell has been working with a voice coach. It’s possible these changes were, in fact, self-inflicted. In fairness, I should also add there are a number of truly great voice coaches out there. (I was lucky enough to have worked with one of them.) But, whoever is responsible for the dramatically different O’Donnell has taken away one of my heroes. Now, when “The Last Word” flashes across the screen, I find myself yelling: “Do you promise?”