Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Stay Tuned ... To These Shows

Over the last year of so, the past three months in fact, I have found myself watching MSNBC programs like Countdown with Keith Olbermann and Scarborough Country more often than I used to. Former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough leans right, while Keith not so subtlety leans left, though he pointed out recently that he runs his own ship at MSNBC and doesn’t categorize himself in ideological terms.

So why do I like to watch both shows, which air back-to-back every weeknight (except that Joe takes most Fridays off) with Olbermann starting at 8pm and Scarborough at 9pm? Because, politics aside, they are actually a breath of fresh air. Joe’s personality is likeable, and he is a realist, not a right-wing ideologue, while Keith mixes dry humor with facts in his nightly criticism of the Bush administration and its supporters; he does so better than most, even better than Al Franken, to be honest (sorry, Al).

Scarborough Country injects a bit of comedy in its mostly serious program as well, albeit not through anything the host or his guests provide in punch lines, but by talking about and showing highlights of the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, the Colbert Report, Letterman’s rather new Presidential Moments in History segment (making the most out of Bush’s odd moments, no context needed), and even Jimmy Kimmel’s bleep-filled Unnecessary Censorship segment.

Maybe Keith’s style and success this year has rubbed off on Joe, or he just wanted to find a way to lighten up the contentious atmosphere of politics in America. But sometimes, Joe’s airing of segments from Comedy Central’s most popular latenight shows is done for political purposes; right or wrong, he feels Stewart should just admit that he has a Democratic-leaning bias in his show. He loves Colbert too, but acts like Stewart is hiding something. I don’t agree that he’s hiding anything, but Stewart is always worth discussing because of his ever growing influence in American politics, particularly among the younger generation, who supposedly get their fill of “news” from his show.

Nonetheless, in both shows, you get the most serious discussions and spirited debates about the most pressing issues of the day (Iraq, Republican corruption) as you’ll find anywhere else on cable or network TV. And Scarborough actually makes a good effort, unlike say, Faux News, to be FAIR & BALANCED in his selection of guests to debate those issues. For example, on many nights, you’ll get Joe and conservative talking head Pat Buchanon on one side debating what to do about Iraq with left-leaning journalists like Joan Walsh from Salon.com and Arianna Huffington of The Huffington Post. And to his credit, Scarborough does a good job getting everybody’s views on a given issue fair time.

And Keith? In an era where there is more Republican talking heads and talking points getting filtered through the mainstream media than ever, you can't blame Keith for trying to steer away from the usual talking heads on the right (i.e. Ann Coulter and Newt Gingrich) and instead invite journalists from the likes of Newsweek and the Washington Post to discuss, criticize or evaluate Democrats and Republicans alike in substantially less partisan ways, even if you can still tell which side of the political spectrum they favor.

Having said that, what really sets Keith apart from the rest of the pack is his harsh commentary of the Bush administration in recent months, via the “Special Comment” segment he airs about every few weeks or so. Whether they involve tearing Rumsfeld a new one over his outrageous statement that Bush critics lack courage and are morally confused about how to fight terrorism and want to appease Islamic “fascists,” or calling Bush a liar on national television, something no other journalist in Washington has the guts to do, Keith is refreshingly bold and informed in his approach, often invoking historical context in his speeches. Some may call them partisan in tone, but call them HONEST, critical commentaries. We need more of them, not less from broadcast journalists of his stature, and they are working for Keith, as his audience has jumped over 20% in ratings since this time last year.

We also need more criticism of other influential figures in politics and in America in general, and Keith also provides that in other segments, especially his nightly “Worst Person in the World” segment, where a Bronze, Silver, and Gold medal are giving to the most outrageous people of the day--they can be average Americans, organizations or politicians--and where fellow 8pm slot rival Bill O’Reilly of Faux News is often featured. Olbermann even has a whole book out now recounting the best of those segments, and they are as funny as they are alarming.

In all, if nothing else, these two shows should be the model for political news shows (as opposed to straight news shows), and with Olbermann’s contract expiring soon, MSNBC should do everything they can to keep him. Hardball with Chris Matthews was the most identifiable show on this third rate network, but Matthews took a noticeable nosedive in credibility when Media Matters for America named him the “Misinformer of the Year” for 2005. His loud mouth has gotten him flagged by MMFA often this year as well, but I am still a fan of his show. On any given day, his show and interviews with the day’s newsmakers can really be informative (see recent interviews with Murtha and General John Batiste). But I’ll leave a full analysis of Matthews for another day, as this is Keith’s time now.

Keith Olbermann's popularity and influence on the dialogue in American politics should only get bigger from here on out, and with Scarborough Country airing right afterwards, that’s two hours worth of shows that two years ago, I’d never watch back-to-back. Now, they’ve got my support. Do they get yours?

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