[This article also appears on Huffingtonpost.com. You can access it from my author page here.]
Black and white is easy; nuance is hard. Which is why it's much easier to just lump media outlets and personalities into simple boxes: left v. right, or partisan v. objective, for example.
So if you want to play that game, it's easy to dismiss Keith Olbermann, who broadcast his final episode of Countdown on MSNBC Friday. It's simple to dash off a hack piece (like this one in the Daily Beast, which revealed its simple-minded bona fides by invoking the right's favorite jab at Olbermann: he used to work in--gasp!--sports) that lumps Olbermann in with Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, as if they all do the same thing just because they are all loud and aggressive.
I know nuance is less popular, but I feel compelled to try and give Olbermann his due.
An analysis of how MSNBC (which uses a traditional journalistic approach to report facts, but then, ditching objectivity, critically assesses how the facts compare with the progressive take on issues) differs from Fox News (essentially a right-wing propaganda operation pretending to practice journalism, with no allegiance to facts) is a book-length endeavor and beyond the scope of a blog piece. But Olbermann's approach reflects the difference between the two networks.
Anyone charging that Olbermann's show was equivalent to Beck's clearly hasn't watched either of them. Olbermann wasn't objective, but he was honest about it, not disingenuously claiming to be "fair and balanced." But his shows were well-researched and relied on facts to make his progressive points.
To be sure, Olbermann used inflammatory language, and he wasn't always as respectful as some thought he should be. But when he railed about something, he relied on quotes, polls, statistics and history (unlike the concocted charges offered by Beck as facts) to make his points. One (of many) examples was his 2008 response to statements made by President George W. Bush about terrorism and Iraq (with its much-discussed concluding line that Bush should "shut the hell up"). Does Olbermann use harsh language? Yes. Was he blunt and combative? Yes. But in doing so, did he use real evidence (facts) to refute the Bush statements that were getting heavy play in the news at the time? Yes. Consistently (including producing a photo of Bush playing golf months after the date he claimed to have given up the game as a symbolic sacrifice to support the troops).
To me, that was what made Olbermann such an essentially important commentator, especially during the Bush administration. Much focus is directed at how Olbermann made his points (his combative tone, his aggressive language, etc.), but it was the fact-based content that really mattered and separated him from his right-wing counterparts. The reason the founders accorded the press the protections of the First Amendment was under the belief that the press was, as Jeffery Smith described it, "a lash for government and a prod for the people." Under this point of view, government was rendered more stable by a free press, since it exposed problems (and allowed for reform), preserving the liberties of the people. What Olbermann did on his show, day in and day out, was to carry out that function, shining a light on elected officials (of both parties).
That's the difference between Olbermann and his Fox News counterparts. When Beck claims that radicals in the Obama administration want to kill 10 percent of the American population and overthrow the U.S. government, or Sean Hannity uses bogus footage to exaggerate attendance at a Tea Party event, or Fox News hosts give credibility to those claiming that the health care reform law included "death panels" or that the president wasn't born in the United States, they are not shining a light on anything. Instead, they are using the cloak of "the press" to lie, exaggerate and use innuendo as a way of promoting an agenda.
And one of the strengths of Olbermann's show was that he didn't only take on government officials, but he devoted part of nearly every program to fact-checking the lies being spewed by major right-wing media figures like Palin, Beck, Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly. Again, Olbermann was consistently looking to shine a light on the facts.
With Olbermann's departure, commentators will be going for the easy story, lumping him in with other pundits who shared a combative tone, without going the next step to describe the very different content of their shows. These writers will simplistically decry "hyperpartisanship" (as the Daily Beast piece did), as if Olbermann and Beck (and the others) were interchangeable. I'm here to say they are not.
Instead, I will pay tribute to Olbermann for the important role he played over the last eight years.
Really, I want to use this space to say "thank you" to Olbermann.
Thank you for your humor and insight, which was consistently smart and observant.
Thank you for giving voice to the anger so many of us felt during the Bush presidency, when few on television would do so. People accuse you of being "over the top," but when bad things are happening in the government or media, and too many are ignoring them, I don't want political commentators to be subtle.
Thank you for talking about the lies and fake journalism at Fox News when so many of us knew it was going on, but few on television would talk about it.
Thank you for always backing up your charges with facts, at a time when so many television news personalities, especially at Fox News, don't care about facts.
Thank you for having the guts to share your experiences navigating the health care system with your dying father, despite the personal pain doing so must have caused, all so you could educate viewers about the real experiences of those interacting with the system.
And thank you for regularly standing up for what was right, regardless of the consequences. You may not carry the objective legacy of Edward R. Murrow (whose "Good night and good luck" you borrowed for your sign-off line) into the 21st century, but you certainly embody his commitment to journalists playing the role of shining a light on the workings of government to ensure the American people have the information they need to be informed citizens. You consistently labored to urge politicians to act for the betterment of the country, adhering to longstanding American values of justice, equality and fairness.
The cartoon version of Keith Olbermann as a Beck-like screaming partisan will get a lot of play in the coming days. Sure, from time to time, Olbermann might have gone too far, but that's going to happen when you push the barriers of your field. I urge anyone who buys the caricature of Olbermann to go back and watch some of his Special Comments (a bunch of them are collected here) and see past the bluster to the facts and logic at the heart of his words. The difference between Olbermann and his counterparts at Fox News will quickly become apparent.
The news media and our democracy will be much poorer without Olbermann's daily reports. I hope he surfaces back on the air sooner rather than later.