Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Oppositional television in the age of Obama

After the defeat of McCain and Palin in November, a lot of folks wondered aloud if "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report" could survive without a Republican in the White House.

I was never worried: The point of satire is to ridicule the excesses, vanities, hypocrisy, and dishonesty of those in power. It's true that Second Age of Bush provided an embarrassment of riches for the two shows' writers to work with. But to imagine that the Obama administration, or any administration, will give them nothing to work with--would be so transparent, modest, self-consistent, unerring, and uniformly benificent that there'll be nothing for satirists to sink their teeth into--is to have a fundamentalist's faith and trust in our government that is almost un-American.

And, of course, the armory of the contemporary American satirist is by no means limited to barbs about the executive branch of the government: There are the antedeluvian minds of the Senate Republicans. There is the endless jockeying of interests and agendas in the House. There's the Supreme Court--why, the continued existence on this earth of Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas alone amounts to a Full Employment Program for Comedy Writers. There's Big Banking. Big Media. Big Pharma. And so on.

Anyone who sits at the far end of the gap of mystery and miracle that separates the power elite from the rest of us will always be fair game for satirists. Don't worry for them. If there's enough material out there to keep even Leno going in prime time five nights a week, certainly there's plenty of work for good purveyors of topical humor, too.

If you want to know the fellow whose future I'm more concerned about, it's Keith Olbermann.

He's not really a satirist, of course, although he gets in his share of snark and ridicule in. But when his "Countdown with Keith Olbermann" took off following the first of his "Special Reports" in August of 2006--Rumsfeld had compared opponents of the Iraq war with the "appeasers" of Hitler in the 1930s, and Olbermann went ballistic--he became one of the more highly-positioned voices of opposition in the mainstream media.

A lot of that clout got squandered over the next couple of years, I think. He's often mentioned his worry that airing his first Special Report might cost him his job; as time went on I think that worry was replaced by the worry that not airing Special Reports might cost him his ratings bump. By last spring his Special Reports were too often about ephemera like his objections to how Hillary was campaigning that week.

In part that's because the "Countdown" format and formula call for the rapid descent each night from the important (usually Story #5, presented first) to the silly (the remaining four stories of the evening). As Doctor Beyond pointed out to me last week, by the night before the Obama inauguration, KO was directing his trademark bombast toward the fact that . . . wait for it . . . Obama was going to leave the carpet (famously designed by Laura Bush) in the Oval Office. (In fairness, the Special Report that night was about prosecuting the Bush administration personnel involved in the practice of torture.)

That's why I was especially pleased last week to see "Countdown" break the two-part story of government whistleblower Russell Tice, who revealed that the NSA had been spying on American journalists and news agencies, plus "tens of thousands" of other Americans. (Part 1 is here; Part 2 is here.)

While I'm not worried about the satirists on Comedy Central, I'm waiting to see what happens to Olbermann under a non-Bush administration. "Countdown" format notwithstanding, he's not as liberal (certainly not progressive) as suggested by those "Special Comment" segments; he was, like a lot of Americans, disgusted by the incompetence and dishonesty of Bush and his administration, and unlike the rest of us he had a platform. He was right, of course, but what now? On MSNBC, Maddow will lead the charge to keep Obama pushed to the left as much as possible--but will Olbermann do much more than kibbitz? Will the left be as fond of him when he doesn't have Bush to kick around anymore?

Time will tell. I'd like to see him continue to thrive, if only to keep pushing O'Reilly into gratifyingly foolish outbursts, but time will tell.

1 comment:

Chuck Butcher said...

Well, yes - and then again no. Remember that Olberman's first job was to make sports interesting to sports people so he ought to be able to manage politics to the political. But GWB was a pretty easy target...