Thursday, October 05, 2006

Stepping out

Remember when television anchors were the paragon of neutrality? When Walter Cronkite was the epitome of fairness and balance? When a viewer couldn't guess the political leanings of the on-air talent?

Think those days are over?

Me too. Which brings the conversation to Keith Olbermann of MSNBC.

Olbermann is busy disproving the theory that there are no second acts in American life. He became known in the sports community as one of the top anchors for ESPN's Sportscenter more than a decade ago. He and Dan Patrick attracted audiences with their intelligence and wit; they reinvented the business, and their influence is still felt on every sportscast in the nation today.

Olbermann, a man of obvious smarts, is someone who -- according to all reports -- does not suffer fools. He left ESPN, burning a few bridges behind him. After some missteps, he finally has found a niche with MSNBC's "Countdown."

Here's where it gets interesting. Olbermann is up against Bill O'Reilly on Fox News. O'Reilly gets ratings, but he certainly has a love/hate relationship with the public. Conservatives love him, liberals hate him. Some claim he has some trouble with the facts, along the lines of Rush Limbaugh. Olbermann has tweaked O'Reilly by mentioning his missteps on "Countdown" frequently.

Lately, though, Olbermann has turned up the venom. He's done some commentaries that put him squarely on the left side of the political spectrum. They are well-written; transcripts are available on the MSNBC Web site. That tilt has driven the guest list to the show decidedly in that direction as well.

If the idea is to get some attention in a cable channel-filled universe, it is working. Is it a good idea? I can't say I'm used to it. It's funny to have a news show -- not a talk/interview problem -- have such a decided slant. But it's certainly interesting counterprogramming.

Kind of makes me curious as to how it's all going to come out.

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