Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Keith Olbermann and the tone of political debate in America

On November 9th, Keith Olbermann returned to the air after having gotten his knuckles rapped by MSNBC executives for making political donations to three Democratic candidates. They claimed he violated network guidelines. He claimed this prohibition was not in his contract and he was not aware of it.


What's interesting here is that prohibiting journalists from engaging in political activity is usually about maintaining at least the appearance of objectivity. Keith Olbermann? Really? Objectivity? Ummm. No.

Journalism has changed over the past little while. The number of public affairs programs with hosts who are rabidly partisan is growing at a prodigious rate. The idea that these folks not support candidates in order to protect their case for objectivity is a little odd. They have no case for objectivity, whatever that means.

But that doesn't mean that they are absolved of the responsibility of being fair and accurate in their work as political commentators. The best we can ever do is to make a good case for what we believe while citing fact that we hope will support our views. As long as we are then open to the possibility that we can be shown wrong by the preponderance of contrary evidence, we might be able to say that we have acquitted ourselves well.

The epistemologists in the room would likely quibble with the looseness of my terminology, but I think we all know what being open to honest argument means.

I don't think the good folks at MSNBC are without their faults on this score, but I do think by and large they put the cast of characters at Fox News to shame. Olbermann, Maddow, and Schultz are on the left; O'Reilly, Beck, and Hannity are on the right. Do I really think that these respective teams are in any way similar in the way that they do business on the scale of being fair and accurate and open to legitimate argument. No, I don't.

One last shout out to Jon Stewart, whom, of course, we all love: This is why Fox News and MSNBC are not the same.

As a lefty, I like to say that I have had many energetic political discussions with bright and decent individuals who describe themselves as politically conservative. These discussions have been marked by openness and honestly and a mutual interest in the truth. This means I know it's possible.

No, Olbermann is not "objective" in his politics. He has a point of view. But that doesn't mean he is unaware of the difference between integrity and bullshit. Strong beliefs are not what is destroying the tone of debate in America. Those who believe they bear no responsibility for proving the truth of their arguments are to blame.

I'm glad Olbermann is back and as feisty as ever.

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