Susan Crawford, now a professor at Cardozo School of Law, has been floating theories that Comcast pulled the plug on MSNBC’s “Countdown” host to please Fox News, and Tweeting dark allusions to Quiz Show. While very few people watched Olbermann’s program or care about his fate, Americans can unite in their dismay over the career of John Turturro, who went from a brilliant performance in Quiz Show to standing beneath the metallic genitalia of a giant robot in Transformers 2.
As to the substance of Crawford’s theory, she has a point about Fox News, but not the one she thinks she’s making. Rupert Murdoch has no reason to send corporate assassins after Keith Olbermann. His audience is miniscule compared to arch-rival Bill O’Reilly, and any viewers released by his absence would be more likely to float over to CNN than Fox. Olbermann served a useful purpose for Fox: he made them look good, by looking bad.
Comcast does have an interest in improving the MSNBC brand, however. Olbermann was suspended for making donations to political candidates, which seems like a rather flimsy pretext for getting rid of him. As many commentators have noted, no one thought Olbermann was an impartial journalist, or had any doubts which party he supported.
A more likely reason is the appalling performance of the MSNBC team on Election Night, which turned into a bizarre and juvenile spectacle. There’s plenty of room for a variety of perspectives on cable TV, but a televised version of The Daily Kos is not going to attract a healthy, growing audience. For all the liberal snark over “Faux News,” their coverage of major events is polished and professional. On Election Night, they prominent featured a number of liberal contributors, including Kirsten Powers… and, of course, Juan Williams. A casual viewer tuning into Fox saw a stimulating discussion which included many points of view. Those who blundered into MSNBC’s coverage saw a sorority locked in the AV room at the local college, spending the last night before graduation in an increasingly deranged bitch session about the teachers they hate.
Olbermann’s suspension might have been a warning shot fired at the other MSNBC talent, in hopes of improving the network’s image and broadening its appeal beyond the hardcore Left. The brass might have been satisfied with merely humiliating Olbermann, since they were apparently willing to let him slide if he delivered an on-air apology about his political donations.
Late Sunday evening, NBC president Phil Griffin announced that Olbermann’s suspension would end after Monday night. They must believe the necessary message has been sent to their errant host, who will probably make no further jokes about Griffin “thinking” he’s the boss. It remains to be seen whether this brief suspension will send the right message about MSNBC’s ethics and credibility to viewers. Of course, this is the same network that continues to employ Rachel Maddow, who cheerfully slandered a Republican congressman with an idiotic conspiracy theory last month. If they’re trying to rebuild their reputation, they have a few suspensions to go.