Keith Olbermann chides the press for giving Trump a pass

June 1, 2016

The media critique by one of its best-known TV practitioners is characteristically straightforward and acerbic:

“Polarization of news is not new, but its failure to ask the candidate tough questions — the ones that might cause him to refuse to call in to your morning show or provide hours of free TV content — will be the legacy of Campaign 2016,” writes Keith Olbermann today in The Hollywood Reporter.

Olbermann, the former MSNBC and ESPN star host and analyst, mixes chagrin with relevant historical context via a reminder of press transformation in the latter half of the 20th century. His essay reflects frustration with media coverage of Trump, which now includes Trump’s own headline-inducing media-bashing performance in New York on Tuesday.

He writes, “As the unprecedented specter of Donald John Trump, Supergenius, rises up around us like some orange fog, we are not unequipped to describe and report on him because we have traded our golden tradition of neutrality for a handful of magic point-of-view beans. It’s a simple but hidden truth: The news has almost always been like this.”

Yes, that’s the case. Our notions of fairness and balance were rather different for many years. An unbridled partisan press was long the rule and “during the presidential campaign of 1828, half of it was happily calling challenger Andrew Jackson ‘the mulatto son of a prostitute’ while the other half was calling incumbent President John Quincy Adams a ‘pimp,'” as he also writes.

Olbermann alludes to what was very much a post-Watergate evolution of a generally more neutral press. Investigative reporting did become not just in vogue, but an avenue to a certain celebrity. You may not have become Woodward and Bernstein-like famous but your trade had great cachet. It obscured a larger reality, as Olbermann catches.

“In fact, in our history, journalistic objectivity has been the aberration, and media advocacy has been the default position — not the other way around.” Yes, right again.

But there remained a notion always that, somehow, the free market would present such a variety of ideas and that some semblance of truth and balance would win out.

“When that premise fails, we have destroyed a sacred institution of collectively objective American news media,” he writes “And it has failed (largely, anyway) in living memory, in the fluidly dark times between 9/11 and the Iraq War. And it may be failing again right now amid the campaign of Donald John Trump.”

Olbermann ultimately suggests a certain economic determinism driving coverage, notably on the medium he knows so well.

“Because now you can ask any question about Trump, Trumpism or anti-Trumpism except the existential ones, because the existential ones could lead him to stop calling in to your morning show and providing you with your highest-rated hour for free. You can’t go meta on the perfect storm that has thrust up this Howard Beale of presidential candidates.”

“You can’t say, ‘Never mind the politics, what kind of man could boast on national television that he’d just raised $6 million for veterans’ groups, then deny he’d ever said 6, then when told his boast is on tape demand that you play it for him, then make it impossible for you to play it for him?'”

He concludes with the contention that the press is involved in an act of de facto self-immolation.

“With the most effective form of self-censorship in play — one not based on ideology nor on a silly harkening back to a neutral past that only briefly existed, but based purely on cash — who will stand up and point at the emperor standing in only a comb-over and ask where in the hell his clothes are?”

“Or should I not ask that question? You know, because maybe it’s not objective. Or it’s too objective. I forget which.”