Keith Olbermann’s abrupt signoff last night just might signify a break in the hyperpartisan media fever that has afflicted America for the past few years.
Because beneath the rumors of palace intrigue and difficult behavior stands a stark fact: Keith Olbermann’s ratings were down over the past 12 months, especially among the coveted, non-shut-in, 25-to-54 demographic. He’s not the only one—Glenn Beck’s ratings have eroded, along with his advertisers. Sarah Palin’s approval ratings have also similarly plummeted during her foray into the murky world where politics meets reality TV.
The American people are smart. They’ve gotten sick of the predictable hyperpartisan talking points and canned anger. This is Paddy Chayefsky’s revenge—Howard Beale’s appeal became real over the past years. But we’ve slowly come to our senses and flipped around the catchphrase, saying “you’re mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it anymore.”
Here’s a snapshot side-by-side comparison of their slide: On January 20th of last year, Olbermann reached an estimated 251,000 people aged 25-to-54 at 8 p.m., according to data kept by TVNewser.com. Exactly one year later, this past Thursday, he reached only 198,000—a decline of nearly 20 percent.
Beck’s collapse was even steeper over the same period. On January 20th of 2010, he was flying high at a point of maximum influence coincident with Tea Party enthusiasm, reaching 965,000 in the 24-to-55 demographic. On 1/20/11, Beck reached roughly one-third that number at 5 p.m.—only 377,000.
To be sure, even at their reduced rates of viewership, both men were leaders at their respective networks. But the trend lines are clear—both hosts were trending down by double digits in the first four months of last year—and comforting from an independent’s perspective.
Sarah Palin’s transformation from VP nominee to queen of the conservative populists and increasingly off-key partisan caricature also accelerated over the past year. A new CNN poll found that 56 percent of all Americans view her unfavorably—with that rating rocketing up among women, and independent voters 14 points in the last month alone. It’s worth noting by comparison that President Obama saw a 15-point jump in approval among independents during the past month, aided by his bipartisan outreach during the lame-duck session and his speech at the Tucson memorial. In her taped remarks released that same day, Palin made a mistake often replicated by media figures and opinion anchors—drenching a national event with narcissism. And in the New Hampshire GOP straw poll yesterday, Palin got a paltry 7 percent, one fifth of Mitt Romney’s total.
Olbermann was the highest profile opinion anchor of the left and he used his pulpit at times in a mirror image of the professional polarizers on the right. When he attacked Democrats, it was for being too centrist, never for being too radical—echoing the RINO-hunting arguments from the right. One of his last attacks was against retiring Senator Joe Lieberman, who received a resounding “good riddance” despite actions such as shepherding the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell through the Senate. Olbermann also often let his moral outrage drag him into immoral invective, the mirror image of Wingnut gutterball politics from the right, as when he called Scott Brown “a racist, homophobic, promoter of violence against women” on air the night before the special election in Massachusetts. He called Michelle Malkin “a mashed up bag of meat with lipstick on it.” I had the odd badge of honor of being named one of the “worst persons in the world,” and got a repeat when the postpartisan group No Labels was named one of the worst in the world late last year. These are just blips on his list of pitchfork and torch greatest hits, which he would have gone red in the face condemning if they came from conservative opinion anchors and were directed at the liberal activist class.
It’s worth noting that the man who became the most partisan anchor on the left—unlike his protégée Rachel Maddow or succesor Lawrence O’Donnell—had no real background in politics or government. He was instead just a master broadcaster, a sportscaster where Beck had been a Top-40 DJ. On the plus side of the ledger, Olbermann, like Beck, is smart, sometimes funny, and a talented broadcaster. And where Beck has lately embraced his self-help side and religious faith more intensely than his explicit politics of incitement, Olbermann has shared his heartfelt pain of losing his father with viewers and embarked on an admirably quixotic attempt to read James Thurber short stories to viewers on air every Friday night. That was an old-school gamble on content over flash that’s hard not to applaud. After the Tucson shooting, he had the decency to admit that he had been part of the cycle of incitement at times, apologizing for a comment he had made during the presidential campaign of then-Senator Clinton and stating that when those on the left descended to violent political rhetoric “then we too deserve the repudiation of our more sober-minded and peaceful politicians.”
So Keith Olbermann’s reign at MSNBC is now over. Glenn Beck’s contract is closing out at Fox and despite his popularity with the Tea Party, he’s had a hard time attracting advertisers because of his unhinged exhortations, caught in a self-made trap of confusing insight with incitement. Sarah Palin’s once-dreamed-of path to the presidency after cashing in post-governorship seems similarly cloudy. She might be able to win a caucus but it’s mathematically impossible to win a general election when 60 percent of the electorate say they would never consider voting for you and growing numbers of conservatives say you’re not ready for the job. The fact that all three of these figures were featured on the cover of Wingnuts is a coincidence. But they were chosen because they were the best-known faces of the problems I wanted to examine in the book—extreme partisanship and the cycle of incitement that was dividing our nation instead of trying to unite it. All three of them have profited spectacularly from polarization. They are part of a larger apparatus that has made our politics increasingly feel like a cult, selling Kool-Aid to the party faithful and condemning anyone who questions the ideological line as weak or worse.
These dynamics have not been defeated, not by a long shot. The two parties are still more polarized than ever before and the rise of partisan media is an important reason for it. Right now, politics follows the rules of talk radio—using conflict, tension, fear, and resentment to find new recruits. But what might be good for ratings can be bad for the country. The hard-core partisans are self-segregating themselves into separate political realities. But the majority of Americans are starting to wake up to the game and demand something different—a new Gallup poll found more than 80 percent of Americans think it’s extremely important for the president and the two parties to find a way to work together on legislation. This echoes a 2010 Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll that found that 93 percent of Americans wanted to see an end to partisan infighting. This was the appeal behind Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity on the Washington Mall, which drew more people than Glenn Beck or Ed Schultz’s competing rallies. It is a prime driver behind why independents are the largest and fastest growing segment of the electorate, outnumbering Democrats or Republicans. So this moment might just be a tipping point—if we, and the networks, know what to do with it.