Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Enduring Lesson of Keith Olbermann

Depending on your politics and personal tastes, Keith Olbermann is a liberal pundit, a newsman, an overhyped sports reporter, a propagandist, the voice of the nation's conscience, or a traitor to his country.  Last evening, he added one title most can agree on -- unemployed.  Olbermann, the host of MSNBC's Countdown With Keith Olbermann, announced on his show last night that he was leaving the network.  Rumors vary between him being fired and him leaving over a money dispute.  Last night's show was his last.

Olbermann had a decidedly and unashamedly liberal bent to his show.  He openly loathed Fox News, which he called "faux news," and particularly Bill O'Reilly and Glenn Beck, who often took top honors on his "Worst Person in the World" feature.  Throughout the Bush administration, he ended his newscast by stating how many days it had been since the declaration of "Mission Accomplished" in Iraq.  He was suspended last fall for violating the network's rules about political donations by reporters after he donated to three congressional campaigns, including Gabrielle Giffords. 

Even if you loved Olbermann's politics, there was plenty to squirm about in Olbermann's style.  He often used the same kind of "anyone who disagrees with me is an idiot" kind of rhetoric that he criticized in O'Reilly.  His segments with guest commentators often fit the formula:
  • Introduce story by stating the facts intertwined with Olbermann's opinion
  • Introduce guest
  • Ask guest whether Olbermann's opinion is the only reasonable one, as he thinks
  • In unlikely event guest disagrees, restate opinion as fact and wait for response
If you were looking for the news, the whole news, and nothing but the news, you didn't tune in to Countdown.

I'm writing about Keith Olbermann today, however, not because of my personal feelings about him leaving MSNBC or even about the show itself.  Keith Olbermann deserves a nod because of something absolutely unheard of which he did, on air, with great frequency.  Keith Olbermann apologized.

When you are as unabashedly partisan and fiery as Olbermann is, you wind up saying a lot of things that make people mad.  And certainly, Olbermann stood behind the majority of what he had to say nonetheless.  But every once in a while, Keith Olbermann had the good sense and the good grace to admit when he was wrong.  A terrific example occurred after Olbermann raised questions and spoke, in a way that some felt was offensive, about the rape accusations against Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.  He later tweeted,
Rape has touched my family, directly and savagely, and if anybody thinks I have addressed it without full sensitivity, then that assessment is the one that counts, and I apologize.
Read that again, because you won't hear apologies like that from media people -- or from anyone else, really -- very often.  He doesn't say, "sorry if I offended you," or even, "sorry that I offended you," both of which imply that the problem is the offense taken and not what was said.  He says, "If I offended you then my words were offensive, and so I'm sorry."

Most recently, Olbermann delivered a passionate and, in my opinion, moving commentary the night of the shootings in Tucson on January 9th.  He discussed the current political climate but, unlike many other liberal commentators, he didn't put the blame on the right.  He said,
Vio­lence, or the threat of vio­lence, has no place in our Democ­racy, and I apol­o­gize for and repu­di­ate any act or any thing in my past that may have even inad­ver­tently encour­aged vio­lence. Because for what­ever else each of us may be, we all are Americans.
So, why am I bringing this up on a blog about trauma and crisis response?  Because very often, after a major incident, the impulse of those in charge is to circle the wagons and vehemently deny any responsibility.  The result is that those affected, who are primed to be looking for someone to blame, have a reason to step up their blame of those in charge.  Few and far between are people in authority willing to say, "This shouldn't have happened, we didn't want for it to happen either, and we will be carefully reviewing everything to make sure it doesn't happen again," let alone, "We screwed up, and while we don't think this is entirely our fault, we are willing to take some of the blame.  We're sorry."

It's always easier to blame those who are upset then to take a good long look at yourself.  Failure to do so, however, often makes it worse.  Whatever you think of Keith Olbermann, his show, or his politics, I hope that, with his departure, we don't also lose his excellent example of how to apologize gracefully and sincerely for the mistakes we all make in this world.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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