The ESPN Effect

Curator's Note

I continue to be fascinated with the ESPN-effect across television programming. The folks at Fox News have certainly mastered the network's "televisuality" (including its excessive style and pacing). But Keith Olbermann, as an early progenitor of the sports network's particular form of anchor discourse—smartly written, wittily constructed, acerbically (at times) delivered, ironically predisposed—continues to display this style in his gig as newsman. Olbermann comes across here as a strange mélange of Edward R. Murrow, Dennis Miller, and Bill O'Reilly, yet something a little different as well (Howard Beale?). To be certain, Olbermann is no Murrow (despite invoking the icon's spirit with his "good night, and good luck" sign-off). But this ESPN-style makes for interesting political commentary. Plus, it's nice to hear someone on a news channel with righteous outrage whose nose isn't firmly embedded in the administration's backside. Indeed, my desire to see intertextual linkages shouldn't diminish the glee a viewer should take in Olbermann's no holds barred critiques of this rogue administration and its radical ways. But from a staid, academic point of view, it is the intertextual quality of his persona and style that intrigues me; it simply makes it more enjoyable. Hearing Dexter Gordon, for instance, reminds me of the greatness of Lester Young. And I can't help but smile when I hear Madeleine Peyroux channel Billy Holiday. For Keith Olbermann on MSNBC, it's also a little bit of ESPN meets Network meets See It Now. Indeed, see it now. And smile.


Kudos to Jeff for furthering the Cult of Keith. I blogged about his unusual ascendency here for anyone interested, but I think it can't be understated that Olbermann's kudos as a sportscaster (still teaming with Dan Patrick on ESPN Radio) helps insulate him from the common derision from the right toward Air America-style "liberal elites" - his comprehensive knowledge of Mickey Mantle allows him more legitimacy to quote Voltaire & Jefferson liberally.

Most conservative blogs don't really give Olbermann too much of a "pass" due to his background in sports -- they write of him as rampantly biased. Just as most of the rest of us see O'Reilly. And both figures *are* "biased." But as this clip shows, bias is having an opinion, and bias is passion, and both opinions and passion can be engaging. When bias comes with the trappings of yelling, falsifying, and the claim to objectivity, as with O'R, there's reason to be concerned. But perhaps a little more bias, in and of itself, and if plain-stated, rational, and honest with the facts, could engage more Americans in politics and the project of citizenship. So, sign me up for the cult :-)

I think the think I find interesting about Keith's presentation is the way he doesn't "dumb down" his analysis. Their is an assumption in the age of sound bite and internet culture that one has to be quick, snippy, and to the point, and that the viewership is not capable of sustained engagement. Olberman proves there is another way. His clips are downloaded frequently on YouTube, the site par excellence of the sound bite. His presentation seems to operate under the assumption that the listener is intelligent and able to make connections, as opposed to what I take to be the O'Reilly and Rush method of "let me explain this to you stupid." I think one of the reasons he has been so well received as of late is this intellectual factor. Think of him as the news equivalent of the Simpsons (in some sense part of the same ESPN outgrowth you are chronicling here).

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