Keith Olbermann Marches On

Cropped headshot of Keith Olbermann

Keith Olbermann (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Keith Olbermann, the wildly talented television anchor returned to ESPN2 Monday night with a new program simply called Olbermann. This was a strange homecoming for Olbermann whose roots with ESPN go back to the early 90s. Olbermann’s partnership with Dan Patrick is widely considered the gold standard of one of ESPN’s crown jewels SportsCenter. Olbermann literally uttered the first words ever heard on ESPN2 20 years ago: “Welcome to the end of our careers!” Olbermann left the network in late 90s. It was the first of his many acrimonious departures from TV networks.

In the years since, Olbermann called ESPN hell, a place that gave him “dry heaves” and would “make [him] ashamed, make [him] depressed, make [him] cry.” He was banned from ESPN’s Bristol campus. His only affiliation with ESPN was during a short stint on Patrick’s radio show prior to Patrick’s departure from ESPN.

The last decade of Olbermann’s career consisted of his role as part liberal advocacy journalist/part Peter Finch in Network on his MSNBC/CurrentTV show, Countdown with Keith Olbermann. Countdown is clearly the inspiration for this new program. Olbermann brought his signatures segments, Oddball now Time Marches On and The Worst Person in the World now The Worst Person in the Sports World. Add a cup of nostalgia (a segment called This Day in Keith History which celebrates funny moments from Olbermann’s past with the World Wide Leader in sports) and a few topical live interviews per night and you have Olbermann. Olbermann’s cocktail of velocity, high production values, satire, and lengthy brainy essays separated him in the world of cable news, providing the template for MSNBC to lean forward. In the world of ESPN, the Olbermann feels both unique and oddly out-of-place.

As always, Olbermann shines in his interviews. As with Countdown, he’s subverts the cable news/sports trope: the predetermined sparring match. In most of cable news an anchor sets the table with their point of view and brings on someone to shout with or the anchor takes no stance and brings on two people with competing points of view and plays referee as they shout at each other.  Instead Olbermann embraces the slant instead of engaging in a false debate. Olbermann takes a stand than uses his guest to reinforce his stance and furthers the conversation on the topic. These tactics are refreshing to see on what Olbermann’s first guest called the Skip Bayless network. Bayless’ show ESPN First Take’s motto is Embrace Debate. On First Take Bayless and fellow debater Stephen A. Smith embrace that false debate for two hours straight followed by a repeat. Other ESPN commentators like Pardon the Interruption’s Mike Wilbon, Tony Kornheiser, Bomani Jones, and the screeching heads on ESPN’s Around the Horn make their living doing just that with varying degrees of entertainment value.

What ails the infant incarnation of Olbermann failed to apply to its storytelling is one crucial element: context. On Monday night’s episode, Olbermann’s attempted to attack the sports world with the voracity that he attacked politics and the news of the day felt ill-conceived. Olbermann’s Bush era Special Comment sized attack on Manish Mehta’s contradictory reporting on the New York Jets’ QB situation. His special comments tackled issues of massive importance like gun control in the wake of the Gabby Giffords shooting, or the War in Iraq. Here was Olbermann placing the same scrutiny on who will be the New York Jets starting QB.

Olbermann will hopefully scale back this level of aggression on topics that aren’t earth shattering. This overdramatic approach is one-way Olbermann fits with the modern ESPN a network whose identity is tied with its sheer volume of coverage of a topic. Whether this will remain his approach is questionable. No show structure is built in any singular episode or week of shows. Live daily shows evolve through trial and error. Olbermann will be no different.

The greater question about Keith Olbermann’s return to ESPN is whether is a harbinger of things to come. Many have speculated that ESPN’s recent high-profile moves may be an attempt get “smarter.” ESPN President John Skipper denies this assertion but one thing is clear the network is on the offensive. The birth of competitors like NBC Sports Network and Fox Sports 1 and the success of Bill Simmons’ ESPN owned Grantland have shifted the landscape of ESPN. Despite the network’s beliefs detailed in James Andrew Miller’s seminal ESPN book Those Guys Have All The Fun, ESPN is clearly no longer a singular entity. No network is an island; Olbermann is a sign of this. ESPN is methodically diversifying its portfolio if not pivoting the axis of ESPN’s content. This isn’t the first time ESPN has diversified its content. The network has experimented talk shows, game shows, and an ill-fated original series. These developments did not hold. ESPN retreated back to its mean, an unending wave of analysis and analysis of analysis with islands of sports in between. Only time will tell where this wave crashes.

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Miley Cyrus: Modern Day Al Jolson?

The New Yorker‘s Jody Rosen bluntly opined on the Miley Cyrus “outrage” on her MTV Video Music Awards performance.  Rosen’s conclusion: it’s about race stupid.

Cyrus has spent a lot of time recently toying with racial imagery. We’ve seen Cyrus twerking her way through the video for her big hit “We Can’t Stop,” professing her love for “hood music,” and claiming spiritual affinity with Lil’ Kim. Last night, as Cyrus stalked the stage, mugging and twerking, and paused to spank and simulate analingus upon the ass of a thickly set African-American backup dancer, her act tipped over into what we may as well just call racism: a minstrel show routine whose ghoulishness was heightened by Cyrus’s madcap charisma, and by the dark beauty of “We Can’t Stop” — by a good distance, the most powerful pop hit of 2013.

A doctoral dissertation could (and will) be written on the racial, class, and gender dynamics of Cyrus’s shtick. I’ll make just one historical note. For white performers, minstrelsy has always been a means to an end: a shortcut to self-actualization. The archetypal example is in The Jazz Singer (1927), in which Al Jolson’s immigrant striver puts on the blackface mask to cast off his immigrant Jewish patrimony and remake himself as an all-American pop star.

Cyrus’s twerk act gives minstrelsy a postmodern careerist spin. Cyrus is annexing working-class black “ratchet” culture, the potent sexual symbolism of black female bodies, to the cause of her reinvention: her transformation from squeaky-clean Disney-pop poster girl to grown-up hipster-provocateur. (Want to wipe away the sickly-sweet scent of the Magic Kingdom? Go slumming in a black strip club.) Cyrus may indeed feel a cosmic connection to Lil’ Kim and the music of “the hood.” But the reason that these affinities are coming out now, at the VMAs and elsewhere, is because it’s good for business.

Being a Cable News Channel Means Never Saying You’re Sorry

MSNBC’s non mea culpa mea culpa that its prime time experiment is in trouble is fascinating the most fascinating part of the network’s decision to move Ed Shultz back to weeknights.  The problem with the move was less with promoting Chris Hayes to the 8 p.m. slot and more with the rationale for demoting Shultz. Moving Shultz to start a weekend afternoon block with MSNBC talking head Karen Finney was an interesting yet unwarranted demotion. The move was driven by the Internet culture critic’s love affair with Shultz’s replacement Chris Hayes. Worst of all, it was a wrong turn.

Chris Hayes

Removing a successful primetime host like Shultz and his rabid blue-collar Democrat audience and replacing him with a relative neophyte i.e. Hayes with a contrasting style, smaller audience who’s learning on the fly; it rarely works. In this case, that rabid audience fled the time slot. It’s a cocky maneuver that only Fox could get away with in this era. The risk is high. Audiences are hard to gain and easy to lose.  This does not prevent that Hayes will never find his footing. Perhaps in time he’ll find his prime time voice. His weekend show which still airs 8AM on Saturdays and Sundays with its new host Steve Kornacki allows breathing room to wade into grad school political fistfights with intellectuals over two hours with little competition from his competitors on the other networks. Beyond that Hayes a faced the deflating political news marketplace and breaking news does not drive viewers to MSNBC.

MSNBC once christened itself “The Place for Politics.” It and most of cable news is just that. Its ratings fortunes rise and fall with the political season. When politicians share the stage with the rest of the news world firebrands harping on principle isn’t as appealing to audiences. MSNBC felt that it was finally more than this. This is a falsehood.

Cable News is about trust, dedication, and clarity.  MSNBC has none. When you have no trust, dedication, or clarity viewers only flock to you when it is your season. For CNN its breaking news, for HLN its sensationalistic trials and investigations and for MSNBC and Fox News its elections. Fox News’ ratings returned to mean, as have MSNBCs. MSNBC’s mean is lower than Fox News’ because Fox News viewers know what its, MSNBC’s viewers do not.

MSNBC’s liberal, politics fueled, mosh pit of pundits rode the momentum of the 2012 election year into a firm second place footing the cable news rankings. In 2012, MSNBC’s ratings jumped by double digits. Led by Rachel Maddow, the network reached the highs not seen since Countdown with Keith Olbermann’s height in the midst of yet another election year 2008. Olbermann left the left the network in early 2011.

Ed Schultz

Shultz, a rare successful liberal talk radio host, was a bit player on the network. The abrupt departure of Olbermann Shultz into the forefront, first as Maddow’s lead out and most successfully as Maddow’s lead in. The ill-fitting Ed Schultz and his blue-collar mad dog shout fest approach to political TV was  the contrast to Maddow’s erudite style. Hayes, like Maddow and fellow prime time host Lawrence O’Donnell’s show share Countdown’s DNA.  They’re brainy, wordy, and nerdy intellectualists.  This clear contrast, the Chris Hayes Internet press love fest, and the network’s ratings led to this change. These are severe misreading of reality. Election year ratings are clearly steroidal and should not be a part of any scheduling and contract decision-making. The love internet television community is not representative of the love of cable news audiences. Cable news audiences are among the oldest on television and glacial in their tastes. Hayes is clearly a dreamboat for the political conversation many young liberal bloggers hope will appear.  Worst of all,  the network believed it became the political home for the left, instead of becoming the political home for the left and counterweight to Fox News.

Fox News gradually built its foundation and the trust of its audience over half a decade becoming both the political and cultural home for the right. Every nook, cranny and everything in between is a shaped from a right slanted prospective. Fox News can afford to make dramatic shifts to its schedule (i.e. adding Glenn Beck riding him to massive success and dumping him less than two years later) because its audience trusts them. MSNBC’s morning co-host Joe Scarborough is a conservative. The bulk of MSNBC’s programming takes no obvious slant. A cultural home is not established with one good year or two or a prime time lineup. MSNBC’s slant is a blip in its history. Fox News’ slant is its history. MSNBC is not a true counterweight for Fox News. MSNBC is news organization with a success cranky liberal editorial page that’s quickly slanting the trajectory of the network. MSNBC must decide what it is or it will continue to fall victim to the ebbs and flows of the news cycle or embrace its slant. Once it chooses it trajectory it will gain its footing and audience over a period of years. Only then will the blows of the news cycle soften.

The difference between songs and performance pieces

On a 2006 episode of the WBEZ radio show Sound Opinions, multi-hyphenate music maven Jon Brion offers his theory on the difference between Nirvana or Radiohead and Led Zeppelin.

The wide ranging interview starts at 20:00 mark below.

Bronze and Steel

Summer. The time of year we mock up godlike beings and watch them slug the daylight out of each other to the beat of our ancestors’ ritual bonfires and flaming wheels. Here we are.

Superman, “son of El” whose power draws support from the Sun, seems the most natural fit for our attention.

Furthermore, he is the first, and some may argue the best, superhero–that creature ornamenting the nation’s consciousness since the early-mid Twentieth Century, breaking the mold of the folk hero and renewing the demigod along pop-culture lines. (One may argue, however, that demigods have always belonged more or less to pop culture, and had became the stuff of academics and classicists and serious modern poets long after the public imagination had moved on and they were retired.)

I’ve not said anything new. Much like Warner Bros.’ Man of Steel, should we believe the accusations. Don’t. It has brought with it more than a few reinventions, and these their own trajectories. In any event, the film is worth discussing. And nearly everyone, whatever their opinion, is. But this isn’t a movie review. Nor is it a drawing of battle lines between comic books and screen. Or Reeve and Cavill. Or “our” Superman, and “yours”… Ceci n’est pas une gripe. I take instead the one thing that really surprised me. No, not that.

Ex-captives, under the command of a military leader, who after many years in exodus are, for the survival not only of their people but their way of life, bent on violently settling a new homeland. You hear the audience chat about Space Nazis. A lot of it tongue-in-cheek. But it’s consistently what one hears when it comes to describing General Zod’s Kryptonians. Because that’s what we’re comfortable with. Truth be told, if it hadn’t been for the monotone raised by these remarks, I may not have given the allusiveness of the film much thought. However, Man of Steel seems to have more uncomfortable ideas embedded in it.

A second look at the top of the last paragraph maybe isn’t necessary. Less necessary is that an analogy a storyteller uses is a good analogy, or a factually historical one. This is partly why, on the other hand, Godwin’s Law can exist; and why oftentimes people consciously put the Holocaust inside the ancient Hebrew conquests as though it is a double image they are trying to bring into focus. If an analogy can be understood, that is everything. So what is disconcerting about Man of Steel is that such a line has materialized between Space Nazi (at least two of the Kryptonians in the film have distinguishing Germanic accents) and a characterization by far closer to the blurb version of the biblical defeat of Canaan than to the predations of Nazi Germany. It doesn’t matter if the analogy’s not instantly recognizable. I’ll come back to this in a moment.

Let’s get real, though. Screenwriter David Goyer is himself a Jew. One who, by his own admission, had brushes with anti-Semitism growing up. And while franchise co-creators Siegel and Shuster famously patterned the Superman of 1938 onward after concealment and assimilation in Diaspora–roughly a decade before the declaration of a Jewish state, I might add–they did so by grounding him in a myth meaningful to them, a rocket ship a good futurist transliteration for the basket among the reeds. The emergent angst that runs the film through is nothing new either. Trying to discover or get in touch with one’s heritage in an alien world, and the question of preserving it, defining it–writers have gone back, redeveloped, branched off, and blown this up over the years. There’s a pretty even continuum.

Let’s take a further look. Clark Kent, as much as his home is Earth, is a Kryptonian, named Kal-El. A Kryptonian the same, and not the same, as Zod and Zod’s followers. Depending on which meaning of the word one turns to, a Hebrew is quite different from a Jew. “Jew” is historically younger. A Jew is a descendant of the kingdom of Judah, nominally the last surviving of the twelve tribes of Israel; Israel the collection of Hebrews once united under Moses and then Joshua ben Nun. In Man of Steel, Krypton has its own tribes, its different castes. Kal-El’s father Jor is of the science caste, from which Kal himself is only “loosely” descended. The militarist Kryptonians–its fierce protectors–are obviously from the warrior caste: they are the battling Hebrews of old, and Zod–as I’ve alluded before, but hadn’t explicitly connected them–is the Joshua-ben-Nun figure. The existential and moral differences between Kal and Zod, and Kal’s refusal to transplant and restart Krypton’s outlived, rigid and violent history, bring to mind a soft, even ambivalent, Jewish apologetics. A Jew of course is different from a Hebrew–and yet–and yet–. In one way, what we have is a choice as to the “kind of man you want to grow up to be,” as Jonathan Kent, Kal’s adopted father, puts it; the kind of successor to Moses one should be. And in another, there is a distancing oneself from the unflattering aspects no longer, or which one feels should no longer be, relevant, or widely a part of one’s culture. The film is caught in a reflex of defending one’s culture from history while still allowing it a sense of history. (This sense of history is made tangible in Kal’s “Superman” suit. It is the only old-Kryptonian thing to make it to the end, and, cleverly, bears the family crest meaning “hope”: hope is the one remainder from the past, and the sole thing left around to enter the future.) At times the film pushes even further. I had said “loosely” descended when describing Kal earlier. The description is ironic. Kal, as we learn, is “Krypton’s first natural birth in centuries.” He had not been biologically engineered. In other words, he is free bodily from the traditions of his people, too. If ever there was an analog questioning circumcision, this is it.

Questioning–seemingly at odds with the Superman of yesterday–is relentless in Man of Steel. However, by making Zod, the Joshua ben Nun stand-in, the villain–decisively, as an embodiment of complete destructiveness and hopelessness–Goyer does form a clear statement about identity. Not that he doesn’t allow one last gasp. Extending the screenplay’s method of analogy into the tragic–in the most controversial scene–he backtracks, so that what we end up with is the emotional plight of an individual who has helped, with his own hands, by grappling with its heritage, erase his own culture.

How sympathetic this is may just depend on whether the pain and guilt, and trauma of ambivalence, is felt to be genuine, or not.

Man of Steel: A tale of two Joshuas?

Man of Steel: A tale of two Joshuas?

Only it’s not that simple. The real difficulty with analogy, and the ineradicable Jewishness that swims in Superman, comes from Man of Steel’s punched-up Christian imagery and themes. There’re a dozen or so allusions to the accepted Christian narrative of the life of Joshua ben Joseph–“Jesus,” rendered in the Latin–falling somewhere between the heavy-handed shot of Kal as Clark as Kal in the church, framed by the stained glass window, and the subtler one of him atop a mound of skulls. It’s no mystery Jesus was a Jew. Or that the messianic sect of Judaism gathered around him had played with the same analogy at work in Goyer’s screenplay, contrasting a modern Jew against Joshua of the Tanakh. No, but what it amounts to is again the tearing in two of Jesus’ identity; a rip-off starring Superman. And this after Nolan already Christified Batman. It’s getting to be a bit much.

It is far from Jewish apologetics, too. About as far as an apologetics can be pushed is using the Hebrew-Kryptonian analogy to denounce Israeli aggression in Palestine–a kind of doubling back and reevaluating, giving a new ironic lens to assimilation, with Clark Kent in the spotlight. You’re past the limit when you reach for the Gospels.

Here’s where it gets slippery. This second, Christ-Kal analogy may not be anti-Semitic either, but it was nevertheless a questionable decision to commit to it when the villains resemble the forebears of the Jews. In a sense, the Christian-European anti-Semitism that has been going on for centuries is revitalized. I say “in a sense,” because anti-Semitism clings to symbols, whole parts of the subconscious, used in the cultural imagination of the West. Participating in this imagination, namely with the Christ figure–used to crucify Jews endlessly–one risks blindly passing on a string of themes, however powerless or distorted beyond instant recognition, woven through it. Zod and his followers’ refusal to adapt to Earth’s conditions and join Kal in coexistence with its people, comes to mind. Whatever adaptation, or coexistence, would mean–one Kryptonian blending in is more believable than an army–doesn’t matter so much as how this points to and mimics the condemning of those who do not convert to the ways of the “our Lord and Savior.” The dangerous aliens, it says, showing us the World Engine, if they are not made to be like us, will destroy us all. Which returns us to the problem of the third factor in the Hebrew-Kryptonian analogy. If Nazi was just a decoy, there wouldn’t be a problem. It would still be lazy, but not a problem. The issue is that Nazi is an analogic convenience. It attaches itself, through the popular imagination, too easily. Like a target. And like a target it reduces whatever it attaches to to one unmistakable purpose. Nazi lebensraum, military and eugenics engineering, and, above all, acts of genocide, these things snap right into place when thinking about the Kryptonians in Man of Steel. Never mind that Zod’s forces are not interested in genocide. Their goal is to terraform Earth. To colonize it, to rebuild home there. If there is “genocide,” it is a side-effect. Zod’s forces don’t care about ethnic cleansing; they don’t consider humanity at all. This is without even mentioning the summary at the top of paragraph five. Or the bulk of what I have already gone through, that Kal is of their race. I mean, the whole race’s sacred identity (the Codex, the film’s MacGuffin), allegorically is broken down from an object into living tissue and is literally in him! Kal is a zooming, flying, indestructible Ark of the Covenant! (Krypton’s destruction merges that of the First and Second Temple.) Earlier, when I’d said the film is caught in a reflex of defending one’s culture…, it may have seemed strange, or contradictory. But where a single man is the recipient and therefore the bearer of a culture, it makes perfect sense. Alas, this is all ignored, neverminded, and the Hebrews are drawn into analogy with the very people who persecuted them, later, as Jews, persecuted them with the very same underlying logic as all communal-victimism movements parading Christ had, through the centuries. The complexity beneath the film’s surface, beneath the surface of culture, breaks down; the danger of analogy (as a mode of thought) reveals itself. Everything sinks into a cartoon again. And with Christ so foregrounded, and Nazis so irrelevant, we risk swallowing Man of Steel as Christ(ian America) versus foreign colonizers/terrorists. (I can’t help but think how much more emphatic this must read in Islamophobic Europe.)

Which of course, if not shunting the Hebrews off into cardboard villainy, forgets about the Jewish drama completely. So why is this important? Well, to take nothing away from “current events,” the topical is a surface reflection. The real fight is at the level of history. In other words, the past does not exist in any appreciable sense outside of the present. It is, past against present, present against present. Or, a single man is the recipient and therefore the bearer of a culture. In an age with no temple, Jew or Gentile, in a mobile, floating age, this is especially true. Man of Steel’s deeper analogy gets at the resurrection of the dead. Ghosts, if we’re not careful, are what, while still living, we will become, too. Ghosts, if they find themselves alone, purposeless, soulless, may take us to a bitter nihilism. Ghosts, however, must be sought out. We do not and we’ll never even realize how much we’re losing.