Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Keith Olbermann Triumphantly Returns to ESPN

F. Scott Fitzgerald once declared "There are no second acts in American lives." The well-read Keith Olbermann--who infamously "napalmed" bridges at ESPN instead of just burning them--is no doubt familiar with that quote and he is attempting to disprove it. Olbermann returned to the self-proclaimed "Worldwide Leader" on Monday as the host of Olbermann, a one hour nightly show featuring Olbermann's perspectives on a variety of sports-related subjects plus interviews with media members and sports figures. Intelligent sportswriting is hard to find and should always be savored; Olbermann's writing is superb and he is also excellent at delivering those words on air (which is a completely different skill).

Olbermann is smart, funny and edgy. He does not suffer fools gladly--or at all, for that matter--which is the major reason he always seems to be at war with his bosses, his colleagues and the world in general. I can do without hearing his political views--which are not nearly as smart, funny or edgy as his take on the sports world--but after watching the premiere episode of his new show I realized just how much I missed listening to Olbermann dispense wisdom and wit about both how the games are played and how the games are covered.

Olbermann's blistering but accurate take on the latter subject will not win him many friends in the media world, not that Olbermann cares about that at all; Olbermann spent the entire first segment pointing out how one incompetent New York writer manufactured out of thin air the idea that New York Jets' Coach Rex Ryan's job is at stake because of how Ryan used quarterback Mark Sanchez in a preseason game. That writer, having no source other than his own feverish Twitter rant, then published a story acting as if his groundless speculations have some basis in fact. Olbermann notes that the responsible thing for that writer--and for the other media members working the Jets' beat--to do would be to ask Ryan and/or Ryan's employer about this directly but instead Ryan's postgame press conference turned into a bizarre Kabuki theater performance during which the media members belligerently repeated insipid questions and an exasperated Ryan issued increasingly sarcastic replies. Olbermann lamented that actual, legitimate reporting is dead and that, instead of investigating and covering news, media members now create fake controversies in order to sell newspapers, increase TV ratings and/or generate website hits. Olbermann's critique was savage, hilarious and sad: he put the incompetent writer on blast, he made some very funny (and biting) jokes and he exposed the deplorable state of modern media coverage.

It will be interesting to see the blowback from Olbermann's debut. Incompetent people do not like it one bit when their incompetence is exposed to the world, so Olbermann will catch a lot of flak, but I applaud his willingness and ability to call out people who are not doing their jobs properly; the incompetent media members give all media members a bad name--and they are stealing money as surely as the PED cheaters are stealing money from the fans. The sooner that the sports world rids itself of charlatans, cheaters and fools the better off we all will be.

Of course, Olbermann's new/old employer is as guilty as anyone else of the crimes against journalism that Olbermann so eloquently cited. It is interesting that Olbermann's show is based not at ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut but rather in New York City. His show is not being aired on the flagship channel but rather on ESPN2, the network that Olbermann helped launch more than two decades ago when he said, with gallows humor, "Welcome to the end of our careers." ESPN is keeping Olbermann at arm's distance from where the sausage is made, so to speak; don't look for ESPN's ubiquitous blowhard Skip Bayless as a guest on Olbermann's show anytime soon.

Catch Olbermann while you can, because I am not sure that his marriage with ESPN will last very long. Olbermann is intelligent and fearless, two characteristics that are not well appreciated in a monolithic bureaucracy. It seems inevitable that Olbermann will say the "wrong" thing and/or offend the "wrong" person but it will be fun seeing how many apple carts he can overturn before he is sent back into exile.

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