Keith Olbermann reinstated; but question on state of progressive media remains

Update: since this post was written, Keith Olbermann has been reinstated to return to the air Tuesday on MSNBC.

The suspension of MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann (click here for the segment Rachel Maddow did on her colleague being suspended) implicates more than just a question of whether or not he should have been suspended due to the political donations he made.  The double-standard that was applied to Keith Olbermann as a progressive, while MSNBC has turned a blind eye to conservative hosts that have made political donations but have gone unpunished, starts to scratch at the surface of a larger issue. 

The larger issue at play here is that of progressives simply lacking a network of communications that can even start to match or serve as a counterbalance to the juggernaut influence that conservatives have on the mainstream corporate media, starting with Fox [Republican] News.  While progressives may take comfort in having an extensive network of blogs to communicate a progressive message to those that have access to the internet, the blogosphere in its totality does not nearly have the magnitude of influence, reach, and power that conservative radio and Fox News have in the daily discourse that takes place in the corporate media complex as a whole.  The intensity of conservative influence even reaches news outlets that are viewed, erroneously, in a more neutral light by the public.  Take CNN as an example: CNN, which became infamous with Lou Dobbs, continues to house the likes of Jack Cafferty’s cheering of Arizona’s SB 1070 law and other hardline stances Cafferty’s taken on immigration, perhaps to prove a point that the network can be as conservative as Fox News is.  Even worse, with the death of progressive Air America radio network and with the indefinite suspension of Keith Olbermann, progressive media continues to show a precarious state of affairs.  It’s almost as if MSNBC decided to take a step forward or “lean forward” as their new slogan has been touting with the promotion of its prime time lineup of progressive hosts but yet take two steps back with the suspension of Olbermann. 

So why is a network of communications that can match Fox News and its right-wing radio allies key to the success of progressives?  There is no clearer answer to that question than what we saw in the last 2010 midterm election results.  President Obama’s administration had problems communicating its positive accomplishments to the public and that was a major factor that contributed to how Democrats lost control of the House of Representatives.  Asides from major policy issues where Democrats chose to capitulate to Republicans rather than to actually be bolder, progressives’ communications troubles were compounded by three problems that they continue to have: 1) Democratic politicians continue to be rather awkward at how they frame messages,  2) Democrats continue to shy away from actually advertising their own accomplishments (just look at how virtually no Democrat in the campaign season touted the confirmation of the first Latina Supreme Court Justice as an accomplishment of the party), and 3) progressives in general continue to be outgunned by having no centralized network of communications to even begin to present a progressive narrative to the American public should Democrats decide to stand by their accomplishments and frame them appropriately.

Progressives’ communications problems could have been seen a mile away and people like Professor George Lakoff warned of them long ago and it seems that since then (in light of Air America and Keith Olbermann’s suspension) things have gotten worse, not better for progressives.  In “The Obama Code” piece he published on DailyKos in February of 2009, Lakoff had the following to say:

The president is the best political communicator of our age. He has the bully pulpit. He gets media attention from the press. His website is running a permanent campaign, Organizing for Obama, run by his campaign manager David Plouffe. It seeks issue-by-issue support from his huge mailing list. There are plenty of progressive blogs. MoveOn.org now has over five million members.  And yet that is nowhere near enough.

The conservative message machine is huge and still going. There are dozens of conservative think tanks, many with very large communications budgets. The conservative leadership institutes are continuing to turn out thousands of trained conservative spokespeople every year. The conservative apparatus for language creation is still functioning. Conservative talking points are still going out to their network of spokespeople, who are still being booked on tv and radio around the country. About 80% of the talking heads on tv are conservatives. Rush Limbaugh and Fox News are as strong as ever.  There are now progressive voices on MSNBC, Comedy Central, and Air America, but they are still overwhelmed by the Right’s enormous megaphone.  Republicans in Congress can count on overwhelming message support in their home districts and homes states. That is one reason why they were able to stonewall on the President’s stimulus package. They had no serious media competition at home pounding out the Obama vision day after day.

Such national, day-by-day media competition is necessary. Democrats need to build it. Democratic think tanks are strong on policy and programs, but weak on values and vision.  Without the moral arguments based on the Obama values and vision, the policymakers most likely will be unable to regularly address both independent voters and the Limbaugh-Fox News audiences in conservative Republican strongholds.

The president and his administration cannot build such a communication system, nor can the Democrats in Congress. The DNC does not have the resources. It will be up to supporters of the Obama values, not just supporters on the issues, to put such a system in place.  Despite all the organizing strength of Obama supporters, no such organizing effort is now going on. If none is put together, the movement conservatives will face few challenges of fundamental values in their home constituencies and will be able to go on stonewalling with impunity.  That will make the president’s vision that much harder to carry out.

Why is this all of significance to those that seek passage of comprehensive immigration reform?  It is as simple as this: progressives tend to favor a more humane approach towards immigration reform, conservatives tend to reject reform from the get go, arguing instead for policies that at times go beyond merely hard-line stances and alarmingly verge on crossing into white supremacist ideology

Lest you even start to doubt this, just take a look at the kind of rhetoric being used by conservative Fox News right-wing hosts; here’s just a sample of that network’s breakthrough star Glenn Beck calling for detention at Ellis Island of any immigrant that doesn’t speak English:

You can see a continuous list here that Media Matters keeps on the biased stories conservative Fox News features attacking immigrants on a consistent basis.  The contrast could not be clearer between progressive hosts like Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, Ed Schultz, and Lawrence O’Donnell who protray immigrants in a positive light while conservative hosts like Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, and Bill O’Reilly continue to demonize immigrants.  Furthermore, Keith Olbermann, being the trail blazer for other progressive hosts to join MSNBC on prime time, has been also at the forefront of even progressives covering issues that matter to the immigrant rights community.  Perfect example of this was how Olbermann was the only host on MSNBC to immediately give extensive coverage to the DREAM Act once Harry Reid announced that it would be voted on prior to the midterm elections while the rest of the MSNBC hosts focused only on the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.

In order for comprehensive immigration reform to have a good chance of passing, activists will need a strong progressive network of communications to match the certain onslaught of negative messaging that conservatives will launch to derail reform.  MSNBC, with Keith Olbermann as one of the major media figures leading the way, could be the begginning of such a counter attack.  For this reason, it is imperative that immigrant rights activists join the effort to bring back Keith Olbermann because he has not only proven time after time to be a superb advocate for immigrants’ rights but he is a major symbol of access to rally support for immigration reform from the progressive community and even from those that describe themselves as “independents” that might not necessarily have immigration reform as their top issue of concern.  Here are several ways to join the efforts to bring back Keith Olbermann to MSNBC:

1) Sign this Bold Progressives petition asking MSNBC to put Keith Olbermann back on the air.

2) Call MSNBC at (212) 664-3720 and demand Keith Olbermann be brought back out of suspension.

There is no question that MSNBC made a tactical mistake in suspending Keith Olbermann, as its core audience has been quick to react with outrage at the double-standard that has been applied in this situation.  It will be interesting to see how this all unfolds and find out whether this was merely a knee jerk reaction on the part of MSNBC President Phil Griffin that has to do more with egos clashing with Olbermann (as Huffington Post is now reporting) or if this is part of a larger malicious attempt to squash whatever progress MSNBC has done in terms of advancing progressive media in this country (as Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos talked about here).

Update: reinstated, Keith Olbermann tells his side of the story.