Keith Olbermann isn’t exactly Howard Beale (he doesn’t spontaneously collapse at the end of each show, and, despite what Bill O’Reilly might think, he isn’t mentally ill), but three decades after the “mad prophet of the airwaves” from 1976’s Network inspired millions to scream, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” from their windows, MSNBC’s Countdown with Keith Olbermann has become the newscast embodiment of that indignant sentiment. Originally launched in 2002 as Countdown: Iraq, a program counting down to the inevitable titular war, Olbermann officially took over as anchor two weeks after the invasion, aiming to be the antithesis of right-wing pundits like O’Reilly, who habitually peddle opinion as hard news. Ironic, since Rupert Murdoch allegedly started Fox News in the mid ’90s as a response to what he deemed “the liberal media.” In a sense, Fox News willed Murdoch’s paranoia into reality by sheer virtue of its blatant bias, creating an increasingly polarized news media that now finds Olbermann as its left-wing ringleader.
While O’Reilly’s ratings have dipped in recent months, Countdown has reached a new peak, becoming MSNBC’s flagship show, and with good reason. CNN responded to the increasingly sensationalistic tone of broadcast news—influenced by both Hollywood bombast and Fox’s loud, flashy attempts to boost ratings—with over-the-top ridiculousness like The Situation Room. MSNBC is still the lowest rated of the three big news networks, but it’s also the best. The channel’s chief conservative talking head is Joe Scarborough, a man with experience on Capitol Hill and a sense of reason—two things O’Reilly lacks. Olbermann is sandwiched between Scarborough and the steadfastly independent-minded Chris Matthews, making for a three-hour news block that’s not only entertaining to watch but is actually fair and balanced.
Olbermann may not have completely kept his vow to stay out of the way of the news, but his dissenting outrage over the war (not to mention every other countless scandal coming out of the Bush administration) has become the majority opinion in America. It remains to be seen how Olbermann will function under the rule of a Democratic president, but his admiration for broadcast media pioneers like Walter Cronkite, Edward R. Murrow (whose famous “Good night, and good luck” he appropriates at the end of each show), and Chet Huntley and David Brinkley (Countdown’s opening theme, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, is a nod to the Huntley-Brinkley Report, which also used the music in its opening credits), points to his respect for incisive reporting and watchdog journalism. The target is not a specific political party, but whoever holds the power. If the media was a lapdog in the days leading up to Bush’s war, Olbermann has made it his business to retroactively hold the powers that be accountable.
The show’s format counts down the top five news stories of the day, though obviously Olbermann leads with the biggest story while the number one slot is typically reserved for nonsense involving Anna Nicole Smith, Britney Spears or American Idol (during which annoying New York radio personality Maria Milito opines). One of several light-hearted but no less relevant segments is “Worst Person in the World,” in which Olbermann nominates three offenders; common contenders include assholes like Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh, but presumptive bleeding hearts are also fair game: Tom Cruise, David Beckham, Snoop Dogg. “Bill O,” Olbermann’s arch nemesis, however, is the segment’s most frequent honoree: he’s made the list over 50 times, once even snagging all three spots—“worse,” “worser,” and “worst”—in one day. (Geraldo Rivera recently earned the title “Best Person in the World” for a day for standing up to O’Reilly’s brazenly bigoted immigration stance.)
On the fifth anniversary of 9/11, Countdown aired a best-of assortment of Olbermann’s occasional “Special Comment” segments—also inspired by Murrow—with titles such as “Bush owes us an apology” and “Have you no sense of decency, sir?” It was a sobering, acerbic and necessary indictment of “Mr. Bush,” as Olbermann frequently calls him, in stark contrast to other networks’ programming on that night. He won’t let a story die just because the news cycle is up or the public may not be interested anymore, which is why, each night, he ends his show by counting the days since “mission accomplished” in Iraq. Olbermann isn’t a prophet any more than Howard Beale was—he’s merely a man saying what’s needed to be said for years.