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Olbermann Jousts Koppel in Battle of High Horses

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The Germans should have invented a word that’s like “schadenfreude,” but describing the feeling that comes when someone expresses something in a such a way that you feel vaguely uncomfortable agreeing with them. Schaden-noddin’, maybe?

Whatever the word, it would roughly describe what I felt last night as Keith Olbermann made some  convincing points in a Special Comment that furiously (and sanctimoniously) rebutted Ted Koppel‘s passionate (and sanctimonious) bemoaning of  opinion in TV news today.

First, the background. After Olbermann’s suspension for donating money to three Democratic candidates in the midterm elections, Koppel wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post citing Olbermann and the incident as an example of everything that was wrong with cable news today.

Viewers, he argued, were being ill-served by opinionated hosts—Olbermann, Rachel Maddow and Chris Matthews at MSNBC, Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity at Fox News—who deliver news selected to flatter their audience’s worldview: “the world not as it is, but as partisans (and loyal viewers) at either end of the political spectrum would like it to be.” They are able to do so, Koppel argued, because their shows make a lot of money, which in turn leads back to what is in his view the original sin of TV journalism: the decision to operate news divisions as profit centers rather than public services, dating long before cable to the emergence of 60 Minutes as a primetime hit.

Olbermann, you had to expect, was not going to care for being likened to regular Worst Person in the World O’Reilly. And he came back last night with a Special Comment that accused Koppel of  misrepresenting the pre-cable history of TV news, of offering a poor representation of “objectivity” and its importance, and of being a prime example of a problem in news—essentially, distorting truth in the interests of balance—that Olbermann and company are now seeking to correct.

And if his commentary was a little, or more than a little, self-serving, I have to agree with Olbermann. On the first two of those points, anyway.

First, Olbermann makes an excellent and indisputable point that the bright line between the objective past and the subjective present is really not so bright or sharp. Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, he notes, while held up as pillars of neutrality today, are best remembered precisely for moments in which they made informed judgments: Murrow on Sen. Joseph McCarthy, Cronkite on Watergate and the Vietnam War.

I call that an excellent point, of course, because I’ve made it myself in the past, but it also points up a basic problem with our language when we have this whole debate. Namely, what journalists and people who talk about them generally call “objectivity” is not actual objectivity, but something more like “neutrality” (often a false and labored one). Objectivity does not mean having no opinion, taking no side or expressing no point of view. It means seeking, acknowledging and interpreting objective evidence, even when it conflicts with your preconceptions or with what you wish to be true. You can have subjective beliefs—because we all do—and yet subordinate them to objective evidence.

In most fields, someone who simply processes information yet is unable or unwilling ever to draw conclusions from it would not be considered very useful; only in journalism is that somehow the ideal. Koppel does no one any favors by reinforcing that concept. (Or by longing for the days when Olbermann’s contributions would be forbidden to avoid “the appearance” of partisanship; journalists should not be concerned about the appearance, as opposed to the actuality, of anything.)

And in fact, as Olbermann notes, some of Koppel’s best work has come from drawing an informed conclusion: say, that the Iran hostage crisis was sufficiently important to deserve a nightly newscast, which came to be called Nightline. (And which, by the way, was and has been a shining example of using news to make a dollar—nor is there anything wrong with that.)

Where Olbermann starts to get carried away in his high dudgeon is in, essentially, blaming Koppel and his conception of proper TV news for the Iraq War. Before, during and after the war, he says, the press failed to question the evidence that going to war was based on; “when truth was needed, all we got was facts–mostly lies, anyway.”

Well, not exactly. The real, valid criticism would be that, amid all the embedding of reporters and flashy video, we had an lack of incontrovertible facts—in particular about Saddam’s WMDs or the lack thereof—and that absence of facts was not treated with appropriate skepticism. Or mostly it wasn’t; in fact, the very old-school Knight-Ridder Washington bureau was almost alone in questioning the evidence for war, hard, and in turning out to have been right.

In other words, the problem was neither partisanship nor a slavish devotion to “facts”; it was the willingness and ability to assess a field of incomplete information and take the risk of making an informed judgment based on it. The answer was not reporting, “This side says X and this side says Y, who do you believe?”; but it was also not just editorializing and reflexively saying that, if the Bush administration said it was day, then it must be night. (Although, admittedly, in this particular case, that would have gotten you closer to the correct answer on WMDs.)

It’s odd, in any case, for Olbermann in one breath to say that Koppel is part of a great news tradition that he is actually upholding, then turn around and say that Koppel’s news tradition betrayed us and MSNBC is cleaning up the mess. (And, in the process, aggrandizing Olbermann as the true heir to Murrow. Then again, Koppel’s piece too carries an air of generational competition—look at how these new guys with their opinions and flashy graphics are screwing up the public trust we safeguarded!)

It also personalizes the issue, in a way that’s not helpful to Olbermann’s argument. Media observers like to turn arguments like this into personality stories, and in this case, I worry it boils down to: who do you think is the greater man, Ted Koppel or Keith Olbermann? I suspect that a lot of people in the media will want to come down on Koppel’s side—the long-serving, globe-trotting news hound over the guy who sits at a desk and delivers Special Comments—and thus ignore Olbermann’s strongest points.

But in the end, the winner of an argument is not determined by whom you like best, whom you admire most, or whom you want to be right. It comes down to making a call based on the evidence. There should be a term for that, too. What do you say we call it objectivity?