Olbermann vs our Middling Politics



There’s a disease that’s been affecting the American body politic for some time, one all the more insidious by masking as a cure for what is supposed to be an even bigger ailment – partisanship. It goes by many names (one of the best perhaps “the view from nowhere“) but I like to call it Middling.


Middling is the fetishistic pursuit of an illusory “middle place” in our civic life, free from commitments of any sort – emotional, religious, but especially political – which are always and everywhere seen as forms of “bias” obstructing the search for truth.

It’s sold in many ways, but most commonly as the belief that it’s fashionable to profess no allegiance to any political party or, in the extreme, hold any ideals at all. In one popular expression, it comes across as the desire to mock everything and believe in nothing (because believing in something, of course, opens you up to being mocked).

The Middler

The Middler is also intensely skeptical of (bordering on contemptuous towards) ideals. For them, ideals are the same as ideology, and just as bad as parties in obstructing a clear view of the truth. In place of ideals they profess a “pragmatism” which derives its legitimacy from a caricature of ideals as mindless, inflexible, and ultimately immature.

For the Middler, ideals are the kinds of things only fundamentalists and other zealots have. They’re not zealots, so therefore, they have no ideals or ideologies. It goes without saying, of course, that the belief in the existence and properties of such a political “middle” is itself never regarded by Middlers as a form of ideology.

Now Middlers come by their aversion to ideals, parties, and positions honestly. That is to say, they’re not evil, or necessarily trying to deceive. They’re simply repeating what they’ve been told by people they respect. Those people, in turn, are not evil but simply reacting, I think, to the increasingly hostile and divided tone of our politics. (Of course they also have a product to sell, but that’s another discussion entirely.)

Middling regards partisanship as the principal enemy of the day, holding it to blame exclusively for a loss of civility or sanity.

Now I think they’re right about our coarsening as a culture, and of course I’m concerned about that, too. I just think what the Middlers propose by way of remedy obscures the real problem and ultimately makes matters worse. My issue with the Middlers, then, is not a moral so much as a theoretical and tactical one.

On the level of theory, I question whether it’s possible to have so antiseptic a position towards political, moral, or any other kind of commitment commonly regarded as “bias.” At a tactical level, I question whether – if the goal is to promote conversation about and engagement in the issues of the day – Middling is really the way to go.

Against Middling – Theoretical Concerns

The theoretical argument is simple, though it does have its complexities and nuances, which I recommend highly for the interested reader (start at the bottom of p. 272 of Truth and Method).

It goes like this: you want to be against bias in all forms, eh? Fine. Start speaking.

Ok, when you started speaking (or writing), you had to choose a particular word to start, no? Sure you did. What made you choose that word instead of another? Even better, if a conversation is like a chess match (but even if it isn’t) what made you decide to start with this move rather than that one? With this idea rather than that one?

Aren’t there ideas you hold that you didn’t choose for yourself, that you inherited from the culture, about which you may not even be aware, about which your culture may be unaware?

Call these starting points for and boundaries of conversation “biases” or prejudice if you will, but I like prejudgments more. And good luck trying to get rid of them. Without them, conversation couldn’t even begin, much less distinguish better from lesser arguments.

Against Middling – Tactical and Political Concerns

What Olbermann did masterfully last night is show how it was folks such as Cronkite, Murrow, and the early Ted Koppel – each of whom bore the brunt of “partisan” accusations in their own day – who respectively helped bring an end to Vietnam, McCarthyism, and the Carter presidency (OK Olbermann kind of just implied that last point).

And as I tweeted last night, it wasn’t “objectivity” that exposed Watergate, it was journalism: real, honest journalism that wasn’t trying to play “fair and balanced” games with Nixon on one side and a “partisan” press on the other.

Olbermann did us another favor, however. He suggested that today’s journalistic desire to be free from bias oddly coincided with its utter failure to report effectively, even now, on the Bush Administration’s stated reasons for invading Iraq. In short, he tied the nostalgia for the “old journalism” ascribed to Cronkite with todays journalism as stenography.

In case you think the Judy Miller affair is over, just listen, to an NPR reporter chide a fellow journalist for not taking the Administration’s view of events at face value.

How was this transmogrification of journalism, from speaking truth to power to speaking the truth of power, possible? Without going into details, Olbermann hints that it was through a reduction of truth to mere “facts.”

The truth of Watergate, for example, was that the President broke the law. This is a truth that was being obscured by what today’s Middlers would go after – the “facts” as presented. What a Middling TV, radio, or cable “news host” would do today is try to get “the facts” having a lawyer for the “alleged burglars” debate a real investigative reporter, and then consider their job done.

In a similar way, Middling (non)voters think their civic job is done when they thumb their nose at “the system,” saying things like “a pox on both parties,” then refuse to do anything other that criticize what’s wrong.

Offer a solution? No, that’s for idealists and ideologues. Build something? Why? It could only be mocked (and we couldn’t stand that).

Truth is, Watergate wouldn’t get reported today because “facts” couldn’t have been discovered without someone willing to risk life, limb, and reputation to go out and get them. That’s what people like Murrow did.

Contrary to the belief of those whose feathers he ruffled, Murrow wasn’t an ideological partisan, but he sure had ideals. And he paid the price for them professionally, as Olbermann may yet. Time will tell if the cable viewing market is as supportive of journalism as it is of snark and nostalgia.


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