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Tavis Smiley is Keith Olbermann’s model for what not to do

  • Written by Jason Johnson
One of the few progressives on cable news willing to kick up a fuss, Keith Olbermann returned to T.V. last week just five months after being fired from MSNBC. The former “King of MSNBC” hasn’t skipped a beat.
 Dr. Jason Johnson

One of the few progressives on cable news willing to kick up a fuss, Keith Olbermann returned to T.V. last week just five months after being fired from MSNBC.  The former “King of MSNBC” hasn’t skipped a beat.

In his first two nights alone of “Countdown with Keith Olbermann,” he came out firing on Democrats, Republicans and his former bosses on MSNBC. However, we’ve seen this game before, the comeback of a beloved television star, who starts hot and then fades over time. The question is will Olbermann’s comeback follow the same path as a Tavis Smiley’s, or will he be able to maintain his mojo once the honeymoon of his return wears off?

One of the first cable network hosts, white or black, to come out in support Barack Obama during the Democratic Primary, Olbermann had no problem calling out the racist coverage of the first African-American president before, during and after the campaign. And quiet as it’s kept, this gave Olbermann an underground “John Mayer” level of love in the African-American community. With Olbermann leading the way, MSNBC’s primetime news was the highest rated in African-American households, beating out CNN by over 10K viewers a night and Fox News by over 100K viewers a night.

Olbermann’s wit, sense of humor and penchant for calling out wimps on the left and liars on the right made him a ratings leader. At his peak, he had an on-air, Tupac-and Biggie-level feud with Fox News resident bad boy Bill O’Reilly that made him the only non-Fox News cable show to crack the top 10 in ratings. But in the end, network execs couldn’t “control him,” so he was fired and has resurrected his same show on former Vice President Al Gore’s “CurrentTV,” which hasn’t gotten this much action since it launched in 2005.

So far, Olbermann’s career trajectory has been eerily close to another favorite son of the news watcher Tavis Smiley. They were both the highest rated hosts on stations that were losing to competitors. They were both respected for brining the truth on politics, class and race to the airwaves when no one else would. And they both were fired from their respective stations for being “out of control” and had to start somewhere else. But here is where the two careers might diverge. If the left in America has any hope of keeping a strong voice on cable news heading into 2012, let’s hope Olbermann doesn’t make the same mistakes as Smiley.

When Tavis left BET he could’ve gone anywhere and done anything and the nation would’ve followed him. Instead of really capitalizing on that power he has in many ways steadily disappointed. He phoned in his NPR radio show until it was cancelled. His PBS show is a shadow of the passion of his former BET program. His greatest accomplishment, turning the topics of his shows into the “State of Black America” conferences, was ended prematurely when he cancelled the conferences in a huff after Obama bruised his ego.

If you had told me 10 years ago that Tavis Smiley’s star would flicker as dimly as it does today, I would never have believed you. All that potential, all that power and you have to squint to see it today. If Olbermann isn’t careful, he could make the same mistakes, and cable news and the African-American progressive movement would be worse off for it.

Smiley’s biggest post-BET mistake was thinking that all of the fame and adulation that he earned over the years was about him and not the people who’s beliefs, dreams and politics he represented every night on the air. He got brand new on Obama and made it about him, not politics, and he’s been crawling out of that hole ever since.

Olbermann has a chance to take the disaffected progressives of 2008, and those disappointed with Obama’s policies, and turn them into a force for change through his show. As long as he realizes it’s about their politics, not him or his personal retribution against his former bosses. If he does the former he’ll accomplish great things, if he wants to see what happens when you do the latter, he can just take a look down the dial, way down the dial, for a real-life and disappointing example.

(Dr. Jason Johnson is an associate professor of political science and communications at Hiram College in Ohio, where he teaches courses in campaigns and elections, pop culture, and the politics of sports.  He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)

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