Moyers Asked Olbermann: 'Should Journalists Take Sides?'

Call it a meeting of the Bush-bashing minds. Longtime PBS host Bill Moyers invited on MSNBC host Keith Olbermann for Friday’s edition of Bill Moyers Journal. The strangest moment came as Moyers suggested that in a polarized country, it might be distasteful for journalists to favor one side. Moyers must be playing devil’s advocate, because he’s been every bit as vituperative against Bush as Olbermann.

The worries about polarization and contributing to "a nation of screechers" came up twice.

BILL MOYERS: It seems to me that this country has become two choirs, each side listening to, only to its own preachers. If -- should journalists take sides when everybody else is polarized?

KEITH OLBERMANN: The definition now of being on one side is to have not-- flag wavingly supported the president in anything he wanted, not handed him carte blanche after carte blanche after carte blanche.

BILL MOYERS: Not saying mission accompli--


BILL MOYERS: – Mission accomplished?

KEITH OLBERMANN: Exactly. It-- it is-- I said that-- I'm on the air with Chris Matthews on that day with miss-- mission accomplished on May 1st in 2003. And I-- and he's talking about this as George Bush's moment in history and this. And I said, "Don't you think that him wearing a flight suit's going to be a little bit of a problem during the election cam-- "No. This is American history at its finest." I thought, "Gee, I'm the guy's wearing a flight suit." You talk about the emperor's new clothes. Here it is. He-- his new clothes are a flight suit when there was a controversy over whether or not he-- he fulfilled his Air National Guard service. You-- you just-- to-- to say that suddenly became subjective, just to recognize that. It was as if you were saying, "I'm only going to report," back to the sports analogies. I'm only going to report the Dodgers scores when they win.

Later, Moyers decided to read viewer mail to Olbermann, and the former sports anchor couldn’t help but joke about his biases:

BILL MOYERS: Quote, "I have long had mixed feelings about Keith Olbermann. While it's nice to have a cable anchor how doesn't obsequiously parrot Republican National Committee talking points, I struggle with the fear that angry histrionics on both sides create more of the ugly polarization that paralyzes our institutions and prevents Americans finding common ground. How does Mr. Olbermann differentiate his ad hominem attacks from those we see on the other side?" What do you say to Jesse?

KEITH OLBERMANN: Well, they're better written. The first-- no, I hate to-- I-- it's the most vulnerable point because it bothers me, too. It do-- it's the one criticism that I think is absolutely fair. We're doing the same thing. It is-- it becomes a nation of screechers. It's never a good thing. But emergency rules do apply. I would like nothing better than to go back and do maybe a sportscast every night. But I think the stuff that I'm talking about is so obvious and will be viewed in such terms of certainty by history that this era will be looked at the way we look now at the-- at the presidents and the-- the leaders of this country who rolled back Reconstruction. I think it's that obvious. And I think only under those circumstances would I go this far out on a limb and be this vociferous about it.

At least at that moment Olbermann was admitting he was vociferously anti-Bush. Minutes earlier, the two suggested that conservatives might be mistaken to think Keith had a liberal tilt:

BILL MOYERS: Yeah, I noticed when you a sportscaster you never took sides between the teams on the field. But a lot of people think you've taken sides now. They think you've taken sides with the progressive or liberal story.

KEITH OLBERMANN: They didn't say that a lot during the Lewinsky thing. I always find that kind of ironic as I've seen some of the criticism from the right. But, what I've done on the air in the last 4 1/2 years, and particularly in the last year and a half since the special comments began, is really journalism. It's saying here's what you're being told. Here's the identifiable objective fact to the situation. This statement from the government may be a lie. And what we all did in this country, those who had voted for this president and those who did not, was to say we're in dire trouble. We've been attacked. Let's rally around him, give him all the support we can, and we will suspend our disbelief. The moment that it began to be obvious that we were being manipulated, used-- that was when my suspicions began to take voice.

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis