Washington Post media reporter Paul Farhi profiled MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell on the front of Friday’s Style section. The headlines were vaguely promotional. Above a large picture it reads "Lawrence O’Donnell is hitting his marks at the center of MSNBC’s prime time lineup." The actual headline below is "A starring role as the cable guy."
But read deeply into Farhi’s portrait, and it becomes clear that O’Donnell prides himself on being detached – some might say insincere. Late in the piece, Farhi quotes me on how Larry’s done "some very weird shouting and tantrums." In response, O’Donnell says he’s not really outraged on TV, he’s...acting! He's the Master Thespian of Cable News. He’s sort of playing a character for theatrical effect:
O'Donnell has enough detachment and self-awareness to acknowledge that some of what gets on cable is amped up for effect, that part of it is an act and that, to a certain extent, he's playing a character. Real life, and actual governing, he says, bears little resemblance to what you see on a talk show. "Working with Republicans was never like that," he says of his time in government. People on opposite sides of the aisle, he says, tended to address each other reasonably, respectfully and usually honestly, even when they sharply disagreed.
"My weakness is I don't take a lot of this [incendiary rhetoric] seriously," he says after his show. "It's hard to get me outraged. I hate the yelling stuff. I hate the way interruptions look."
Farhi had already noted O'Donnell's constant interruptions in his recent Condi Rice interview. But the reporter caught me off-guard by insisting to O'Donnell there's no integrity in that "self-awareness" as the story wound to a close:
Really? So why does he do it himself at times? Where's the integrity in that?
O'Donnell smiles to himself at the mention of integrity and tells a story about F. Scott Fitzgerald's days as a Hollywood screenwriter. Struggling to complete his first script, Fitzgerald watched as a far-less-talented colleague produced one commercial success after another.
"I don't understand it," one of America's greatest writers said to a studio boss. "I do everything you ask me to do and fail. He's a success and he writes [bleep]."
"Ah," responded the boss, "but even [bleep] has its own integrity."
How's that for an ending?
The profile began with the picture of O'Donnell calling out his own network: "NBC has created a monster and its name is Donald Trump." O'Donnell said he waited for angry calls from network brass. "The non-reaction bespeaks either the network's tolerance for self-embarrassment or O'Donnell's critical importance to MSNBC." Farhi didn't ponder in print that NBC may have considered any discussion of Trump more promotion for Celebrity Apprentice. (It's highly unlikely that O'Donnell didn't have a thumbs-up from MSNBC editors on that sensitive an internal matter before proceeding.) O'Donnell's distaste for red-faced yelling TV came through earlier in the piece:
O'Donnell says he'd like to do a more in-depth work, with a broader range of topics, but it's not in the cards.
"If it were up to me, we'd be doing a PBS show," he says. "I'm trying to train my show instincts to what works in this environment. There are things that deserve better conversations than we're capable of having in eight-minute blocks. But a Jim Lehrer show or a Charlie Rose can't happen here. Mostly, it's me talking to people who agree with me...It's not 'Crossfire' any more. It turns out what works is op-ed TV, like the op-ed page of a newspaper [rather] than a debate."
Farhi also noted O'Donnell's statements from Morning Joe that he's a socialist far to the left of the liberals. Here's what I said in the Post:
"On paper, O'Donnell might seem to have more actual experience in Washington than a former ESPN shouter like Keith," says Tim Graham, the director of media analysis for the conservative Media Research Center in Alexandria. "But he's done some very weird shouting and tantrums."
Graham says O'Donnell tends to find "racism around every Republican corner," such as his denunciation of a recent Republican National Committee ad that he said contained "a racist message" because it suggested that white union bosses were telling a black president what to do.