The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

Keith Olbermann and Sam Francis

Posted on | November 15, 2010 | 3 Comments

When it was revealed that Keith Olbermann had donated to Democratic candidates he had interviewed, I was not outraged:

Being strictly a neutral, objective journalist myself — “Ethics, shmethics!” — I don’t think Olbermann should be fired from NBC, which is as about as neutral and objective as Pravda or the Daily Worker.

No one paying attention to NBC’s recent operations — e.g., the elevation of Bush-hater David Gregory to Meet the Press host, Chris Matthews’s tingly gushing about Obama, MSNBC’s hiring of Rachel Maddow and Ed Schultz — could miss their tilt toward Democrats.

If NBC News has made a programming decision to appeal to Democratic viewers, this is their own business and my libertarian impulse is to let them do as they pleased. Looking at the situation as a journalist, all that “ethics” required was some honesty about what they were doing. Objectivity is not the same thing as neutrality.

Alas for Olbermann, Howard Kurtz finds that some of his colleagues are more outraged than I was:

From the moment Olbermann was found to have donated money to three Democratic candidates, there has been a deepening sense of anger and frustration among his colleagues . . . [S]everal of NBC’s front-line stars, including Tom Brokaw, have expressed concern to management that Olbermann has badly damaged MSNBC’s reputation for independence. . . .
Network staffers use phrases like “scorched-earth policy” and “totally narcissistic response” to describe how Olbermann has dealt with criticism of his political donations. A recurring theme is that he has made it impossible for MSNBC to argue that it is journalistically different from Fox News, which has no prohibition against political donations by such commentators and talk-show hosts as Sean Hannity and Karl Rove. The word hypocrisy has frequently been aimed at Olbermann.

(Hat tip: Ed Morrissey.) Let me try to explain Olbermann’s situation by an analogy that he would find outrageous: Sam Francis.

You may have never heard of the late Sam Francis, but he was once one of the most influential commentators on the Right. A Ph.D. political scientist and disciple of the great James Burnham, Francis had been a Heritage Foundation scholar and Senate staffer. His 1981 Heritage paper, “The Soviet Strategy of Terror,” is still frequently cited and, I would argue, is essential to understanding the development of modern terrorism.

So by the time Sam became an editorial writer for the Washington Times in 1986, he was already a very eminent person. He won awards for his editorial writing and, during the Bush 41 presidency, got his own regular column in the Times, which was syndicated nationally. In the pre-Fox News era, his occasional appearances on C-SPAN’s “Morning Journal” gave him national prominence.

Now, if you read Wikipedia and other online sources about Sam, you may be forgiven for believing that Sam was fired from the Times for having spoken at the 1994 American Renaissance conference — but that isn’t the case. The newspaper’s management put Sam on probation, one condition of which required him to submit his work for pre-approval before publication. He violated the terms of his probation and was fired for insubordination.

Although I did not join the staff of the Times until two years after Sam was fired in 1995, I got to know him and also worked with many people who had known him at the Times. And I do not hesitate to say that the basic problem which led to Sam’s firing was that Sam thought he was more important to the newspaper than the newspaper was to him.

This was a tragic misjudgment, a product of Sam’s stiff-necked pride. Even if you believe that the Times‘ treatment of Sam was cowardly and unjust (as his admirers generally do), his refusal to back down and cooperate with management deprived him of a large and influential readership. Many of Sam’s fans had hoped that the newspaper could be forced by protests from readers to re-hire him, but this was impossible.

Sam had challenged Wes Pruden’s authority as editor-in-chief.

Managing a large news organization is always a three-ring circus, and if the Boss is not the Boss — if underlings are permitted to undermine the top editor’s authority — then mere chaos becomes anarchy.

Certainly any student of Burnham should have understood this dynamic. Sam Francis’s pride might have made his clash with management inevitable — some people are just not temperamentally suited for subordinate status — but his departure from the Times was ultimately the result of his own conscious decisions.

Sam Francis was not a victim. If he was a martyr to political correctness, he was a martyr by choice. As I’ve often said, by the time Sam went off the cliff, he had pushed it so far to the edge, it’s impossible to say whether he jumped or was pushed.

Sam gained his independence, but he did so by sacrificing influence. He continued to be published in Chronicles, and his column was still syndicated, but he never again reached the kind of readership — either in terms of numbers or influence — he had at the Washington Times.

And so we return to the subject of Keith Olbermann. It is obvious from Howard Kurtz’s column that Olbermann believes he’s more important than NBC News. Olbermann imagines that if he ever were to get himself fired, he’d either create a ruckus that would force NBC to hire him back or, failing that, would be immediately hired by another equally prominent news organization.

My advice to Keith Olbermann: Think again.

No one is irreplaceable, not even the great Sam Francis. And you, sir, are no Sam Francis.

(For anyone interested in learning more about Sam Francis, I highly commend Michael Brendan Dougherty’s 2007 article, “The Castaway.” The astute reader will perceive that Sam’s writings about “Middle American Radicals” foreshadowed much of what has happened with the Tea Party movement, as has been described by Angelo Codevilla in The Ruling Class.)


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