The Standard of Excellence

It was, perhaps, the day the media died.

Next week marks the fifth anniversary of the bitter night–January 21, 2011–when progressive Americans, and indeed Americans of all political persuasions who value honor, truth, respect, intelligence and decency, were shocked to learn that MSNBC had decided to end Countdown with Keith Olbermann, perhaps the single best news program ever to air on cable television in the United States. The abrupt cancellation of Countdown was a victory for the dishonest political forces Olbermann had forcefully condemned during his nearly eight-year run–and a demoralizing defeat for democracy.

Things just haven’t been the same since Olbermann left. Yes, Rachel Maddow and Chris Hayes are still maintaining the high standards Olbermann set on MSNBC. Yes, independent media entities such as the Young Turks are continuing Olbermann’s tradition of great journalism. Yet I still miss Olbermann’s soul, his style, his skill. The man embodied excellence.

Think about just how important, just how vital Olbermann was: during a time when so much of the mainstream media knelt in fealty and obedience to the George W. Bush administration, Olbermann had the courage to stand up and declare that the President of the United States and members of his Cabinet were wanton and pathological liars who deceived this country into war, exploited fears of terrorism for political gain and left thousands to perish in post-Katrina New Orleans. Olbermann also boldly stood up to other forces of deceit and division in this country: Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, the Tea Party movement, climate deniers, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, former Senator Scott Brown, Carrie Prejean…and the list goes on.

It could not have been easy. Just imagine how much hate mail, how many threats, how much crap Olbermann had to put up with during those years. It would have broken a lesser man…but it never broke Olbermann. He grew in stature with every attack–and by standing strong in the face of savage right-wing criticism, he became an icon of American journalism.

Joni Mitchell wasn’t lying when she sang, “You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.” I think about that line every time I see a clip of an Olbermann “Special Comment.” Today, with falsehoods trumping truth every second of the day, we need Olbermann’s voice now more than ever. Do the executives at MSNBC realize just how much he is missed?

What Keith Olbermann did for this country was profound. His courage and contributions should never be forgotten. He told the truth, defended what was right in the face of unrelenting political and cultural pressure, stood up for the powerless and voiceless. He did more than just live up to the highest standards of American journalism. He did more than just stand up when so many around him stood down. Keith Olbermann kept our democracy safe–and each one of us owes him our profound thanks.

UPDATE: The final Keith Olbermann show on MSNBC.