The political coverage at The New Republic is often brilliant. But sometimes the writers seem to get lost in the data points and other arcana generated by the daily news cycle. They overdetermine. They gin up intricate arguments that lead nowhere. It’s the curse of being very smart and marinating in really stupid campaign coverage – there’s only so much you can say, but TNR has to say more.

Take this piece by Isaac Chotiner, who writes of his experience with MSNBC: “I increasingly started watching the channel last year because of its political focus, and for the novelty of seeing outspoken liberals on television. How often does one hear a news anchor rant against the corruption of Bush’s Washington, after all?” But then he notes that MSNBC (actually, he is talking mostly about Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann) is notably pro-Obama and anti-Clinton, in addition to being anti-Bush. And that the pro-Obama slant seems to be based not on a cool analysis of policy differences or leadership potential, but crass, button-pushing emotion. And this is bad, because it’s like Fox News. Except, not really:

If an Obama presidency were to bomb in a way similar to George W. Bush’s (unlikely, sure, but I’m speaking hypothetically here), it’s difficult to imagine that MSNBC would treat Obama as reverentially as Fox still does Bush. (In fact, I could see an issue like press access leading to a break between the channel and President Obama even if he thrives in office.)

MSNBC has found a crass, semi-winning formula that is entertaining, gives liberals a voice, and is probably not as bad as Fox. Given the state of the cable news business, that sounds pretty good. He also warns that the pro-Obama spin creates a false impression of the candidate’s support. True enough, but how many people regularly watch MSNBC, and how many of them take Chris Matthews seriously?

An entertaining, high-stakes fight is underway between the cable blowhards and their corporate overlords: Fox News and Bill O’Reilly vs. NBC and Keith Olbermann. Short take: Olbermann attacks O’Reilly, O’Reilly gets pissy; Roger Ailes demands NBC muzzle Olbermann, NBC declines; O’Reilly starts attacking execs at General Electric (NBC’s owner) as traitors for the company’s dealings in Iran.

The immediate takeaway is that O’Reilly and Ailes are thin-skinned; they can dish it out but they can’t take it. And so they will go to absurd lengths to shut up their critics. I have a hard time believing that pique is the primary motivation, though.

Here’s one theory: What’s going on is an attempted precision strike to take out Keith Olbermann’s unique space in the universe of cable yakkers.

Though he might balk at the term, Olbermann is a Fox-style liberal. There’s no one else on TV who fits that description. Most of the “liberals” on TV news fall into the crypto-liberal category, like Dan Rather. Even George Stephanopoulos would call himself a newsman first. That’s advantage Fox, which can tag them with the “liberal” label and force them to deny it. (Which they sometimes can’t – double advantage. Or which they respond to by taking their cues from Fox – triple advantage.)

As a liberal on a traditional, non-ideological news network, Olbermann breaks this pattern. It actually is dangerous to Fox, whose raison d’etre is the notion that liberalism is secretly shading the competition’s news programming. If liberalism is out in the open, and liberals and non-ideological reporters can coexist on cable news, Fox’s project to obliterate those distinctions in people’s minds – everything on NBC is liberal bias, so go with conservative bias instead – falters.

There are a lot of reasons why Olbermann is the only outspoken liberal in a primo slot on cable news. Fox’s success is perhaps the biggest. And there just aren’t that many TV personalities, liberal or conservative, with the combination of ego, persistence and ratings to go up against O’Reilly toe-to-toe. Phil Donahue, let’s face it, was a bore. (And bear in mind: there’s not much point to mixing it up with O’Reilly & Co. to begin with. We don’t need even more exploding-heads stupidity on TV. I’m also leaving out Stewart and Colbert here, in a class by themselves.)

But Olbermann has also tapped into something. His outraged rants against the likes of O’Reilly and Fox, and against George W. Bush and Dick Cheney channel a kind of populist anger at Republicans that is surging as the Bush years wind down. And though Olbermann goes over the top at times, often his rants are right on. People should be outraged, for reasons too numerous to mention here. It’s a wonder ratings-starved cable networks don’t do more to harness this – there’s gold there.

Once, Fox thought it had the market cornered on over-the-top populist outrage. No more. Hence the logic to the idea that Olbermann-must-be-destroyed. If Ailes succeeds, the networks will think twice before trying to replicate the Olbermann formula.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.