Tavis Smiley: A lesson for Keith Olbermann’s big comeback

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One of the few progressives on cable news willing to kick up a fuss, Keith Olbermann, returned to television last week, just five months after being fired from MSNBC.

One of the few progressives on cable news willing to kick up a fuss, Keith Olbermann, returned to television last week, just five months after being fired from MSNBC.

The former king of MSNBC hasn’t skipped a beat. In his first two nights alone of “Countdown with Keith Olbermann” he opened up a can on Democrats, Republicans and his former bosses on MSNBC. However, we’ve seen this game before – the comeback of a beloved television star who starts hot and then fades over time. The question is will Olbermann’s comeback follow the same path as a Tavis Smiley’s or will he be able to maintain his mojo once the honeymoon of his return wears off?

Since the elections of 2008, Olbermann became the face of the MSNBC. He was one of the first cable network hosts, white or Black, to come out in support of Barack Obama during the Democratic primary, and had no problem calling out the racist coverage of the first Black president before during and after the campaign.

With Olbermann leading the way MSNBC’s primetime news is the highest rated in African American households beating out CNN by over 10,000 viewers a night and out doing Fox News by over 100,000 viewers a night. His sense of humor and penchant for calling out wimps on the left and liars on the right made him a ratings leader.

At his peak he had an on-air Tupac and Biggie level feud with Fox News resident bad boy Bill O’Reilly that made Olbermann the only non-Fox News cable show to crack the top 10 in ratings. But in the end, network execs couldn’t control him so he was fired and has resurrected his same show on former Vice President Al Gore’s CurrentTV – which hasn’t gotten this much action since it launched in 2005.

So far Olbermann’s career trajectory has been eerily close to another favorite son of the news watcher, Smiley. They were both the highest rated hosts on stations that were losing to competitors. They were both respected for bringing the truth on politics, class and race to the airwaves when no one else would and they both were fired from their respective stations for being “out of control” and had to start somewhere else. But here is where the two careers might diverge. If the left in America has any hope of keeping a strong voice on cable news heading into 2012 let’s hope Olbermann doesn’t make the same mistakes as Smiley.

When Smiley left Black Entertainment Television he could’ve gone anywhere and done anything and the nation would’ve followed him. But instead of really capitalizing on that power he has in many ways steadily disappointed.

He phoned in his NPR radio show until it was cancelled. His PBS show is a shadow of the passion of his former BET program. His greatest accomplishment – turning the topics of his shows into the State of Black America conferences – was ended prematurely when he canceled the conferences in a huff after Obama bruised his ego.

If you had told me 10 years ago that Smiley’s star would flicker as dimly as it does today I would never have believed you. All that potential, all that power and you have to squint to see his star power today. If Olbermann isn’t careful he could make the same mistakes and cable news and the African American progressive movement will be worse off for it.

Smileys’ biggest post-BET mistake was thinking that all of the fame and adulation that he earned over the years was about him and not about the people whose beliefs, dreams and politics he represented every night on the air. He got brand new on Obama and made it about him, not politics, and he’s been crawling out of that hole ever since.

Olbermann has a chance to take the disaffected progressives of 2008, and those disappointed with Obama’s policies, and turn them into a force for change through his show – a long as he realizes it’s about their politics, not him or his personal retribution against his former bosses. If he does the former he’ll accomplish great things. If he wants to see what happens when you do the latter, he can just take a look down the dial, way down the dial, for a real life and disappointing example.

Jason Johnson is an associate professor of political science and communications at Hiram College in Ohio, where he teaches courses in campaigns and elections, pop culture and the politics of sports.

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