MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann is irritating, pompous and oafish. Whatever points he attempts to contribute to any political issue get lost in his snarky, Lord-High-Executioner rebuttal against anything that comes from Fox.
Sadly, this is what passes for political discourse today: two clearly partisan “commentary” shows having at each other in the cable equivalent of the Roman Coliseum. Hiring Olbermann, who comes from sports, may have been MSNBC’s game plan all along given the self-absorbed linebackers on the opposing team.
Olbermann wants to be funny, but he also wants to be taken seriously. He’s like the unctuous uncle at a holiday family gathering with a compulsive need to show everyone how smart he is. Sitting in the middle of the living room couch he holds forth on everything from federal subsidies to his hatred of Bill O’Reilly. Eagerly, he works each family member over with his mile-a-minute spiel amid uncomfortable but polite smiles until, one by one, everyone leaves, and he’s left talking to the dog. After two minutes, even the dog leaves.
On July 6, 2010 program, Olbermann cited reports by the Center for American Progress (a liberal think tank, Politifact.com points out) that outlined “nine different subsidies that the U.S. government gives to an industry that makes more money than any other industry, including refunds for drilling costs and refunds to cover the cost of searching for oil. Subsidies for oil and gas companies make up 88 percent of all federal subsidies. Just cutting the oil and gas subsidies out would save the U.S. government $45 billion every year.”
Quoting simple homework done by Politifact, “We tracked down the Center for American Progress paper the statistic was drawn from – ‘Pumping Tax Dollars to Big Oil: Getting Government Priorities Right on Tax Subsidies for Oil Companies,’ published on April 14, 2010, by Sima J. Gandhi, a senior economic policy analyst with the center.
“In the paper, Gandhi wrote, ‘Tax expenditures are government spending through the tax code. They are distributed through deductions, exclusions, credits, exemptions, preferential tax rates, and deferrals. What makes them look different from grants or checks is that they are delivered through the tax code as part of tax expenditure spending programs. These tax expenditures can amount to a significant portion of federal subsidies for oil and gas. The cost of tax expenditure programs for oil and gas companies made up about 88 percent of total federal subsidies in 2006.’
Politifact writes, “When we read that, it sounded to us like Gandhi was saying that 88 percent of all oil and gas subsidies were accomplished through the tax code — not that 88 percent of all federal subsidies went to the oil and gas industry.
“To check that, we contacted Gandhi. She confirmed our suspicion and pointed us to her original source — a 2006 paper published by the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, a state office. The paper includes a detailed table and says that “various taxes represented approximately 87.4 percent of federal government subsidies for oil and gas in 2006.
“So it’s clear to us that Olbermann misstated that statistic.”
On Olbermann’s statement that “Cutting the oil and gas subsidies out would save the U.S. government $45 billion every year,” Politifact found that “This one proved even easier to check. We located a different Center for American Progress paper by Gandhi, ‘Eliminating Tax Subsidies for Oil Companies,’ published on May 13, 2010. In it, she outlines nine different types of subsidies (Olbermann was right about that number) and concludes that “the total government savings from eliminating these subsidies is projected to be $45 billion over 10 years.
“That’s $45 billion over 10 years, not one year, as Olbermann had said.”
When I point this out to a couple of friends well-acquainted with Politifact, they remind me that the Web site rates many of Olbermann’s statements as “Mostly True.”
“If he’s talking to millions on television every night,” I ask, “shouldn’t all his facts be true?”
“At least he’s not as bad as O’Reilly and Beck,” they counter.
Ethicist Michael Josephson calls this one of the most common of ethical rationalizations, The Doctrine of Relative Filth. It goes like this, “I’m not so bad as long as there are others who are worse.”
The ethical reality is, if “commentators” like Olbermann, O’Reilly, et al, are willing to play fast and loose with some of the facts, how can you trust any of the facts that come from them, particularly when that information comes packed with a lot of snarky hyperbole? Further, whether you believe Olbermann to be a credible source, as millions do, how are we to make informed decisions about issues like government subsidies and the budget, when he doesn’t give us the straight dope?
At the end of the day, Olbermann comes off like a double-talking, blustery, sarcastic… wait, they made that movie already – Francis, the talking mule.
Jim Lichtman writes and speaks on ethics. His commentaries can be found at www.ethicsStupid.com