Friday, November 19, 2010

The 'Worst' among us

The “Worst Persons in the World” segment of MSNBC’s “Countdown With Keith Olbermann” has always been one of those guiltless TV pleasures, a public skewering of agents of various bad behaviors. “Get out your pitchforks and torches,” Olbermann says with glee before introducing his brief and personal snapshot catalog of the three worst people alive for the day.

The segment was briefly retired on Nov. 1, a concession to Jon Stewart's Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, and its subsequent call to modify the tone of the cable debate. But on Wednesday, Olbermann  brought "Worst Persons" back, adding the words “(Not Really)” to the segment’s title — an unnecessary change that’s concerning in the way it softens the emotional punch of the original segment, and puts rubber caps on the pitchforks and snuffs out the torches of its own acerbic intent.

From its inception, the “Worst Persons” segment has been a refreshingly snarky, sometimes emotionally effective way of calling out a variety of knuckleheads, mountebanks, hypocrites and oafs at every level of society, and to do it in a visible forum their exploits would otherwise probably never have achieved.

It was made even more effective because it was so obviously an exaggeration of the truth. There’s no way to know at any given moment which of the 6.88 billion people on this planet really is the Earth’s Worst Person. It’s fundamentally open to conjecture; you got your Worst Person, I got mine and Keith has his. It wasn’t the best idea to modify the segment’s biting but ultimately benign humor for the sake of moderating the “tone” of his part of the national discourse. His audience gets it. We always did.

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And the Not Really qualifier is apparently a semi-permeable thing. By accident, Olbermann tonight showed just how ineffective the new Not Really Worst Persons really is.

Former president George W. Bush made the cut for the disconnect between the “sickening feeling” he had upon discovering that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq (recounted in his new book “Decision Points”) and the lighthearted treatment W gave to the matter in a March 2004 speech — making a stand-up routine out of the utter absence of his rationale for taking this country into a ruinous elective war our children’s children’s children will be paying for.

Olbermann called Bush “today’s Worst Person in the World” ... but without adding the Not Really parenthetical.

Obviously, the exception KO made tonight undercuts the reasoning for the Not Really disclaimer being there in the first place. It reinforced what we already know: that these are Olbermann’s assessments, and an extension of the pointed, free-wheeling commentary that’s made “Countdown” and Olbermann appointment viewing for millions.

And anyway, “Worst Persons” has always been so implicitly over-the-top in its verdicts, so transparently an expression of personal opinion, you have to wonder about the threshold of civility of those who objected to the original version.

You’d wonder, too, how the segment will ever be as effective in its new, self-muzzling flavor as it was with the original zest and acid intact.

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KO conducted a poll on the “Worst Persons” segment, leaving it to his viewers to determine its fate; 73  percent voted to see it return to “Countdown” in its original unapologetic form, without the disclaimer. A significantly smaller number (15 percent) voted for making a change.

Used to be that the majority ruled (especially by a nearly 5:1 ratio). For that reason alone, it’d be good if Olbermann reconsidered his decision. It was fair to give the Not Really approach a trial run, to see how it played on live TV. But now, having already made one exception, Olbermann’s clearly opened the door to others.

As events unfold every day, as new atrocities and incivilities emerge, there’s less and less reason for KO to feel he’s crossed some line of decorum that hasn’t already been crossed by the objects of the Worst Persons tribute themselves.

There’s no end of candidates for the honor right now— and Sarah Palin hasn’t even announced yet! If KO’s already making exceptions, there’s every reason to believe that more will follow (2012 should be a very good year).

The title of Worst Person can’t be Worser than the act or utterance that got that person into the segment. Why pretend that it is?

At least that’s where I’m coming from. What’s your take? KO took a poll before the change; check out the entirely non-scientific poll on the right side of this page, and cast a vote.

Or not. It’s just your expression of how you feel about this. Like my expression. Or like Keith Olbermann’s.

It’s just an opinion, and like that other necessary personal item … everybody’s got one.


Image credits: Olbermann: kristilovesputi, republished under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. Countdown poll and title card: MSNBC.

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