frog boiling

As promised, a companion piece to Why Glenn Beck is Stalking Me:

When Keith Olbermann hit the airwaves back in 2003, you could hear a collective sigh of relief among liberal-leaning America, long frustrated by their lack of voice in America’s media.

Conservatives who haven’t passed out reading my first paragraph should know that liberals sincerely believe that the media leans right. Limbaugh’s pinko “government-run media” is to a liberal the “corporate media” and comes with all the baggage and bias the name implies. (Parenthetically, the competing versions of media bias are explained in studies demonstrating a hostile media effect: The same story was simultaneously perceived as biased by both opposing camps, likely because they understood the subtleties of their own position and felt it inadequately represented… as subtleties usually are.)

As a center-left-leaner and a 2004 Howard Dean fan (a man with the nerve to tell us really early on that the Emperor of Iraq was buck naked, early enough to have avoided the whole affair were we listening I might add), I believe that in the years after 9-11 the American marketplace of ideas was pretty broken. Our collective trauma evolved into a very human need to march in lockstep with patriotic sounding bad decision-making.

So Olbermann was a breath of fresh air. I immediately bonded. My friends bonded. Veritable left-leaning lovefest ensues.

We were in. Keith Olbermann is chicken soup for the liberal soul. He was in our tribe.

I can only imagine that this is exactly how conservatives felt with the rise of talk radio inside of a culture that had moved dramatically leftward inside of a decade in the 60’s and mostly stayed there, likely leaving crew-cut heads spinning with culture shock. (University of Virginia professor Jonathan Haidt’s work tells us that conservatives are temperamentally more averse to change than liberals. That makes the 60’s quadruple crazy if you lean right, only double if you’re left.)

Trouble is that once in the Keith Olbermann (or talk radio) chicken soup for the liberal (or conservative) soul, we can barely notice the inevitable result of like-minded amen chorus groupiness. We were frogs in water brought gradually to a boil.

Ironically, Keith Olbermann is a frog too. And – while I’m having to force my fingers to type this measure of charity for a broadcaster I find hateful and factually wrong almost 4 times a sentence – maybe so was Rush Limbaugh? Could they both be victims of the sound of their own echo chambers?

Once in, the slight shifts toward unanimity are barely perceptible. Hyperbole forgiven. Insulting name-calling gets guilty snickers and knowing glances. Quirky family member forgiven. And then you look up a few years later and you can barely believe that someone you know and thought you liked – who might be a conservative “frog” to your liberal one – could see reality so differently than you do. And even if you were too polite to say it (which if you read blog comment threads, growing numbers of us are not), you might have thought that they’re dumb.

Lather, rinse, repeat… and you can see how we’re where we are now.

I admit that I still really like Keith Olbermann. He often makes a lot of sense to me. But my new Village Square center of gravity often leaves me uncomfortably having to forgive a bit more than I’d prefer. And it has me stretching to understand people who aren’t in my tribe. My message isn’t that Olbermann is bad/evil/at fault. It’s that he – like us – is human. As is everyone outside of my tribe for whom I have tended to not offer any forgiveness at all.

Keith Olbermann + a bunch of liberal viewers and liberal guests + 10 or 15 more years might just = right wing talk radio, the liberal edition. And if you think there is something about conservatives that makes them jump the shark when liberals can somehow magically avoid it, I’d like to suggest that you might want to hop out of the water.

I believe it’s getting hotter.


Liz Joyner is the Executive Director of the Village Square. You can email her compliments and critiques at Can’t be civil? Won’t be read.

(Photo credit.)