They Shoot Mules, Don’t They?

Published: November 22, 2010

By Jim Lichtman
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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 act against anything that comes from Fox News.

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 his July 6, 2010 program, Olbermann cited reports by theCenter for American Progress (a liberal think tank, 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 Progresspaper 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.


  1. Author

    Thanks Jim. I found it to be a very interesting commentary…with which I happen to agree.

  2. Author

    Nice article but this is exactly what Fox has been able to perpetuate on others while not getting tarred by their own brush. Fox highlights the sometimes errors of legitimate journalists to paint them all (as Rush would say – Drive By Journalists). And yet, when Fox mis-states something (everything?) none of their viewers holds Fox accountable.

    So, by writing your piece, you hold people who say they are journalists to a high ethical standard (to which all journalists used to be held) but this does not apply to Fox so they benefit from the single error of a real journalist (can you say Dan Rather) while never being held accountable themselves. Just look at the flap over political contributions. Even Jon Stewart highlighted that not only does this not apply to Fox, Fox just gives the money directly to the politicians (Palin, Huckabee, Gingrich).

    It is maddening and unfair and no one calls Fox on the carpet for it meaning their viewers. Yet they want this high standard from all other journalists even as they denigrate them.

  3. Author

    Hmmm. I’m guessing you won’t be on the show anytime soon? Had a senior NPR journalist in for a talk on Ethics and, to make a long story short, he believes other countries handle news and analysis much better than the U.S.A. and he makes a convincing argument that the “Fairness Doctrine” really muddled the whole thing-up and he discusses political discourse in Europe, especially Britain, as better models.

    Note: Steve teaches ethics at the New Hampshire Technical Institute

  4. Author

    Thank you for taking shots at the most hated man in news!
    And the idea that MSNBC is now suspending these creatures they created only implies arrogance and media PR to suck the sheep into watching their “return” only 2 short days later.

  5. Author

    Good points. Sounds like Olberman really got to you. You are right, which “facts” are we to believe? Only good thing is that there is so much hyperbole today that it can be over washed by tomorrow’s hyperbole.

  6. Author

    I particularly enjoyed your article about Olbermann. Although Olbermann certainly made some good points in the past about the foibles of the Bush administration, he’s more than outlived his usefulness, as he has become a humorless scold from the far left. The mistaken “facts” he peddles are worrisome but seem like S.O.P in what passes for political “discourse” nowadays. I assume that your article about him will elevate you to “O’Reilly-like” status in the top echelon of Olbermann’s bogeymen.

  7. Author

    Is Olberman as bad as O’Reilly or Beck? Heck if I know, but nothing is worse than “Dancing with the Stars” or more stupid than the Tea Baggers who watch it and vote for Bristol Palin.

    Here’s a subject for you… Why is it that you have to totally cross an ethical, moral or legal line to be viewed as a worthwhile (or newsworthy) voice of reason? For example, I now have to listen to Michael Vick tell me about animal rights; Bristol Palin on abstinence or any Hollywood loser about drugs, alcohol or just behaving badly.

    How about the rest of us who are really good at not getting into trouble or destroying our lives?

  8. Author

    OK, Ok, ok. Hold your horses. Granted the Keithster may have overstated his facts. We, all of us, even [you], can make mistakes. As a spokesperson with a national presence, Olbermann has every responsibility for getting his facts right. Mistakes of fact, like the famous missing WMD, have consequences, often tragic.

    But Keith will forever be in my hall of fame. Years. Many years before the general media were calling out Bush on his litany of “mistakes” Olbermann, with no one by his side, began the first real questioning of the fundamentals of the Iraq war. So on the one fact, the 10x multiplier, I am going to ask you to give him a pass.

    Nail him on his next screw up.

    P.S. I am shocked that you did not go after him for his breaking of the NBC code of political advocacy.

    Note: I did “go after him” about campaign contributions, but in a different way.

    I focused on the standards used by several media organizations which
    was the larger, more ethical question for me.
    I had already covered the same ethical ground last month regarding
    NPR’s Juan Williams.

  9. Author

    I much appreciate your presentation of the fact-check, Jim. It gives me pause to wonder what effect would occur were television to go blank for a month? I gave mine away nearly two years ago when I realized that I was voluntarily submitting myself to hours of evening hypnosis at the bequest of advertising industry goons. I much appreciate your scrutiny.

  10. Author

    Keith Olbermann and Bill O’Reilly each appeal to their own crowd and not to the Center. And their respective crowds are faithful to a fault, unable to fathom that their spokesman is capable of error in fact or judgment.

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