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Re-Writing Lawrence O’Donnell: Why Constantly Bashing O’Reilly & Limbaugh Is Holding The Last Word Back

During the age of Obama, MSNBC has evolved more than any of its cable competitors. First came the 8 pm merry-go-round starting with the exit of one time ratings behemoth Keith Olbermann, followed by short stints for Lawrence O’Donnell and Ed Schultz, to the recent decision to go All In with the wonkish warrior that is Chris Hayes. At the same time, Phil Griffin has boldly bet on smart and insightful over screaming and sensational for weekend mornings while sprinkling in more progressive opinion during the day via Alex Wagner and The Cycle.

One of the permanent fixtures of the networks rebranding has been the aforementioned O’Donnell, who became the network’s 10 pm host, piggybacking off of today’s network star Rachel Maddow. Billed as an end of day wrap up show, “The Last Word” has done a great job of analyzing the inside baseball shenanigans and dysfunction rife in the halls of the national soap opera that is Congress. Similar to his colleague Joe Scarborough, O’Donnell is at his best when opining through his lens as a Washington insider—a former senior adviser to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan—and translating for his audience what is really going on’ underneath the surface political news of the day. He also has become a fixture digitally, as popular segments like “Rewrite” consistently go viral.

Maybe most important, O’Donnell has been making gains on his main competitor, Fox News’s Greta Van Susteren, occasionally beating her in the all important 25-54 demo on a more consistent basis than ever before.

The trendline is heading up, but not if O’Donnell doesn’t do his most important rewrite yet—himself.

Although I find myself watching the Last Word more than others on MSNBC, it has been disappointing to start changing the channel like I did Wednesday night, when O’Donnell wasted eight minutes of precious airtime gleefully poking fun at a media created “war” between Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh over the former’s “bible thumping” comment. The visual play-by-play O’Donnell engaged in between two right wing media stars not only turned me off, but will drive away potential viewers of the future, who will ask, “Are we actually dedicating national television time to a faux media war instead of digging deeper into NRA insanity, a daily dose of socially unacceptable comments from GOP lawmakers, a mad man in North Korea, and dare I say spotlighting the ongoing genocide in Syria?”

The absurdity of O’Donnell’s monologue reached its peak when he tossed to a soundbite from an O’Reilly interview with conservative radio host Laura Ingraham, in which O’Reilly said:

Of all the conservative radio talk show hosts, you have the most common sense…of all of them.

Coming out of the sound bite, O’Donnell brought creative license to entirely new levels, decoding the vital national importance O’Reilly’s compliment:

Bill O’Reilly just said that Laura Ingraham is a better radio talk show host than Rush Limbaugh. He threw in all of the conservative radio talk show hosts in the line, where all he had to do was tell Laura that she has common sense, she’s very smart, and that’s why this is frustrating for him. Instead Bill O’Reilly had to compare her to all the rest of right wing radio nuts. And whenever you’re talking about right wing radio, you are talking about Rush Limbaugh.

O’Donnell concluded:

That sentence was designed to insult Rush Limbaugh directly, and Bill O’Reilly’s handlers didn’t want him to go there.

Whether O’Reilly was subtly slamming Limbaugh or not, why was this “story” chosen for a primetime national news show? I can’t imagine the ratings skyrocketing by the mere mention of O’Reilly or Limbaugh the same way they do when spotlighting congressional high stakes stand offs, or real issues like gun rampages or a struggling economy. Maybe a spat between right wing heroes is prime pickings for a CPAC roundtable, but it shouldn’t be a crutch for someone as talented as Lawrence O’Donnell. Then again, perhaps the schadenfreude derived from viewing conservatives pick each other apart provides guaranteed ratings?

Unfortunately, this segment is not a rarity for Lawrence, who seems to have developed a pattern of focusing on Bill O’Reilly. Just a month ago, he had a ball detailing the long history of O’Reilly’s “anger management” issues in the wake of the O’Reilly/Alan Colmes shoutfest. In this case, not only was O’Donnell giving an already viral clip from another network more exposure than it could get on its own, he was essentially telling his audience “check out the wackadoodle on that other network…he’s a riot!”

The hits don’t stop there, as in July 2012, when O’Donnell debuted his own rendition of “So Dumb It Hurts,” spending over five minutes lambasting O’Reilly for what he viewed as a whopper of stupidity—the Fox host slamming the ineffectiveness of strict New York state gun laws, citing the 4,000 guns confiscated in 2011 as proof of the laws not working. Whether or not O’Reilly was out to lunch on this (he was), reason would stand that if O’Donnell finds O’Reilly “so dumb it hurts,” wouldn’t his viewers experience the same type of pain presented with a segment showcasing it?

And of course, O’Donnell’s go-to punching bags don’t stop at individuals—he enjoys entire segments dedicated to Fox News bashing (in fairness, so do his colleagues Chris Matthews, Al Sharpton, and Martin Bashir). Right after the election, with the tri-state area still reeling from the destruction of Hurricane Sandy, O’Donnell dedicated his “Rewrite” segment to ridiculing Fox News for airing several pundits’ conspiracy theory suggesting the Bureau of Labor Statistics played fast and loose with jobless claims before the election, waiting until after an Obama re-election to unveil a drastic uptick in jobless claims. O’Donnell was right in pointing out the obvious reasons for the uptick in jobless claims— Hurricane Sandy — but wrong in making the theme of the segment about some right-wing conspiracy theory instead of focusing on the real story of reeling storm victims and economic destruction left in the storm’s wake.

There isn’t enough column space to detail every other instance of O’Donnell targeting O’Reilly, Limbaugh, Hannity and the rest of the “conservative entertainment complex” (kudos to former McCain adviser Steve Schmidt for coining the phrase), but it would be wrong to suggest O’Donnell is alone in wasting precious air time with useless drivel. It’s also important to note that O’Donnell’s knack for spending time on GOP in-fighting does not negate the things he has done very well, including important on-the-ground reporting from Newtown after Sandy Hook, dedicating airtime to the young Pakistani girl named Malala Yousafzai who was shot in the head by the Taliban for merely fighting for better education, and, just this week, spending half his show challenging former congressman and head of the NRA task force on guns Asa Hutchinson. It is examples like these that show him at his best, tackling real issues that actually matter to the cable news viewer and average vote. It is when he spends time reveling in right wing media spats that his show and brand can veer off course.

Should O’Donnell, or other hosts for that matter, be expected to be substantive at all times? Of course not, and as as a former cable news producer myself, I am all-too-familiar with the challenges of filling up five nights a week with compelling, cutting edge content, while facing an unpredictable news cycle that is often cruelly slow. But this doesn’t excuse an anchor with O’Donnell’s encyclopedic political knowledge when he cheapens his show down to gimmicky segments filled with hot air, and doesn’t bode well for his present or future growth as a cable news mainstay.

Don’t get me wrong…a big part of the fun of cable news is reveling in an occasional segment of bombast, absurdity, and yes—screaming. Like others, O’Donnell shouldn’t shy away from having fun on his show, in his case at the expense of the Republican Party (and boy did I get a tickle out of O’Donnell challenging Tagg Romney to a “good ol fashion southie brawl” before the election). But like anything in life, everything’s best in moderation.

What will catapult O’Donnell to possible stardom is taking the focus off Bill and Rush, and putting it back on a figure that actually knows what he is talking about, because he has been there and done that in the chambers of the U.S. senate…

Lawrence O’Donnell.

Watch the segment courtesy of MSNBC:

Editors Note: Jordan Chariton worked as a Booking Producer for MSNBC Dayside from 2011-2012.
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