The news that The Angry Man of the Self-Righteous Left, Keith Olbermann, was fired by Al Gore’s Current TV was hardly news at all, since most of us had entered a pool on when Olbermann would get jettisoned from his latest gig. The predictable episode does have an ethics lesson for all of us, however, that involves the virtues of accountability, humility, honesty and contrition.
Olbermann, true to form, attacked his former employers and blamed them for his exit, writing via Twitter…
“…I’d like to apologize to my viewers and my staff for the failure of Current TV. Editorially, Countdown had never been better. But for more than a year I have been imploring Al Gore and Joel Hyatt to resolve our issues internally, while I’ve been not publicizing my complaints, and keeping the show alive for the sake of its loyal viewers and even more loyal staff. Nevertheless, Mr. Gore and Mr. Hyatt, instead of abiding by their promises and obligations and investing in a quality news program, finally thought it was more economical to try to get out of my contract. It goes almost without saying that the claims against me in Current’s statement are untrue and will be proved so in the legal actions I will be filing against them presently. To understand Mr. Hyatt’s “values of respect, openness, collegiality and loyalty,” I encourage you to read of a previous occasion Mr. Hyatt found himself in court for having unjustly fired an employee. That employee’s name was Clarence B. Cain. In due course, the truth of the ethics of Mr. Gore and Mr. Hyatt will come out. For now, it is important only to again acknowledge that joining them was a sincere and well-intentioned gesture on my part, but in retrospect a foolish one. That lack of judgment is mine and mine alone, and I apologize again for it.”
This, of course, is not really an apology. It’s not an apology when your message is, “I’m sorry my employers are unethical slobs who didn’t appreciate the excellent job I was doing.
Keith Olbermann has either been fired or quit under acrimonious circumstances in engagements with, count them, five broadcast organizations: ESPN, CNN, Fox, MSNBC, and now Current TV. This, despite being obviously talented and often getting excellent ratings. Olbermann is a smart guy, and yet even now, his reaction seems to be, “Why, oh, why, do people keep treating me so badly?”
It’s you, Keith!
The evidence is inescapable in its conclusions, and only a combination of egomania, denial, confirmation bias, dishonesty and an aversion to taking responsibility for your own failings could cause you to miss it. You are the problem. You don’t respect anyone, and your definition of fairness is whatever works for you. Loyalty, empathy, prudence and civility are alien to your nature. Those who don’t prostrate themselves to your will and whims are villains in your mind, and you treat them accordingly. In short, it is you, not your employers, who needs to change. As Michael Douglas’s murderous vigilante realizes at his last seconds in “Falling Down,” you are the bad guy. You need to change. You need to be humble, and really apologize. You need to be accountable.
You’re the jerk, not everybody else.
It’s a tough pill to swallow, and I speak from experience. You owe it to yourself, however, as well as everyone who has to deal with you from here on, to take a big gulp and do it. It’s not too late to shape up: all it requires is honesty, and the rather easy calculation that when everyone you work with eventually concludes that you are a rude, disloyal, untrustworthy, mean-spirited and Machiavellian prick, it means you are one, and it’s time to do something about it.
About a year ago I presented a list of the common human thought fallacies that lead to unethical behavior. Can you guess how many of the afflict Keith Olbermann? Eight!
- Self-fulfilling Prophecy: engaging in behaviors that result in confirmation of existing attitudes. A self-fulfilling prophecy is a prediction that causes itself to become true, because the individual unconsciously makes choices that guarantee the predicted result. It is one of the most difficult biases to combat. Keith presumes that all employers are going to abuse him, so he acts in ways that guarantee that his relationships with employers deteriorate.
- The Halo Effect: the tendency for an individual’s powerful positive or negative traits to warp the perception of others regarding their contradictory characteristics. In Keith Olbermann’s case, the individual he perceives with a halo is…Keith.
- The Orneriness Urge: the urge to do the opposite of what someone wants you to do out of a need to assert independence and control. That’s Keith all over.
- Commitment Escalation: the tendency for people to continue to support previously unsuccessful endeavors because they have committed resources, time, and self-esteem in the result. Olbermann can’t change how he treats others, because to do so would force him to admit that he’s wasted time, lost friends, wrecked his reputation and injured his career by his unethical approach to human and professional relationships. He is invested in being right and blameless, and this stops him from addressing the problem…himself.
- Confirmation Bias: the tendency to look for or interpret information in a way that confirms pre-formed beliefs. Keith interprets all the data to confirm his world view of Everybody Else Against Olbermann.
- Restraint Bias: the tendency to overestimate one’s ability to show restraint in the face of temptation, or the perceived ability to have control over an impulse like hunger, greed, and sexual impulses. In Olbermann’s case, the temptations appear to be ambition, power, and self-glorification.
- Self-Serving Bias: when an individual attributes positive outcomes to internal factors and negative outcomes to external factors. That is, when things go well, it’s because of Keith’s initiative and brilliance. When things go wrong, it’s because Keith was sabotaged by the stupidity and malice of others.
- Bias Blindness: the tendency not to acknowledge one’s own thought biases. Which brings us back to the beginning.
That’s a daunting amount of self-destructive and ethics-smothering thinking to overcome, and it can’t happen overnight. It can’t happen at all, however, until the Great Keith Olbermann is willing to look in the mirror, and take responsibility for his own abysmal conduct and flawed character.
Meanwhile, in fairness to Keith, I should point out that Current TV didn’t exactly burnish its own ethical reputation by its choice of Olbermann’s successor, Eliot Spitzer—convicted felon, disbarred lawyer, hypocrite prosecutor, and disgraced former governor who resigned rather than be impeached. Al Gore’s network announced,
“To the Viewers of Current:
“We created Current to give voice to those Americans who refuse to rely on corporate-controlled media and are seeking an authentic progressive outlet. We are more committed to those goals today than ever before. Current was also founded on the values of respect, openness, collegiality, and loyalty to our viewers. Unfortunately these values are no longer reflected in our relationship with Keith Olbermann and we have ended it.”
Apparently Current’s values like respect, loyalty and openness are better reflected in the network’s hiring of an individual who used the powers of his high office to cheat on his wife using a prostitution ring, while betraying the citizens of New York that elected him to uphold the law, not break it himself.
Good to know.