Sure, no one with reasonable perspective will recall this tragic day in the shadow of the assassination of JFK. No one years from now will ask “Do you remember where you were when you heard the news that Keith Olbermann had been booted from Countdown?” No, this occasion will become rooted in the collective American consciousness not with Kennedy’s death but with his election–far more people will claim proximity to the moment of its occurence than were actually involved. Nevertheless, it is clear that the brutal, senseless murder of Countdown in it’s prime has shaken America to its core, or at the very least its core demographic of 18-45 year old females with disposable income.
Those most affected by this shocking news did what some always feel the need to do when their social illusions are shattered. They congregate. After his shooting, John Lennon’s fans held a peace-in in Central Park. When Michael Jackson passed away, throngs gathered outside the Southwestern Rhinoplasty Institute and solemnly recreated the zombie dance from Thriller. After the tragic shootings in Tucson, a bunch of people decided to go ahead and attend a gun show. As soon as I heard of the passing of Countdown, I knew such a gathering would take outside the New York City studios of MSNBC–the block most Manhattanites now call “ground hero.”
Today, just five days after the news that rocked the world of prime-time basic cable 24 hour news, I came to see how people were coping. What I found was several different strategies for dealing with perhaps the most significant disruption of the middle class left’s daily social reinforcement since Martha Stewart traded her Bourgeat 11″ copper frypan for a tin plate in the big house, maybe going all the way back to the passing of Donahue.
Here are a few representative snapshots.
Especially touching was the story of Wanda Paretski, who traveled all the way to Manhattan from Mystic, Connecticut to place her cherished Edward R. Murrow bobble-head doll on the display of symbolic nick-nacks that formed a tear-stained diorama of grief–or as Hunter College Assistant Professor of Cultural Studies Weylou Stiles called it “a spontaneous public ironic deconstruction of the very Comcast/NBC commentary-as-theater hegemony that cost Keith his livelihood.” It began to grow as early as 9:15 on the night of the fateful announcement. “As soon as I heard the news, I told Donald and my kids, Cheyenne and Melon, that they would have to fend for themselves, because this was something mommy had to do.” She then related the story of her trip. “It’s only about 135 miles, but I took the Volt–we’re not even supposed to have one yet, but Donald got a dealer’s model from Pasadena. The Volt only goes about forty miles on a charge, and it’s almost impossible to find a place along the highway where you can sit for ten hours and draw power. It took me five days to get here. I guess I could have taken the Prius, but this was for Keith. It just didn’t seem right to involve any fossil fuels.”
As the day went on, the sea of dazed and disillusioned mourners did not let up. I was at first amused by what appeared to be a hand-lettered sign that said: “Keith! You’ll always be the ‘Worst Person!’ in My World!” under a heart-shaped smiley face. But by the time I’d seen the fourth one of those, I realized that the viral marketers had made their presence felt. In retrospect, I guess it was no worse than the Velcro-kneed plushies that thousands of well-wishers reportedly sent Zsa Zsa. I just didn’t think this crowd would so quickly abandon the aura of authenticity that was so much a part of Olbermann’s tragic legacy.
For some people grief was beginning to turn to anger. “Most of these people are damn poseurs!” said Kwame Barotunda. “Where they all of other times Keith was booted from a job under a cloud of controversy? You can’t even hold a meaningful vigil anymore. I blame the 24 hour news cycle.”
Over on the corner, a guy wearing a Che sweatshirt and was also named Che–“but I spell it with an -ay”–had brushed off the remains of Manhattan’s latest monster snow, pulled out his guitar, and was singing a song he wrote when he heard the news. “I felt like Neil Young, man, when he heard about Kent State. You know? It just poured out of me:
Anybody here seen my old friend Cronkite?
Like to hear his truth once more.
I thought I saw him walk in’ up over that hill
With Woodward and Bernstein and Moore.
When I asked him why he included Michael Moore who is still an active filmmaker, Chay said “Are you kidding me, man? Watch Bowling for Columbine then watch Capitalism, a Love Story. Tell me they didn’t get to him!
As we approached 8 PM, the hour at which Olbermann’s program would normally have come on, a strange thing happened. Almost perfectly in unison but with no apparent orchestration the crowd began to chant “Palin Puts Her Foot in It! Think all Wall Street Millionaires Oppose Regulation? Think Again!, Pastor Hagee is a Little Hazy About His Old Testament Facts. And Rob Reiner is here to talk about his new book If Paul Samuelson Had Tweeted.” These stories and more . . . .
Then just as spontaneously as they began, the crowd returned to its respectful funereal silence. “What are you going to do tomorrow night at eight?” I asked. The people in the group turned at looked at one another stupefied as though none of them had thought that far ahead. Then a small woman in a light green Patagonia pullover said “ABC has Wipeout at eight. You know? Where the people jump on those big balls and fall in the water?” I sensed that more than a few hangers-on received some small comfort from that–that like it has so many other times of late America would survive.