Keith Olbermann: Worst Person in MSNBC’s World?

A suspension now and permanent vacation later?

You’ve probably heard by now how Keith Olbermann, the host of MSNBC’s Countdown was suspended indefinitely without pay for not disclosing campaign contributions he had made to three Democratic candidates.

Some people are very unhappy with this decision.   There are calls for a boycott of MSNBC and petitions are floating around the web demanding Olbermann’s immediate reinstatement.

I think some good people are missing the point here.

I’m sorry that Keith Olbermann got suspended, but even outspoken and opinionated TV talking heads need to maintain some pretense of credibility.  He had a clear conflict of interest and saying others have made contributions to candidates without disclosing them is no justification or excuse.  Olbermann should take his lumps and hopefully return wiser from the experience.

There is no single agency or board that oversees journalistic practices.  The Society of Professional Journalists has a code of ethics to guide professional journalists ow, but they are more suggested rules for the road instead of policies and protocols to be followed or face consequences for violating them.

Journalists should:

—Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.
— Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.

On some of the journalism boards, there’s been much discussion as what the proper role of a journalist is exercising their political views. Some go so far as to say they do not vote so as not to tarnish their image of impartiality.

I wouldn’t allow the fact of being a journalist go so far as to self-disenfrachise. I vote and I have my political perspective. But I’m not signing any petitions or joining any Facebook pages to support Olbermann. He screwed up. He can’t slam Fox for their shaky journalistic practices and then get caught in a sketchy situation like this.

The problem with journalism is unlike practicing law and medicine, there’s no oversight board that cites acts of journalistic malpractice. ANYONE from a blogger to Andrew Breitbart can claim to be a “journalist.” Those of us whom are feel annoyed by those who are not. If standards and ethics mean anything, it means when you cross the line, you get pimp-slapped so you stay in your lane.

Olbermann contributed to a candidate and then interviewed him afterwards and didn’t disclose the contribution. Is giving $2400 to three separate Democratic candidates a firing or suspendable offense?   Not really, but though Olbermann has never concealed his liberal bias giving money to a candidate and then turning around to interview him without disclosing the contribution is a big no-no.

Lean forward and chill out

What was most embarrassing to MSNBC should have been the incredibly sloppy Election Night coverage  by the team of Olbermann, Lawrence O’ Donnell, Rachel Maddow and the always overwrought Chris Matthews.   You could almost hear their collective gnashing of teeth as Democrats fell across the country as results rolled in.

It was tough to watch MSNBC’s editorializing-as-reporting style  come totally unglued.    I clicked over to Fox News but had to eject due to the barely concealed happiness of the hosts to the Republican wave and ended up at CNN which seemed to have no less than 12 “expert” commentators crowded around two tables with Wolf Blitzer and Anderson Cooper barely controlling the yammering and jockeying for face time.

But Olbermann’s stumble into overt activism is hardly a unique case.

Rupert Murdoch and his News Corporation gave $1.25 million to the Republican Governors Association and another $1 million to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce during this past election. More likely than not, if you saw an independent attack ad against a targeted Democrat, the fine print at end indicated it came from the RGA or the Chamber of Commerce and in part financed by Fox News.

According to Dana Milbank in the Washington Post, some 30 Fox News personalities have endorsed, done fundraisers and endorsed Republican candidates in more than 600 cases across 47 states. Karl Rove and likely 2012 presidential candidates, Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee work for Fox and were aggressively campaigning for Republicans this year.

What’s “fair or balanced” about that?

Rachel Maddow is right when she says Fox is “a political operation” and not simply just another cable news network. That’s what happens when you hire an old Richard Nixon staffer and put him in charge. You get a lot of advocacy and not much journalism.

You also get cheerleaders instead of journalists.

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4 responses

  1. Well, if someone can explain why Joe Scarborough — who has essentially the same job for the same network and did the same thing, but is conservative — hasn’t been suspended, maybe I’ll dial back my outrage.

    Either way, it had been my understanding that partisan opinion commentators like Olbermann and Scarborough were exempt from the rule, which was meant to apply to straight newscasters. It’s been a long, long time since Olbermann made any pretense of not being biased; “fair and balanced” has never been his slogan.

  2. …apparently Rachel Maddow explained the difference; Scarborough seems to have asked in advance. Not mentioned is whether Olbermann asked in advance and was turned down. I’d still like to hear more details, and I still think it’s a bit strange this rule exists for someone like Olbermann; but I can understand the situation a bit better now.

  3. Olbermann’s only sin is that he didn’t go to Ma and Pa for permission to give HIS money away! That for me is the biggest outrage: MSNBC has a rule that they are willing to break, but at their discretion and not his.

    Further, given the state of journalism, Fox’s example, the punishment doesn’t fit the crime; it was draconian. If this was Olbermann’s first offense, then a warning, a reprimand, not an indefinite suspension.

    Their report team editorializing the election results was not a bother. I expected that from a news media with a liberal bias, that survives on punditry, just as, I’m sure, although I don’t watch them, Fox spun the results to suit their Republican bias. MSNBC’s punditry aside, I could see for myself the night’s results and their implications for the party in power.

    MSNBC has a slant. I’m cool with that. What’s not cool is Fox intentionally misleading it’s listeners (e.g. the made-up cost of Obama’s trip), propagandizing, lying, crusading, and whipping up violence against certain law-abiding individuals –one example, Dr. Tiller hounded by Bill O’Reilly for years.

    I hear you Jeff, and if there was some across-the-board, general standard that all journalists on pain of some severe punishment had to follow, I’d support your position. But that’s clearly not the case. Not in radio, where daily Rush Limbaugh spew enough garbage to fill several landfills; and not in television, where Fox crosses the ethical boundaries that exist between night and day, truth and fiction, and honesty and deception.

  4. Here’s another take on Olbermann from The Nation, offering additional background information.

    http://www.thenation.com/blog/155889/if-olbermanns-donations-are-bad-what-about-ges

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