Like Donovan said: Must be the season of the witch. Or at least the witch hunt.
Since I started paying attention to these things back in 2003, I remember plenty of ethical missteps that led to a journalist’s downfall. But nothing like what we’ve seen in the past few months.
Since June, media watchers have been treated to these cannings (or resignations, if you’re inclined to believe that):
To be sure, most were well-deserved, either because the journalists were straight news reporters who demonstrated bias or were anchors and opinioneers but what they said was racist (or, in the case of Juan Williams, perceived to be racist).
Then Friday we heard this:
Keith Olbermann, the leading liberal voice on American television in the age of Obama, was suspended Friday after his employer, MSNBC, discovered he made campaign contributions to three Democrats last month.
The indefinite suspension was a stark display of the clash between objectivity and opinion in television journalism. While Mr. Olbermann is anchor of what is essentially the “Democratic Nightly News,” the decision affirmed that he was being held to the same standards as other employees of MSNBC and its parent, NBC News, both of which answer to NBC Universal. Most journalistic outlets discourage or directly prohibit campaign contributions by employees.
Mr. Olbermann’s contributions came to light in an article by Politico on Friday morning. He said he had donated $2,400 to the campaigns of Representatives Raul M. Grijalva and Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona and Attorney General Jack Conway of Kentucky, who lost his Senate race to Rand Paul. He told Politico, “I did not privately or publicly encourage anyone else to donate to these campaigns, nor to any others in this election or any previous ones, nor have I previously donated to any political campaign at any level.”
That was from The New York Times, but the story appeared in just about every major news source. As well it should. What I find absolutely dumbfounding, though, is that Olbermann was suspended in the first place.
Let’s start with a little refresher on whom we’re talking about.
As the NYT story mentioned, since leaving Sportscenter in the ’90s and starting “Countdown” in 2003, Olbermann has become a media darling of the left. No one — I mean no one — has in recent years questioned Olbermann’s politics. They’re obvious and he does nothing to temper them.
Many have seen Olbermann as MSNBC’s way of capturing liberals like FOX News grabbed conservatives with O’Reilly.
What’s more, Olbermann makes Jon Stewart look objective and “Countdown” is often snarkier than “The Colbert Report.”
So what is all the fuss about?
It basically comes down to MSNBC’s decision to enforce an old ethical policy to the letter of the law. As the AP explains:
NBC News prohibits its employees from working on, or donating to, political campaigns unless a special exception is granted by the news division president – effectively a ban. Olbermann’s bosses did not find out about the donations until after they were made.
I guess MSNBC host Joe Scarborough had prior permission then. Yes, the irony is that in 2007 MSNBC published a fascinating story about the 143 journalists whom they identified as having made political contributions between 2004 and 2007.
That story explained that MSNBC had a slightly different standard than some of the other networks.
news organizations don’t agree on where to draw the ethical line.
Giving to candidates is allowed at Fox, Forbes, Time, The New Yorker, Reuters — and at Bloomberg News, whose editor in chief, Matthew Winkler, set the tone by giving to Al Gore in 2000. Bloomberg has nine campaign donors on the list; they’re allowed to donate unless they cover politics directly.
Donations and other political activity are strictly forbidden at The Washington Post, ABC, CBS, CNN and NPR.
Politicking is discouraged, but there is some wiggle room, at Dow Jones, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report. (Compare policies here.)
NBC, MSNBC and msnbc.com say they don’t discourage or encourage campaign contributions, but they require employees to report any potential conflicts of interest in advance and receive permission of the senior editor. (Msnbc.com is a joint venture of NBC Universal and Microsoft; its employees are required to adhere to NBC News policies regarding political contributions.)
MSNBC’s is an easy-to-follow rule, and it’s fair enough that a reporter or anchor would be suspended for violating it. In fact, I would expect it if the journalist in question even pretended to be objective. But why care about that rule, and why now?
Typical news guidelines, even for anchors and not just reporters, state that journalists should not opinioneer when they aren’t appearing on the op-ed pages — and even then they shouldn’t do so if they would be discussing a topic they are supposed to cover objectively.
Personal, solitary objectivity is a farce. Good journalists just try to know their subjective biases, and to keep those from skewing their stories. Good newsrooms demand that. It is a matter of professionalism and, well, diversity.
Olbermann never did any of that. He was an often humorous old gasbag and a nice counterbalance to the fatter O’Reilly’s of the world. From this journalist’s perspective, donating to Democratic political campaigns was just about the least political thing Olbermann has done in years.