Friday, November 5, 2010

MSNBC Right to Suspend Olbermann

Anyone who follows this blog knows I'm a fan of Keith Olbermann and his show Countdown on MSNBC. I cite him frequently, as well as post video clips from his various shows when he highlights issues I feel are important.

It's still odd at times to see Olbermann talking politics, since I spent much of my childhood watching him host SportsCenter on ESPN, but Olbermann is right more often than not, and he's to be commended for sticking to his convictions regardless of the backlash.

You can criticize Olbermann for his biting sarcasm, for his name-calling of such conservative media figures as Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Lou Dobbs. You're well within your rights to do that, and I won't disagree with you -- particularly since I'm still operating under a Jon Stewart-induced cloud of sanity.

One thing's for sure, though. Olbermann's heart is always in the right place.

But his wallet wasn't.

Olbermann was suspended indefinitely without pay on Friday by MSNBC, after Politico reported that Olbermann made three personal donations to Democratic political campaigns. Olbermann's donations, while in private and not made in the context of his show, ran afoul of NBC News policy -- a policy that covers employees of both NBC News and MSNBC.

The policy states that employees have to have prior permission to give to political causes. While it's true that fellow MSNBC host Joe Scarborough (one of two prominent conservative voices on MSNBC) gave to Republican candidates in 2006, that was before the current policy was in effect.

Pat Buchanan (MSNBC's other prominent conservative voice) has donated thousands of dollars to candidates himself, but NBC News makes an exception for him because he is an analyst and contributor, not a host.

I call bullshit on that; if you work for NBC News/MSNBC, you should play by the same rule regardless of your role. If we're going to suspend Olbermann for his personal political donations, then we should do the same to Buchanan.

However, I do not think MSNBC is in the wrong for suspending Olbermann. Olbermann violated NBC News policy, and he should pay a price for it. You can argue the validity of the policy in today's media climate, you can argue the severity of the penalty, but Olbermann violated a policy and deserves to be held accountable for it.

Not only did Olbermann's donations run afoul of NBC News policy, they also look bad. Olbermann donated the legal maximum of $2,400 to Arizona's Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the night after he interviewed the Congressman on Countdown. Rep. Grijalva has been on Olbermann's show several times -- particularly in the last few months talking about Arizona's immigration law.

Olbermann also gave $2,400 to Kentucky Democratic Senate candidate Jack Conway, who was a guest on Countdown in May.

Add to that the fact that Olbermann anchored MSNBC's Election Night coverage on Tuesday, and Olbermann never disclosed his donations as results came in and he led the coverage consisting of five people on the desk (Olbermann, Chris Mathews, Lawrence O'Donnell, Rachel Maddow and the Washington Post's Eugene Robinson) and Ed Schultz live in Las Vegas.

While that wasn't part of the official policy, it still looks bad from a journalism ethics standpoint. Olbermann isn't a traditional journalist; anyone who's watched Countdown knows that. But Olbermann does anchor hard news coverage on occasion (like election coverage and breaking news when warranted), and thus those standards apply.

Lack of disclosure, both to his bosses and to his viewers, was ultimately Olbermann's undoing.

I don't see this episode being the end of Olbermann's career with MSNBC -- his show is the highest-rated on the network, and his show's ratings have tripled in the past two years. Olbermann is largely responsible for the television success of Maddow and O'Donnell, and in a lot of circles, he's the face of MSNBC.

Still, this was a mistake on Olbermann's part, and he deserves to be held accountable for his actions. If nothing else, this episode illustrates yet again how MSNBC is not in fact the liberal equivalent of Fox News; whereas Fox News has no guideline against political donations, and even encourages the likes of Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck to shill for candidates on-air (be it television or radio), MSNBC does not.

Big picture, MSNBC is still showing some journalistic integrity. When Olbermann returns to his studio, both he and the network will be better off.

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