Another take on Olbermann’s donations

By Marjorie Arons-Barron

Keith Olbermann’s “indefinite suspension” for violating NBC’s policy barring donations to political candidates turned out to be just two days off the air. Which probably makes sense because his misstep was not in making the donations to three Democratic candidates but in not informing the NBC powers that be, as the network’s policy demands. Put in that context, the “punishment” was just a company’s way of showing who’s boss, of not letting an employee act “too big for his britches.”

The real question remains unanswered: should real journalists make donations to political candidates? The short answer to that is No. Not. Never. If you’re gathering and reporting the news, you need to project an open-mindedness and the ability to tell a story without bias. The Globe’s Brian Mooney and the Herald’s Jessica Van Sack would be sacked if they ever contributed to candidates, I am sure, and their writing would lose credibility.

Keith Olbermann is a journalist only in the broadest sense of the word, “a writer or editor for a news medium.” But the definition of journalism I grew up with was closer to Webster’s definition of one engaged in “the direct presentation of facts or description of events without an attempt at interpretation.” That is not what Keith Olbermann is about. Given how clearly he states his political opinions and preferences, he is really more of a news entertainer, just like Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity on Fox. If NBC really cares about separating news from opinion, it should bar Olbermann from anchoring coverage of election night returns.

Even when I earned my living as an editorialist, always writing and airing opinion, I would never contribute to a candidate because it would appear to compromise my ability to gather information (on which the opinion would eventually be based) in the most neutral way. I would hope that today’s editorial writers abide by that rule. For they are, in the best sense of the word, opinion journalists.

But in the cable news business, the pitchmen (and women) on Fox and MSNBC are shilling for their viewpoints and favorite candidates on a daily basis. As David Carr points out in Monday’s NY Times, that amounts to an in-kind contribution. Fox News has even had three presidential hopefuls (Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin) on the payroll as commentators. Its website headlines Christine O’Donnell, Carl Paladino, Meg Whitman and Joe Miller.

Fox is fine with all this (hey, Rupert Murdoch donated $1 million to the Republican Governors Association). MSNBC doesn’t ban donations. It only wants those who donate to inform the higher-ups. This is a distinction without a difference.

In today’s cable environment, a defined point of view is part of the station’s brand. It’s why those inclined to the right tune into Fox and those on the left tune into MSNBC. What difference can it make at this time that their stars are donating to candidates? I may not like it, but, if I’m in the market for balanced and credible news, theirs are not the places to which I turn.

Marjorie Arons-Barron is president of Barron Associates Worldwide and the former editorial director for WCVB-TV (Channel 5). You can read her blog here.

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16 thoughts on “Another take on Olbermann’s donations

  1. BP Myers

    “MSNBC doesn’t ban donations. It only wants those who donate to inform the higher-ups.”

    I wonder if that’s true. I’ve heard it reported that his sin wasn’t so much that he didn’t “inform” his higher-ups, but that he didn’t “ask permission.”

    I suspect we’ll never really know (have they published the actual policy anywhere?) but let’s hope it’s the former and not the latter.

  2. Heather Greene

    It’s one to say FNC is fine with hosts, but what do you think about that? If you’re really upset about cable news hosts donating to candidates, the real battle is with FNC, not Keith Olbermann. You call them “news entertainer” at FNC, but that isn’t how they define themselves publicly nor is it how the majority of their audience sees themselves. If media critics TRULY cared about this issue, they’d be bring it to where it really matters: FNC.

    The anchoring the midterm election coverage is something only media critcs care about. If Keith Olbermann is in the center chair or two chairs over, does a viewer really notice? Besides election coverage isn’t really grey area, either one candidate won or he/she didn’t. It’s just reporting returns. If Keith Olbermann says “What a shame” when Rand Paul wins, does it really matter if he’s two chairs over and not the first person to announce it.

    1. Dan Kennedy Post author

      @Heather: Fox News Channel is not a journalistic enterprise. You are right that everyone doesn’t realize that. But everyone who reads this blog knows it. (Or is in denial.)

  3. sheldon toplitt

    KO’s sin was that he violated a company policy about which he knew and interviewed the candidates to whom he contributed on his program without disclosing to viewers that he financially supported his guests. Len Downie’s long-held belief that he shouldn’t vote to protect the virginity of the Wash Post is foolish. Journalists should not openly shill for candidates or be the “face” for a ballot referendum, but if they financially support candidates and are outed through no action of their own by another media outlet trolling the Federal Election Commission database, what’s the transgression? Journalists are citizens and have a 1st Amendment right to support politicians of their choosing. The objectivity argument doesn’t hold water. How is it a blow to journalistic objectivity if a police reporter contributes to a Democratic candidate any more than if her newspaper endorses a particular party’s candidate? Give credit to the journalist’s professionalism–just as a Republican CPA will diligently complete the tax returns of a liberal Democratic client, a reporter can put aside her beliefs and fairly cover a story. The public doesn’t believe journalists have taken priestly vows of objective fairness anyway.

  4. Art Kane

    “Fox News has even had three presidential hopefuls (Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin) on the payroll as commentators.”

    She forgot Rick Santorum.

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  6. Brad Deltan

    I may not like it, but, if I’m in the market for balanced and credible news, theirs are not the places to which I turn.

    Does that imply that anyone thinks you actually can get NEWS from television these days? How quaint!

  7. Margie Arons-Barron

    @Sheldon, As I said back to you on my blog, Re: your comments on “How is it a blow to journalistic objectivity if a police reporter contributes to a Democratic candidate any more than if her newspaper endorses a particular party’s candidate?” Traditionally there has always been a firewall between the editorial and news section of a paper, which has been a good thing. The public may not believe that journalists have taken priestly vows of objective fairness, but they have a right to expect that reporters will approach a subject with a clean slate and an open mind and not twist the facts to comport with his/her beliefs. Political donations by reporters call that into question. I do agree that not voting (to protect the news outlet’s “virginity”)is stupid and a failure of civic responsibility.

  8. R.J. Lewis

    This debate seems to be about appearances rather than realities. The reality no one doubts is that reporters – like everyone else – have opinions about candidates, as well as preferences. Now, about the donations: reporters are living representations of our First Amendment rights, and the courts have decided that campaign donations are expressions of free speech. Therefore, it only seems right that journalists should be able to (a) have an opinion about politicians and (b) express that opinion on their own time. When I was a reporter, I always felt like there was no prohibition on arriving at an opinion, as long as it was arrived at through an objective analysis of the facts. Reporters shouldn’t be opinionless, belief-less regurgitators, right? Therefore, as long as their stories remain fair and objective, who cares who reporters like for attorney general, senator, and so forth? In other words, if papers can put a firewall between their opinion pages and their news pages, why can’t reporters put a firewall between their newswriting and their private opinions and preferences? If we can buy the former, we should be able to buy the latter…

  9. Laurence Glavin

    In today’s Globe (Tuesday, 11/09), art critic Sebastian Smee (who is Australian and has lived in the US for only a couple of years)gratuitously inserted an anti-George W. Bush remark in his review of a painting at the Addison Gallery on the campus of Phillips Academy. (‘W’ attended Phillips Academy; I wonder if Mr. Smee knows that.) For as long as it lasts, here is a link to that review:

    http://www.boston.com/ae/theater_arts/articles/2010/11/09/albert_bierstadts_the_coming_storm_is_a_landscape_of_intimacy_and_imagination/

  10. Christian Avard

    *** Traditionally there has always been a firewall between the editorial and news section of a paper, which has been a good thing. The public may not believe that journalists have taken priestly vows of objective fairness, but they have a right to expect that reporters will approach a subject with a clean slate and an open mind and not twist the facts to comport with his/her beliefs. Political donations by reporters call that into question. ***

    Marjorie, I agree 100% with your observation. But is Keith Olbermann a reporter? What isn’t clear to me is what is Keith Olbermann’s title. I’m hearing so many things from so many people that the rules do not apply to Olbermann. Some people say he’s a journalist, others see him as a polemicist, a talk-show host, or anything other than a journalist, a news reporter, or whatever. What is he really and why do journalism ethics/rules apply to him? That’s the disconnect I see many people are missing here.

  11. Steve Stein

    RJ – I think the point is, if you believe in candidate A enough to give money to the candidate’s campaign, and then they go and do something bad that only you know about, will you report it?

    (I’m having a tough time thinking this through. Is this the problem? Or is there something else?)

  12. Margie Arons-Barron

    Dan, I tuned in specifically to see what his comments might be. Maybe the bottom line for me is that, in the pre-cable world, I would have made no exceptions to the political involvement questions. Today I have come to separate cable news-tainment characters from journalists and have much lower expectations of them, whether they’re on MSNBC or Fox. The audience understands who they are and where they’re coming from. At least Olbermann recognized his culpability in running his “Worse Person” segment against the opponent of someone to whom he made a contribution. That is blatant and wouldn’t have been known but for the (unevenly applied) network policy of informing management.
    Here’s where it gets complicated: Should John Reed have been more believable if, while actively involved in the Leninist cause, he didn’t donate money? If he did donate money, would he have been less of a journalist? The context of the media today has changed.

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