MSNBC talk-show host Keith Olbermann has been caught stepping way over the line. According to Politico’s Simmi Aujla, Olbermann made campaign contributions to three Democratic candidates in the just-concluded campaign. The network has suspended him, the New York Times reports.
Olbermann has acknowledged making the donations — the legal maximum of $2,400 apiece — to Jack Conway, who lost to Kentucky Republican Rand Paul in a U.S. Senate race, and to two Arizona members of Congress, one of whom was recently a guest on Olbermann’s show, “Countdown.”
It gets worse. Olbermann’s donations were in direct violation of NBC News’ ethics policy. Like many news organizations, Aujla writes, NBC executives ban their employees from making such donations because they consider it “a breach of journalistic independence to contribute to the candidates they cover.”
There are no longer any such scruples at radio talk shows, whose largely conservative hosts have morphed into out-and-out political activists. But there is a long tradition of opinion journalists’ refraining from political activity even though they are paid to express their political views. As Aujla notes, it’s a matter of independence, not objectivity.
Even if NBC made an exception for talk-show hosts like Olbermann (to be clear: it shouldn’t), he has often co-anchored MSNBC’s election-night coverage — as he did this past Tuesday. That is clearly a journalistic role, and the fact that someone who has given money to political candidates would fill such a role is pretty outrageous. That no one apparently knew about it only makes it worse.
It will be interesting to see how NBC handles this beyond the just-announced suspension. MSNBC finally stumbled upon an identity in recent years as the liberal alternative to Fox News, and it’s Olbermann who led the way. He is the network’s signature personality — a huge asset for MSNBC. He is not expendable talent like Rick Sanchez or Juan Williams.
Olbermann’s gotten some favorable attention for announcing that he is ending his “Worst Person in the World” segment. Maybe he ought to do one more — and this time award it to himself.