By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Olbermann dives into a steaming vat of hot water

Keith Olbermann

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.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

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  1. What bugs me most here is that Olbermann spent a few segments recently railing on Fox and Murdoch for contributing $1M to the GOP Governors Association and another $250,000 or $200,000 somewhere else.

    And someone’s going to point out that $1.25 > $7,200, but each donation is an ethical lapse, whether $1 or $1M. And Keith’s got 3 on his record, Fox has 2 (at least).

  2. Heather Greene

    I think it’s worth mentioning the two U.S. Representatives that got donations from Keith Olbermann. Not to condemn or excuse, but just found it interesting he gave to Gabrielle Giffords since she’s a Blue Dog Democrat. Local and national Democrats were hoping she’d win in order to be in a better position to challenge Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl in 2012.

    Anyhow, I look at this as two different question: Did Keith Olbermann break a policy of his employer? That’s simple, yes he did. The larger question is this a good policy? That’s harder and larger then just this one case. I know where you stand and journalists need to remain independent of the political process. But the lines are blurry. With Tim Russert coming from partisan politics to Sean Hannity leading “Vote McCain-Palin” rallies in Western Pennsylvania.

    The one thing that does bother me is the false equivalence between this and FOX News relentless promoting of the “Tea Party” (recall on April 15, 2009 when they had all their major talent across the nation for “FNC Tax Rally”) on top of their millions of dollars donated. I’m not stating that excuses KO by any stretch, just there are degrees.

    It’s not so much that I want to equate and excuse Keith Olbermann since clearly he was breaking a policy of his employer. It’s just I find FOX News much, much worst. The media critics just dismiss it as “Oh, that’s FNC” but that’s always moronic to me especially considering the massive influence of FNC.

    I wonder if Rachel Maddow was more power hungry and gunning for Keith Olbermann who this would have turned out?

  3. Steve Stein

    Meanwhile, MSNBC’s morning man Joe Scarborough gave $4200 to Republican candidates in 2006. But that’s OK. And Pat Buchanan is a frequent contributor to Republicans and a regular guest on MSNBC, but there’s no word that MSNBC will stop using him as a guest.

    Maybe Keith should go write for the Herald.

  4. Bill Rirchotte

    He was NOT suspended for donating, He was suspending for not getting the OK from management before doing so. The only policy he violated was insubordination. Hardly anything to get excited about, but watch the right squeal with glee…Oh wait I can hear it already.

  5. Heather Greene

    Totally forgot about this story from last August Where was the New York Times then?

  6. Aaron Read

    HuffPo reports that Olbermann is suspended indefinitely without pay.

  7. L.K. Collins

    I could care less about who Olberman donates money to, of any journalist making a donation.

    My only concern is that they make the donation public.

    This nation has a tradition of freedom of speech, and political speech (and that includes political donations) is one of the elementsmost protected. Journalist do not waive their Constitutional rights by joining the unoffical profession of journalism.

    Olberman broke the rules of his employer. His error. He gets to live with the consequences.

  8. Dan Kennedy

    Three quick observations as this story continues to unfold:

    1. I’ve seen numerous questions about why MSNBC allows Pat Buchanan to make political contributions. I hope we see an explanation, but I can speculate. Buchanan is a partisan Republican analyst, and I don’t think he’s an employee of MSNBC. His job is to be a Republican. So the rules would be different for him. Similarly, I doubt that CNN has stopped Paul Begala from making contributions.

    2. Likewise Sean Hannity. My answer: Are you kidding? Fox News doesn’t care. Period.

    3. Several years ago, Joe Scarborough, now the host of “Morning Joe,” was caught making political contributions. This strikes me as being directly analogous to the Olbermann situation, and MSNBC should explain why Scarborough was apparently not punished.

  9. Dan Kennedy

    Another thought. “Countdown” started as a straight newscast and morphed over time into an opinion show. For those who say Olbermann isn’t a journalist, well, can we pick a day when he ceased being a news anchor and instead became a talk-show host?

  10. Christian Avard

    The one thing about Scarborough was that he came to MSNBC as a oped columnist. He wasn’t someone who came in with a network news or journalism background, like Olbermann did. So it seems like Scarborough finds himself in a category much like Pat Buchanan’s.

    It seems like people are seeing a set of standards being enforced on some people (like Buchanan or Scarborough) and another set of standards for Olbermann. So the big question is, shouldn’t they be addressed the same across for everyone, regardless of their background or political preference?

    It seems like the biggest loser in all of this is NBC because they seemed to be caught in a situation where they weren’t enforcing their own policy.

    As for Fox, I agree. They are an ethically challenged journalistic enterprise, so it’s not worth discussing.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Christian: Yes, and it’s possible that Scarborough was thought of differently a few years ago than he is today. I don’t know the answer.

      As for Buchanan, I don’t think it’s fair to bring in part-time contributors who are put on the air because they’re partisans and make them play by the same rules as full-time journalists. Make no make — Olbermann was working as a journalist, albeit an opinion journalist.

  11. Christian Avard

    *** Olbermann was working as a journalist, albeit an opinion journalist. ***

    Yes and because he was functioning in a journalistic capacity, I believe NBC did the right thing. Either that or like Jon Keller said tonight, a full disclosure should have been said. We agree!

  12. Dan Kennedy

    Greg Mitchell has put together a great summary at The Nation, and if these facts hold, then I think Scarborough — and NBC management — are off the hook.

    The short version: Scarborough gave in 2006, with permission; in 2007, MSNBC tightened its policy against staff members making political donations; and a donation Scarborough allegedly made earlier this year was, according to his co-anchor, Mika Brzezinski, actually made by his wife, Susan Scarborough, and the records are being corrected to reflect that.

  13. Glen Bergendahl

    Since when does a network with such abysmal ratings have an on-air personality that isn’t expendable?

  14. Heather Greene

    The question is if you don’t think that cable news hosts should be giving donations to candidates, especially candidates they cover or invite as guest on their shows, what difference does it make if they get permission from management or not? So it’s okay for Joe Scarborough because management knew? I thought this was about “independence” not permission from NBC’s brass?

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Heather: I would ban all contributions, period. No permission. That said, Scarborough asked if he could contribute to a personal friend, which is a little different.

  15. Heather Greene

    But I wonder if it is really different. Nobody pointed to this or that piece of tape from “Countdown” to say he is where he clearly was in the tank for Jack Conway. Mostly because we already knew he was. In the interview with Raúl Grijalva on the day he made the donation, they call each other “my friend.”

    So if it isn’t a matter of the reporting, but the potential for bias reporting (which happens already on “Countdown”) or that critic dismiss the reporting (which they already do with “Countdown”), I guess I see why NBC has this policy and why Keith Olbermann was suspended, but I don’t get the fuss. Maybe I’m trying to have it both way?

    I guess another random point is who is the victim?

    With Juan Williams and Rick Sanchez, it’s clearly offensive and discriminant toward people of a certain religion (Muslims and Jews respectively). I get why Muslims would ask for Juan Williams to be fired or at least disciplined and diddo Jews with Rick Sanchez. Who is mad at Keith Olbermann? The opponents of the three candidates? No reporting on that from Politico or anywhere else. I’d actually be curious what they (Jesse Kelly, Ruth McClurg, Rand Paul) thought if anything about it. Also like to hear from the candidates themselves. More complete story.

    Was his audience upset? They love that Keith Olbermann wears his politics on his chest and haven’t seen much “I love “Countdown” but never going to watch it again” people. It didn’t excuse Keith Olbermann nor doesn’t it make NBC brass wrong, but I guess it’s degrees especially when one compares this with Juan Williams or Rick Sanchez. One big thing in the New Black Panther Party nonsense is that the fact that there’s a difference between potential (Juan Williams did have the potential to negatively stereotype Muslims as “at war with America” but actually did) versus having an actual victim.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Heather: Don’t forget that Sanchez and Williams are not very good at what they do. That had much to do with their quick dismissals.

  16. Heather Greene

    I don’t get media critics saying they are upset at cable news hosts, even those who are very clear where they stand on the politics of the day, for donating to political campaign yet I never heard a peep about this when FOX News did it for years. Forgetting Keith Olbermann, why are columns and blogs advocating that FOX News changed its policy? FOX News wants to treated to treated like news outlet.

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