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.