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

One final word (I hope) on Olbermann

Olbermann addressing his suspension last night. Click on image to see video.

One thing I could have made clearer in what has proved to be a fascinating discussion about Keith Olbermann’s political donations is that my support for the principle of journalistic independence should not be confused with support for the specific NBC News policy that tripped him up.

The policy, as reported by Politico, is absurd, as it cites the need to remain an “impartial journalist” as its justification, and states that employees may make contributions if they seek permission:

Anyone working for NBC News who takes part in civic or other outside activities may find that these activities jeopardize his or her standing as an impartial journalist because they may create the appearance of a conflict of interest. Such activities may include participation in or contributions to political campaigns or groups that espouse controversial positions. You should report any such potential conflicts in advance to, and obtain prior approval of, the president of NBC News or his designee.

No one would consider Olbermann to be an impartial journalist, and I can easily believe he had no idea he was violating policy when he donated to three Democratic politicians. Not to be belabor the point, but the principle that I think matters is independence, not impartiality. Check out the nine principles in Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel’s “Elements of Journalism.” You will note that two of them deal with independence, but objectivity isn’t even mentioned.

In his commentary last night, Olbermann implicitly described himself as a journalist by saying that the policy needs to be reconsidered in light of “21st-century journalism.” He is doing journalism of a sort. If you can find a meaningful difference between one of Olbermann’s “special comments” and Frank Rich’s Sunday column in the New York Times (one of my favorite reads), then you’re able to draw distinctions that elude me. And I don’t think anyone would argue that Rich isn’t a journalist.

Olbermann last night not only admitted he should have changed a “Worst Person” segment because of one of his donations, but he also quite properly pointed out the problems that would have ensued if he had contributed to Arizona congressman Raul Grijalva before having him on the show rather than after. That strikes me as a pretty good summation of why even opinionated hosts shouldn’t write checks to politicians.

A final observation: A number of people have criticized me and others for obsessing over Olbermann’s small contributions when Fox News hosts such as Sean Hannity routinely donate to politicians, and when Fox News major domo Rupert Murdoch has no scruples about giving $1 million to the Republican Governors Association.

They’re right, of course. Fox News is strictly a talk-show operation — the video equivalent of Rush Limbaugh’s radio show. MSNBC aspires to something higher than that. To say that MSNBC is a mirror image of Fox News is akin to arguing that the Nation is just like the Drudge Report. Rachel Maddow explained the difference quite well on Friday. But I don’t think it’s necessary to say “of course, Fox is worse” every time I write about MSNBC.

NBC handled the Olbermann matter badly right from the start, though the final result — a two-day suspension — strikes me as fitting the offense rather well. I’m glad Olbermann is back. And I agree with him that NBC ought to take another look at its policy. I’d make it tougher and clearer.

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  1. Neil Sagan

    Thanks Dan, thanks for explaining some of the principles that drive your evaluation of journalistic ethics – professional values – including independence and Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel’s 9 “Elements of Journalism,” and not impartiality.

    I see more clearly where you’re coming from.

  2. C.E. Stead

    DK – one question about this ‘ask, then tell’ policy on donations. Would a journalist dare risk unemployment by asking to contribute to a conservative cause or politician?

    • Dan Kennedy

      @C.E.: Wow. Is that really the best you’ve got? As we know, the only news (or news-like) organization that encourages its employees to donate is Fox.

  3. Frank Binder

    The simple point here is that Olbermann’s employer had a personnel policy that was violated by one of its employees. Whether it’s a good or bad policy may be a relevant discussion, but it’s a separate discussion. Companies discipline employees every day in corporate america for violations of company policy. The only reason this is news is that it happened to a lightning rod personality. Does Olbermann’s celebrity relieve him of his obligation to his employer?

    It’s difficult to believe an assertion that he didn’t know about the policy. He’s a long time broadcast journalist and he should have known that contributions by a journalist in a news organization might be a problem.

  4. Neil Sagan

    You heard it here first: Fox News-like

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