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.

The Times takes on Barry Nolan v. Bill O’Reilly

Keith Olbermann

Brian Stelter of the New York Times weighs in on the matter of Barry Nolan versus Bill O’Reilly, quoting me while so doing. Here is what I wrote for the Boston Phoenix about Comcast’s firing of Nolan in 2008, and here is Terry Ann Knopf’s recent Columbia Journalism Review piece on Nolan’s wrongful-termination suit against Comcast.

Comcast, you may recall, fired Nolan from his talk show on CN8 after he organized a protest of a local Emmy award for O’Reilly. Comcast could soon find itself to be the proud owner of NBC Universal, which would put the company in the awkward position of doing business with other networks (including O’Reilly’s employer, Fox News) as a cable provider and competing with them as a content provider.

Which is to ask: Will MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann be the next Barry Nolan? Comcast president David Cohen and Olbermann both tell Stelter no. I hope they’re right.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Another dumb move by CNN

Why would anyone at CNN think it was a good idea to give a prime-time talk show to former New York governor Eliot Spitzer and Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker? There is only one reason anyone thinks Spitzer will be a ratings winner, and it’s not his non-existent journalism background or even his sharp analytical mind.

I’m not going to rehash what I’ve said before about CNN; you can read it here if you like.

Briefly, though, CNN touts itself as a profitable, news-driven alternative to the ideological talk shows on Fox and MSNBC. So why act as though your every programming decision is based on ratings? If CNN is truly in a different business from Fox and MSNBC, then what does it mean to say CNN comes in “third”?

Given that there is almost no way CNN can have an impact at 8 p.m. against the O’Reilly-Olbermann juggernaut, Jon Klein and company should have tried something radical. Like news. How about an hour of CNN International, which everyone who has traveled overseas tells me is exponentially better than what’s on the three U.S. cable nets?

More on Olbermann, Greenwald and Stelter

Glenn Greenwald has posted a statement from MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann as well as his own withering response regarding the cease-fire between MSNBC and Fox News. Here’s what Olbermann told Greenwald:

I honor Mr. Greenwald’s insight into the coverage of GE/NewsCorp talks, and have found nothing materially factually inaccurate about it. Fox and NewsCorp have continued a strategy of threat and blackmail by Rupert Murdoch, Roger Ailes, and Bill O’Reilly since at least 2004. But no matter what might have been reported by others besides Mr. Greenwald, and no matter what might have been thought around this industry, there’s no “deal.” I would never consent, and, fortunately, MSNBC and NBC News would never ask me to.

Greenwald then writes:

I certainly believe that Olbermann is telling the truth when he says he was never a party to any deal and that nobody at GE or MSNBC asked him to consent. That’s because GE executives didn’t care in the least if Olbermann consented and didn’t need his consent. They weren’t requesting that Olbermann agree to anything, and nobody — including the NYT’s [Brian] Stelter — ever claimed that Olbermann had agreed to any deal. What actually happened is exactly what I wrote: GE executives issued an order that Olbermann must refrain from criticizing O’Reilly, and Olbermann complied with that edict. That is why he stopped mentioning O’Reilly as of June 1.

Once the NYT exposed this deal between GE and News Corp., MSNBC executives allowed Olbermann to attack O’Reilly last night because neither Olbermann nor MSNBC could afford to have it appear that their top journalist was being muzzled by GE.

Greenwald has some useful links, too, so please read the whole thing. And yes, Olbermann owes Stelter an on-air apology.

A cheap shot from Keith Olbermann

Keith Olbermann issued his declaration of independence last night. But in doing so, he smeared New York Times reporter Brian Stelter (photo), whose account of a peace settlement between Olbermann’s employer, MSNBC, and his nemesis Bill O’Reilly’s employer, Fox News, had created the need for Olbermann to renew his feud with O’Reilly in the first place.

Stelter reported last Friday that executives at both networks had moved to stop the on-air sniping between the two hosts. “Bill-O the Clown,” Olbermann’s pet nickname for O’Reilly, was frequently featured in his “Worst Persons in the World” segment. O’Reilly, for his part, had started taking aim at the corporate agenda of MSNBC’s owner, General Electric.

Although Stelter, not surprisingly, was forced to rely quite a bit on unnamed sources, he had an on-the-record comment from GE spokesman Gary Sheffer, who confirmed that a deal had been cut: “We all recognize that a certain level of civility needed to be introduced into the public discussion. We’re happy that has happened.”

Stelter also included a quote from Olbermann: “I am party to no deal.”

Seems pretty well nailed-down. Yet Olbermann, on last night’s “Countdown,” designated Stelter as his number-three villain in the “Worst Persons” segment, with O’Reilly coming in at number two. Among other things, Olbermann said:

Problem, Mr. Stelter asks me at least twice last week if there was such a deal, and I told him, on and off the record, there was not. And told him I rather obviously would have to be a party to such a deal. And I told him that not only wasn’t I, but I had not even been asked to be by my bosses. And he printed it anyway.

This is intellectually dishonest, as it implies that Stelter deliberately did not use Olbermann’s quote because it didn’t fit with what he wanted to write. In fact, Stelter did use it, and he placed it in context. It’s very clear from Stelter’s story that the deal had been cut by higher-ups, and that Olbermann might or might not go along.

Fox News owner Rupert Murdoch came in at number one for trying to muzzle O’Reilly. Hmmm … doesn’t that confirm that Stelter got it right?

Glenn Greenwald, who’s been blogging away at Salon ever since the Stelter story came out, criticized his ideological soulmate Olbermann last night, writing on Twitter, “Really surprised by the Olbermann denial – there’s lots and lots of evidence that the NYT’s description about what GE did is 100% accurate.”

Stelter himself took it in good humor after seeing his photo plastered on the “Worst Persons” segment. “Tonight: a reminder to take a new head shot,” he wrote on Twitter.

All in all, not a good moment for Olbermann. He may have reclaimed his independence. But he did so at the expense of sliming a journalist who’d broken an important, unflattering story about collusion by media moguls. At the very least, Olbermann ought to award himself the bronze.

Photo from Stelter’s Twitter feed.

MSNBC’s news-opinion dilemma

It looks like the political cross-dressing act at MSNBC has reached its limit. According to Brian Stelter of the New York Times, talk-show hosts Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews will not anchor the cable network’s coverage of the upcoming debates or on election night, which should tone down the battle between NBC’s journalists and MSNBC’s opinionators.

I have quibbles about this, but overall I think it was the right move. Barack Obama has no bigger advocates in the mainstream media than Olbermann and Matthews, and it has looked strange all year to have serious journalists like Tom Brokaw, Brian Williams, Andrea Mitchell and, before his death, Tim Russert seeming to answer to them. Recently, it all boiled over on the air.

Olbermann and Matthews reportedly will continue to appear as analysts, while David Gregory will serve as the anchor. That’s all fine. My larger concern is that in addition to being moved out of the anchor slots, they will also be expected to tone down their opinions, lest they run afoul of the Republicans’ current war against the media. Olbermann was exactly right in his revulsion at Republican efforts to stamp their brand on the terrorist attacks of 9/11, even if it was unseemly for him to do it from the anchor desk.

The problem, of course, is that there are no such scruples about the dividing line between news and opinion at Fox News. Stelter, for instance, does not question the fiction that Bill O’Reilly is not allowed to anchor Fox’s convention coverage, a piece of information that would be a surprise to anyone tuning in between 8 and 9 p.m. the last two weeks. Fox’s signature news personality, Brit Hume, is a good journalist, but he also leans noticeably to the right.

MSNBC this year is experiencing the first semi-success of its benighted existence by loading up on liberal political talk shows. Today Rachel Maddow debuts at 9 p.m., extending that trend. I don’t know how long it can last, since the network is still firmly ensconced in last place. But as long as network executives can find a way to keep the journalists and the talkers from ripping each other’s throats out, MSNBC has become a refreshing alternative to Fox News.

I just hope it’s Williams and Brokaw who are driving the anchor-desk shift — and not Rick Davis and Steve Schmidt.

Bitterness and hate at MSNBC

Jon Stewart’s got some great clips (move it ahead to around 11:30) of the meltdown at MSNBC. It turns out that Rachel Maddow’s upbraiding of Pat Buchanan has been the least of it.

One other thing I saw late last night, following Joe Biden’s speech: Keith Olbermann asked Brian Williams a question about whether McCain might use his vice-presidential announcement to take away from Obama’s moment. Except that he asked his question following an elaborate set-up in which he said something to the effect that he didn’t want to put Williams in the awkward position of seeming partisan. Williams semi-acknowledged that some sort of conversation had taken place.

It seemed clear to me that Williams must have been complaining that he and other NBC journalists feels as though they’re getting sucked into the liberal talk-show atmosphere that has led to MSNBC’s rise in the ratings.

It also seems clear that Tim Russert was the only personality strong enough to keep all this backbiting from spilling over. Another reason to lament his passing.

By the way, it’s mainly MSNBC, but not only MSNBC. The other night on Fox News, Brit Hume took the crossover from Sean Hannity and said — I’m sure I’ve got this almost word for word — I’ve always wanted to be on “Hannity & Colmes,” if only for a moment. The contempt on Hume’s face was palpable.

The worst … person … in the world!

Keith Olbermann, if you’re taking nominations for tonight’s show, please consider David Davis, the principal of Ponce de Leon High School in Florida.

According to the Associated Press, when one of his students told him she was a lesbian and that she wanted him to stop her fellow students from harassing her, Davis outed her to her parents, told her to stay away from children and suspended friends who wore T-shirts supporting her.

Despite all that, folks in Ponce de Leon are reportedly wondering what it was, exactly, that Davis did wrong.

The rise of Keith Olbermann

Peter Boyer has a terrific profile of Keith Olbermann in the current issue of the New Yorker. The theme — the emergence of the opinion-news hybrid in television journalism, seen first on the right with Fox News, now on the left with MSNBC — is an important one following the death of the determinedly centrist Tim Russert.

Personally, I enjoy Olbermann’s “Countdown” quite a bit. His standards for accuracy are considerably higher than those of his nemesis, Bill O’Reilly. My fear is that craven network executives will take any sign of success and drive it right over the cliff. I hadn’t realized until I’d read Boyer’s piece that CBS News had courted Olbermann as its lead anchor before settling on Katie Couric — who, despite all the drama over her low ratings and rumors of her departure, does a perfectly respectable job of anchoring the evening newscast.

Olbermann’s name has also come up as a possible replacement for Russert on “Meet the Press.” Fortunately, the most plausible rumor of the moment is that Tom Brokaw will come out of retirement to helm the program through the election.

By all means, let Olbermann be Olbermann — hosting a news-and-opinion program, not pretending to be something he’s not.

Also work checking out: NPR’s “On the Media” recently did a piece on what it called “The Olbermann Effect.”