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Olbermann suspended: Dumb donation, even dumber policy

Posted by Rob Anderson  November 5, 2010 02:24 PM

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olbermann.JPGIn an editorial today, the Globe applauded Keith Olbermann for suspending his “Worst Persons in the World’’ segment. Well, it looks like Olbermann's decision doesn't matter much, because MSNBC President Phil Griffin just announced that the network has indefinitely suspended Olbermann for making campaign contributions to three Democratic candidates this year. “I became aware of Keith's political contributions late last night. Mindful of NBC News policy and standards, I have suspended him indefinitely without pay," Griffin said.

The donations, according to this MSNBC article, are in violation of company's policies:

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.

There's a strong case to be made that Olbermann deserved to be suspended. Company policy is company policy. Olbermann blatantly broke the rule, so if he's mad about the consequences, he has no one to blame but himself.

But I think it's fair to ask whether the rule makes sense in the first place. Journalistic policies against political donations exist to protect the impartiality — or at least the perceived impartiality — of news organizations. I happen to believe media outlets should deal with biases by being open about them instead of pretending they don't exist, but MSNBC and many other media outlets disagree. But here's the thing: No one could, would, or should argue that Olbermann is a non-partisan journalist. In fact, he is one of the most partisan of the most partisan hosts on cable television. As Michael C. Moynihan wrote on Reason's blog:

Isn’t it unfair to hold Olbermann, who is one of the most partisan people on television (if not of Earth), to the same standards as, say, Brian Williams? Countdown exists to promote Democratic candidates and liberal policies, which is just fine by me. So why shouldn’t Olbermann, as a private citizen, be allowed to donate money to those candidates he plumps for on television?

If a news organizations asks reporters to abstain from making political donations, there's at least some logic behind it. But opinion journalists express their ideas every day. Olbermann tells us why we should support certain candidates; why would it make any difference — or be surprising — if he is making donations to any of those very same candidates?

In fact, MSNBC agreed with this point back in 2007, when it was discovered that host Joe Scarborough had given a political donation to Republican candidate Derrick Kitts. Back then, the network not only kept Scarborough on air, but defended his donation:

A spokesperson for NBC, Jeremy Gaines, replied to questions sent to Scarborough. "Yes, he did make a donation to Derrick Kitts. Kitts is an old friend of Joe's. Joe hosts an opinion program and is not a news reporter."

Whoops. Looks like MSNBC has some explaining to do.

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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