Keith Olbermann returns to Countdown with a smug defense, sidestepping biggest ethical questions
Keith Olbermann's suspension from MSNBC over political donations put a question on the table that strikes at the heart of our new and increasingly partisan political news environment.
What's the best way to judge the fairness and ethics of a person paid to give their opinions on news events everyday?
But instead of engaging that debate, Olbermann returned to his show Countdown Tuesday with a broadcast that was mostly about him: noting the 300,000 people who signed a petition supporting him, the 21,000 Twitter messages, the invites from Larry King Live and Good Morning America and the grand presentation the Daily Show did in lampooning MSNBC's two-day suspension of their biggest star for unapproved donations.
The anchor stressed his gift was legal, he didn't disclose it on his show to avoid unintentionally inspiring fans and he didn't know it was against NBC News policy for staffers to give political donations without approval from management. What he didn't explain: Why he didn't warn his bosses about a contribution that was sure to become public and evoke his criticisms of Fox News personalities' connection to electoral fund raising.
"It's not a stupid (donations) rule," Olbermann concluded, after apologizing for, among other things, unknowingly criticizing the opponent of a candidate who received one of his contributions. "It just needs debate . . . and needs to be adapted to the rules of 21st century journalism."
Too bad Olbermann couldn't find time in his hourlong show Tuesday to have that discussion. Because the fight over his donations highlights how modern news outlets are stuck using old school, anti-opinion journalism values to navigate a new media environment filled with commentary and point-of-view reports.
Check Olbermann's commentary below -- click the link underneath for a longer essay on this topic
For a partisan pundit like Olbermann, the problem wasn't that his donation revealed an opinion. But it violated one of the most basic tents for any news professional: fairness.
By giving money to candidates without the knowledge of his bosses, co-workers and viewers, Olbermann set-up a secret alliance few people could judge. “You have to be fair to your audience – have you come to your opinions in good faith, or are you spinning them to support someone you have secretly given money?” said Andrew Tyndall, a New York-based TV news analyst.
Tyndall said MSNBC is hamstrung by its connection to NBC News and the perspective of powerful, old school journalists such as Tom Brokaw, David Gregory and Brian Williams. An utterance by CNBC reporter Rick Santelli may have helped spark the ultra-conservative Tea Party movement and Olbermann may rail against conservatives each day on MSNBC, but NBC News still struggles to police those outlets with the same rules applied to non-partisan journalists who appear on NBC Nightly News such as political director (and MSNBC anchor) Chuck Todd.
“Can they be old school mainstream journalists on the broadcast side and ideologues on the cable side and work for the same organization?” Tyndall asked. “These written rules that are sometimes enforced and sometimes there’s a nod and wink about – are they enough of a fig leaf?”
Other reporters have documented other donations, including money given years ago by MSNBC anchor Joe Scarborough and contributions from Fox News Channel pundits such as Sean Hannity and Neal Cavuto. Critics have accused Fox News of being a donation machine, featuring five potential GOP presidential candidates as paid news analysts and regularly featuring conservative candidates seeking to spark contributions. The Hollywood Reporter has an interesting look at such donations here.
But New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen doesn’t have a problem with opinionators on cable news contributing money to political candidates; he criticizes them for not being forthcoming enough when they do.
Rosen has written often about the decline of so-called objective reporting, which he criticizes as “view from nowhere” journalism. Instead, news consumers are awash in blogs, websites, cable newschannels, Facebook pages and Twitter tweets which pulsate with opinions and perspectives – even among journalists whose old school values may require them to pretend they don’t have them.
So why hasn’t our modern media establishment crafted a set of rules to deal with this new reality?
“There are two ways for news providers to establish trust and level with tier audience, Rosen said. “They can say…we don’t have any political viewers or agenda, we just provide information…Or they can say 'We’re people with political lives; we have views and aren’t completely impartial all the time and here’s where we’re coming from. But for that system to work requires a level of disclosure which would crash the system.”
Rosen envisions a media world where Olbermann would have an easy-to-find disclosure page on MSNBC.com with an extensive biography, statement of his values, list of his donations and the list of all groups he belongs to which may fall in his area of news coverage.
“Why doesn’t (NBC News) just develop a set of disclosure requirements for people who are coming from somewhere?” Rosen said. “Because they don’t want to fight with the Tom Brokaws and David Gregory’s of the world. So they are delaying the day of reckoning.”
Olbermann seemed to dodge the same questions Tuesday, praising the election laws for making his disclosures for him. "If I'd given the money to the (GOP-friendly) U.S. Chamber of Commerce," he said ominously, "you would have never, ever known."
Unless, of course, you told us.