When Keith Olbermann returned to MSNBC on Tuesday after a two-day suspension for unauthorized political donations, he didn't spend much time on all the ethical questions raised by his $7,200 in contributions to three candidates days before a hotly contested midterm election he covered for the cable channel.
Instead, Olbermann's comments were mostly about Olbermann: 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 decision to suspend their biggest star for not getting approval for his donations in advance.
"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.
Unable or unwilling to face the reality that cable news channels and websites filled with opinionating require new ethical rules and approaches, the MSNBCs and Fox News Channels of the media world stagger from crisis to crisis — using outdated yardsticks to measure a new set of big media challenges.
For example, Olbermann's problem was that his donations violated one of the most basic tenets of the news business: fairness.
By giving money to candidates without telling his bosses, co-workers, or viewers, Olbermann created a secret allegiance (Tuesday, he implied disclosing the gifts on his show would have encouraged his fans to donate, too.)
Shouldn't a guy who makes millions delivering opinions be the one telling viewers where his allegiances lie?
"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.
New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen criticizes cable news opinionators not for their political contributions, but for not disclosing their activities fully enough.
Rosen has written about the limitations of so-called objective reporting, which he criticizes as "view from nowhere" journalism. Since we are awash in blogs, websites, cable news channels, Facebook pages and Twitter tweets that pulsate with opinions and perspectives, why hasn't the media establishment crafted a set of codes to deal with this reality?
The professor envisions a media world where pundits have an easy-to-find disclosure page online with a biography, statement of values, a list of donations and names of group affiliations. It won't happen, Rosen says, because cable channels such as MSNBC would rather deal with occasional crises than fight an entrenched battle with its traditional news stars.
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 U.S. Chamber of Commerce," he said ominously, "you would have never, ever known."
Unless, of course, you told us.
Eric Deggans can be reached at (727) 893-8521 or firstname.lastname@example.org.