The Keith Story

I find the Keith Olbermann story bizarre, on both sides but mainly on MSNBC’s. First, political contribution records are the most public thing in the world for anyone who is even somewhat in the public eye, certainly for someone who courts controversy. So political giving strikes me as something done entirely in the open for someone of Olbermann’s stature. On the one hand that sounds like MSNBC is flipping out about something that must have been all but an open secret. On the other, if this is MSNBC’s policy, why was Olbermann openly flouting it?

Second, MSNBC’s policy forbids employees from making donations to political candidates, unless they ask for permission to do so, in which it seems usually to be granted. That seems to me to undercut the principle behind the policy.

But of course all of this pales behind the larger point which is that Olbermann’s job at MSNBC is to be an extremely opinionated commentator on politics. And he’s the centerpiece (along with Maddow and more equivocally, Matthews) behind the business strategy of making MSNBC the liberal cable news/chat network. (How they square that with simultaneously having a more traditional and by the books NBC News is something they clearly have yet to work out.) But when you take that all into account, seeing him now all but canned over a handful of individual political contributions because he’s compromised the objectivity he’s supposed to bring to the job sounds like a bit of a joke.

This doesn’t mean I don’t see the point of rules barring people in the news business from giving money to politicians. I do. I think they usually make sense. And whatever the rules, organizations have the right to their rules and if you want to work there you need to follow them. But against the canvass of the media and political world we’re living in and everything that’s happening in it, the scale of MSNBC’s response this seems bizarre, arbitrary and excessive.

(ed.note: I’ve appeared a few times recently on Olbermann’s show.)Late Update: TPM Reader JM follows up: “The strangest thing about MSNBC policy is the asking for permission part. Either you can give or you can’t. Requiring permission implies that certain candidates or parties are acceptable and certain candidates or parties are unacceptable to management. Isn’t it illegal for employers to go down that road?”

I pointed in this direction in my post. But having JM put it out there baldly really confirms me in this. I don’t know if the issue is so much management okaying or not okaying contributions based on a political or ideological litmus test. Based on the limited evidence revealed in today’s reports, it sounds like permission is granted fairly liberally. But it really does seem to me that either employees can give or they can’t. If the issue here is simply that he didn’t notify or get a pro forma permission from management, then it’s a pretty trivial transgression.

Later Update: TPM Reader AL takes a less forgiving view …

I made this same point on Greg Sargent’s blog, but I think it bears repeating in light of you post. I’m a regular viewer of MSNBC, including their whole primetime lineup. But let’s not lose sight of an important point amid all the parsing. Whether or not what Olbermann did was technically a violation of policy is secondary to what troubles me.
Keith prides himself on being an honest (if admittedly partisan) broker. Many comments today, here and elsewhere, have noted that he is an opinion journalist and not a traditional anchor. But I recall many occasions when he has lambasted Fox (deservedly) for ignoring journalistic ethics, noting that “we don’t do that here because we’re an actual news organization.” (despite the quotes, that’s me paraphrasing)

Despite what others say, Olbermann does indeed seem to believe he is different from the Hannitys and Becks of the world. And he is, at least in that he actually reports the news amid his comments. Heck, he HOSTED MSNBC’s election coverage on Tuesday night.Does Hannity do that on Fox? Does O’Reilly?

My point is this: Keith prides himself on being different from the Fox folks. Saying they do this too or Buchanan or Scarborough do it too is not an excuse. He cannot credibly attack Fox for giving money to the Republican Governors Association or the Chamber of Commerce and then do the same thing himself. AND then not reveal it to his viewers. AND make one of those donations to a guy you had on your show that very night. AND not reveal that to his viewers.

Those acts ruin his ability to credibly comment on the same behavior at Fox or anywhere else. His actions may or may not be worthy of a suspension, but they diminish him terribly as a believable, trustworthy (if opinionated and volatile) voice in the public square. The fact that he doesn’t seem to see that he did something wrong, ethically, if not technically, is what troubles me most.

I would put it to you , Josh- you have a clear political perspective but you are still a journalist. Could you comfortably give money to a candidate you uncritically interviewed that day even while repeatedly attacking another opinion journalist or news organization for the same behavior?

I suspect that whether it violates TPM’s formal policy or not, you’d consider it to be inappropriate and dishonest. I certainly would And when he gets a little distance from this, I think (hope) Olbermann will admit that he probably does too.

I take AL’s point. I don’t really have a sense of what Olbermann’s line has been on this stuff relative to Fox or any of its talk people. And all the inter-network yakking has always seemed sort of lame to me or boring. So it’s not really on the radar for me one way or another.