When journalists take sides

The Internet is doing its thing this afternoon after MSNBC announced it’s suspending liberal commentator Keith Olbermann. The action came after Politico reported that Olbermann made campaign contributions during the election cycle.

“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,” MSNBC president, Phil Griffin.

Olbermann fans are bombarding MSNBC offices with e-mails and phone calls.

The reaction from the “journalism community:”

Removing overt partisanship from media is good, if it’s followed by a re-affirmation of good journalism. So CNN, NPR and MSNBC should be applauded.

One problem: leaving Fox to continue to play the anti-Obama partisan card makes the rest of the media look weak by comparison. Fox will continue to wrap itself in the mantle as defenders of free speech; the rest of the media will wrap themselves in their internal ethics guides. — Jeff Dvorkin, former NPR ombudsman

Fox’s Sean Hannity made several campaign contributions, including $5,000 to Michele Bachmann, but FoxNews didn’t discipline him. Fox doesn’t have a policy against its journalists — or derivatives thereof — from making campaign contributions.

Here’s media watchdog Jeff Jarvis’ take:

But liberal (yes, liberal) news organizations — MSNBC and NPR, not to mention the NY Times and others — have gotten this all bolloxed up lately, continuing to separate their journalists and commentators — Juan Williams and now everyone at NPR else out of fear — from their communities. They all refused to let their journalists attend the Rally to Restore Sanity, which turned out not to be a political event at all but a repudiation of media — including most of Fox News plus Olbermann himself … a lesson all their journalists should have heard.

They do this because they want to stand above Fox News as objective. What they do instead is stand apart from their communities as — what? — sterile, gutless, distant. Fox News comes off as caring to its audience (“Fox News speaks for us,” say the tea drinkers. “Fox News understands”). MSNBC comes off as … what? Don’t we liberals deserve our Fox News, but with intelligence, sanity, openness? That was its promise. But like NPR, is is now a place where opinions and action are verboten.

As I wrote during the Juan Williams firestorm, many of these policies are designed to prevent the perception that a journalist — or derivative thereof — has a bias. But in Olbermann’s case, it’s hardly a perception. MSNBC has positioned itself as the lefty version of FoxNews, and Olbermann has been delivering liberal screeds against conservative politicians for several years.

In 2007, MSNBC did an investigation of journalists who gave campaign conributions. It found a fair number, including a morning anchor of a Twin Cities TV station, and a few NPR journalists. It also found Joe Scarborough, another MSNBC commentator.

MSNBC’s response then would seem to have a bearing now:


“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.”

What’s the source of Olbermann’s popularity? This week, the Philadelphia Daily News’ Stu Bykofsky monitored both Olbermann and Bill O’Reilly of FoxNews:

“Countdown with Keith Olbermann” had 20 guests from the left, two neutral and not a single voice from the right. Zero voices of dissent.

So, if you never want to hear anyone challenge liberal views, lock in on Olbermann. While progressives disdain Fox’s claim of being “fair and balanced,” “The O’Reilly Factor” does present opposing views. O’Reilly will cut them off in midsentence, true, but he even does that to people who agree with him. (Shock therapy might help.) Olbermann seems unable to even listen to anything other than progressive orthodoxy.

If the tea party wants a “theocracy for white males,” as he said, Olbermann could be an imam. He offered a paltry four women among his 22 talking heads, 18 percent. (Wasn’t Joy Behar available?) Only two African Americans got face time.

O’Reilly had three African Americans and scattered 18 women among his 38 guests, for 47 percent. (Don’t expect NOW to give him an award.) O’Reilly had three Hispanic-surnamed guests; Olbermann had two.

When it comes to their sources of news, too many Americans live in “silos,” protected from contrary views. We’d do better, learn a bit more, by listening to some opposing ideas.

You get that from Fox’s O’Reilly, not MSNBC’s Olbermann.

Who can replace Olbermann? How about Ben Affleck:

Next month, Policy and a Pint will host a discussion on the question of politics and the ethics of journalism. Guess who one of the panelists is?

Update 5:14 p.m. Some have said the rules shouldn’t apply to Olbermann because he’s not a journalist, he’s a commentator. Olbermann refers to his show as a “newscast,” and in this interview with Bill Moyers, he defined himself as a journalist. (Scroll to 8:11) “what I’ve done on the air in the last 4 1/2 years, and particularly in the last year and a half since the special comments began, is really journalism,” he said.

  • Bob Moffitt

    Wait, you are talking about journalism ethics with your boss as a fellow panelist and there will be drinking involved?

    It was nice knowing you, Bob. ;-)

  • derp d. derpington

    just because olbermann self-identifies as a journalist doesn’t make him one. his show is commentary, plain and simple.

  • Jim Shapiro

    Jeff Jarvis got it right. NPR and MSNBC should stop hiding behind the self-destructive delusion of objectivity and take a stand. Or continue to lose good people over abstract, fine print legalities self-righteously referred to as “ethics”. Ethics are about doing the right thing, not pretending you don’t know the difference.

  • Shannon

    No amount of money from Olbermann can counteract the money MSNBC’s parent company GE has donated.

    From Democracy Now-

    “One of the nation’s largest military contractors [GE], over $2 million in political contributions in the 2010 election cycle. The top recipient was Republican Senate candidate Rob Portman from Ohio. The company has also spent $32 million on lobbying this year and contributed over $1 million to campaign against a California ballot initiative aimed at eliminating tax loopholes for major corporations.”