Olbermann suspension should raise questions

Keith Olbermann, courtesy Soul Brother, FilmMagic

Oh no he didn't...get permission.

The internet nearly exploded yesterday when the news came down: Keith Olbermann had been suspended – indefinitely and without pay – by MSNBC. The reason? He donated to three Democrats and failed to obtain proper approval from NBC News execs.

Wait. Keith Olbermann has liberal leanings?

One point needs to be made clear, something I’ve seen missing in some stories about the Olbermann Intermission. The suspension isn’t for the donations, so much as for Olbermann’s violation of company policy. He simply broke the rules and is now paying the price.

Reaction has been, mostly, predictable. Those to the left of center are outraged by the move, while those to the right say it proves the liberal bias of the media. (That claim, of course, ignores the fact that News Corp, the parent company of Fox News, the New York Post and the Wall Street Journal donated $1 million to the Republican Governors Association.) But this is not the part of the incident that intrigues me. There is a larger question here that I think deserves examining.

To what extent do we want those involved in the news media involved in the political process?

Olbermann is surely not the first newsman/commentator to donate to a political campaign. Indeed, MSNBC morning host Joe Scarborough is said to have donated to Republican House candidate Derrick Kitts, of Oregon, in 2008. The ubiquitous Pat Buchanan has made over $2,000 in political donations himself.

And those are just the tangible, paper donations that we can place a value on. There are other, in-kind, contributions that some attempt to pass off as “news.” Sean Hannity, for instance, ran “Meet the Candidate” segments on his radio show during the run-up to the midterms, introducing the candidates, letting them plead their case to the radio audience and give their Web address to plead for donations. I don’t recall him interviewing a single Democrat.

No, that’s not a cash donation. But it amounts to an extended, nationwide radio commercial that most candidates could never afford and it doesn’t seem to offend anyone.

The reality is that no human being, no matter their occupation, is without bias. We expect – for the most part – those who work in news media to operate in their work sphere without one, and that’s completely appropriate. But what about when they’re off the clock?

I think we should want our journalists to have private opinions. We should want them to cast educated ballots on every single election day. We should want them to engage in the political process when they are not performing their jobs. There must be some rules, of course. Outward displays of political support – bumper stickers, yard signs and what-not – are not appropriate. The same can be said of actively stumping for a particular candidate or issue.

But what tacet, financial displays of support? Do members of the media completely forfeit that right to financially support causes and candidates while they are employed? Is a check better or worse than using one’s radio or TV show to give a candidate a free platform, or using your celebrity to assist a candidate in raising money?

These are the questions we should be discussing.


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