Debate on politics and news doesn't end with Olbermann's suspension

MSNBC host Keith Olbermann will be back on the air Tuesday, but the distinctions between news and political organizations continue to blur.

Mark J. Terrill/AP Photo/File
In this May 3, 2007 file photo, Keith Olbermann of MSNBC poses at the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif.

MSNBC host Keith Olbermann will be back on the air Tuesday, after a two program suspension for contributing to Democratic candidates during the 2010 election in violation of NBC News policy.

But the debate over what standards should apply to cable personalities who cover politics is likely to continue as the distinction between news and political organizations continues to blur.

“Neither Fox nor MSNBC is really a news organization, at least not in the traditional sense,” American Journalism Review editor Rem Rieder wrote Friday on his blog. “They preach to the converted, they fire up the base.”

As Mr. Rieder noted, “The situation is dicier in MSNBC’s case because of its relationship with NBC News, which remains in the news business.”

MSNBC President Phil Griffin released a statement Sunday saying “after several days of deliberation and discussion, I have determined that suspending Keith through and including Monday night’s program is an appropriate punishment for his violation of our policy.”

The suspension, which took effect Friday, triggered a sizable protest from Mr. Olbermann’s audience, MSNBC’s largest. An online petition calling for his return, organized by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, had gathered more than 300,000 signatures by Sunday, the Associated Press reported.

In response, Olbermann tweeted, “A quick, overwhelmed, stunned THANK YOU for support that feels like a global hug.”

As first reported in Politico, Olbermann made $2,400 contributions to the reelection campaigns of Arizona Democratic congressional candidates Raul Grijalva and Gabrielle Giffords. He also contributed $2,400 to Kentucky Democratic Senatorial candidate Jack Conway.

The contributions violated NBC News policy which says that those covering politics cannot contribute to campaigns without prior approval from the news organization’s boss – effectively a ban. Olbermann co-anchored MSNBC’s election night coverage. His superiors did not find out about the contributions until a Politico reporter asked about them.

[The Monitor’s ethics policy requires written disclosure to the editor of financial contributions to any political or public issue campaign. Written disclosure is also required of “any conflict, potential conflict, or appearance of conflict” between the performance of journalistic duties and any outside business, financial, political, or other interest.]

Rachel Maddow, whose program follow’s Olbermann’s, argued on the air Friday that there was a major difference between MSNBC’s approach and the policy at Fox News. Olbermann was disciplined for his political contributions and Fox does not have a similar policy for its hosts or commentators, she noted. For example, Fox News host Sean Hannity faced no adverse consequences for giving $5,000 to the political action committee of Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann (R) in August. Fox’s position is that Mr. Hannity is a conservative talk show host, not a journalist.

News Corp, the parent company for Fox and The Wall Street Journal, also made million dollar contributions in the 2010 election cycle to the Republican Governors Association and to the US Chamber of Commerce, both major players pushing Republican candidates in the election.

“Their network is run as a political operation,” Ms. Maddow said on air Friday. “Ours isn't. Yeah, Keith's a liberal, and so am I. But we're not a political operation – Fox is. We're a news operation. The rules around here are part of how you know that.”

But rules that allow on-air personalities like Olbermann to both offer political commentary and host election night coverage have the potential to confuse viewers about what role a person is playing. As Kelly McBride, an expert in journalism ethics at the Poynter Institute, told the Associated Press, “It’s getting harder and harder to draw the lines in general,” she said. “The public doesn’t spend a lot of time differentiating between commentators and journalists.”

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