Olbermann Out For Now

But was it the right call?

MSNBC head honcho Phil Griffin announced this afternoon that he was suspending Countdown host Keith Olbermann indefinitely, after it was revealed that Olbermann had made donations to three Democratic candidates before Tuesday’s midterm elections.

Politico broke the story on the donations this morning. From Simmi Aujla’s report:

MSNBC host Keith Olbermann made campaign contributions to two Arizona members of Congress and failed Kentucky Senate candidate Jack Conway ahead of Tuesday’s election — a potential violation of NBC ethics policies.

Olbermann, who acknowledged the contributions in a statement to POLITICO, made the maximum legal donations of $2,400 apiece to Conway and to Arizona Reps. Raul Grijalva and Gabrielle Giffords. He donated to the Arizona pair on Oct. 28 — the same day that Grijalva appeared as a guest on Olbermann’s “Countdown” show.

It doesn’t exactly come as a surprise that Olbermann would be supporting a Democratic candidate; he lays his ideological cards out on the table five nights a week. And he made the donations after the candidates in question had been on his show, so there was no situation in which a disclosure would have been needed during their appearances. But the revelation created a sticky situation for Olbermann and NBC today. Aujla explains why:

NBC has a rule against employees contributing to political campaigns, and a wide range of news organizations prohibit political contributions — considering it a breach of journalistic independence to contribute to the candidates they cover.

Olbermann, who has become one of the most prominent liberal commentators on cable television, has been a critic of the political donations made by Fox News’s parent company, News Corp., which contributed $1 million each to a pair of organizations trying to defeat Democratic candidates.

MSNBC President Phil Griffin also tweaked rival network Fox over the contributions. “Show me an example of us fundraising,” Griffin told The New York Times last month.

Olbermann did not see the hypocrisy.

In his statement, Olbermann said he wasn’t using his influence to solicit any donations for the candidates.

“I did not privately or publicly encourage anyone else to donate to these campaigns, nor to any others in this election or any previous ones, nor have I previously donated to any political campaign at any level,” Olbermann said.

Naturally, given Olbermann and Griffin’s statements on the News Corp donation, the Countdown host copped a shellacking in the blogs today. The Daily Caller has been gleefully leading the charge; though there were some defenses offered, like this from Washington Monthly’s Steve Benen.

Olbermann may have assumed he could sail through the controversy. Five years ago, when he was MSNBC’s bread, butter, jelly, and everything else, the sentence may have been lighter. But today, while he’s still the big man on the 30 Rock campus, Olbermann’s influence is balanced out by the success of MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, Rachel Maddow, and newcomer Lawrence O’Donnell. Even Ed Schultz has been doing the channel favors in the 6 p.m. timeslot. Bottom line: Olbermann is no longer calling the shots, and is not immune to discipline.

And he shouldn’t be.

To start with, Olbermann was foolish to so blatantly violate company policy, that while dusty, is well intentioned: Commentators—even those with strong ideological foundations—are expected to survey the political landscape and offer an opinion that is sharp, critical, and independent. And while Olbermann and others at MSNBC might frequently align themselves with Democratic ideas and politicians, there must be a line between arguing for a cause or candidate and directly and materially contributing to a candidate’s re-election. You create questions about entanglements that may affect your reporting and do affect the way your reporting is perceived. Cross that line and you become an activist or teammate and no longer the kind of journalist Olbermann purports to be on his show. Or, as we found out today, the kind of journalist NBC does not consider above reproach. And that is their prerogative.

The question becomes whether it’s right. The Olbermann incident highlights the murky line between what daytime cable is and what prime time cable has become; and, for NBC, what a network news channel is, and what its cable sister is becoming. Looking at that landscape, it seems that news conglomerates may need to address the differences between their parts, and reassess their policies on conflict-of-interest and bias issues like political donations for staffers who are paid to offer their opinions, not subsume them. (According to this Gawker article, they have been doing just that, with an “insider” saying that MSNBC does not fall under the same strict guidelines as NBC and has “no ethical standards.”)

While it makes sense for NBC to have a blanket rule banning political donations for its straight news reporters—we don’t want Brian Williams cutting checks anytime soon—and to punish those who violate, the line is blurrier at MSNBC, where the prime time personalities have hewn success out of a strong ideological point of view. It’s why no one was surprised to read the Politico story today. Nighttime MSNBC has become a kind of evil twin, a different entity from the straight-laced NBC, where an Olbermann would never be tolerated in the first place. It’s also a different entity from daytime MSNBC.

For the sake of viewer trust, broadcast integrity, and employee discipline, we understand the implementation of the no donations rule across all of those entities. But as the media is transitioning, so are its standards. We expect with the fallout that’s about to come, and the mix of praise and ire heading their way, there is going to be some soul-searching about the ways in which NBC and MSNBC are self-regulated. And there may be questions whether their rulebooks should remain identical.

Already, those questions are continuing to bite. After announcing The Nation’s Chris Hayes would be filling in for Olbermann tonight, MSNBC changed course after it was pointed out that Hayes had donated to Democratic political campaigns in the past.

NBC created a kind of Frankenstein’s monster over there at 30 Rock; dealing with it will likely force hard calls like the one Griffin made today.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.