MSNBC's Keith Olbermann Suspension--What Was the Point?

Isn't his show a more powerful way to influence elections than a campaign contribution?

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What, exactly, was the point of Keith Olbermann’s brief suspension from MSNBC?

Actually, there’s a bigger mystery to be solved before considering the question of why MSNBC temporarily suspended its acerbic, liberal host of Countdown: Why would Olbermann, whose show is unabashedly liberal and anti-Republican in tone, bother to make political contributions to several Democratic candidates?

News organizations rightly bar their employees--or at least, their news-related employees--from making political donations, avoiding at least the appearance of a conflict of interest. There are inevitable conflicts reporters face, and some are unavoidable, since reporters are also citizens. A journalist covering the federal budget or tax policy, for example, inherently has a vested financial interest in the outcome of such legislation, assuming they are following the law and paying taxes. The same goes for reporters covering education reform, if those reporters have school-aged children. Making a political contribution arguably has a miniscule impact on a particular campaign, given the high cost of campaigning, but it is an assertive act of advocacy--not one demanded by good citizenship--and reveals the contributor as someone literally invested in a campaign.

[Take our poll: Was Keith Olbermann’s Punishment Too Light?]

Declining to make political contributions is not only a no-brainer, but a terrific excuse. (Sorry! Can’t give you anything; I’m a reporter!) And Olbermann should have known it. Still, he seems to feel victimized, penning a note to his viewers Tuesday thanking them for their support and insisting he was unaware of such a rule:

I want to sincerely thank you for the honor of your extraordinary and ground-rattling support. Your efforts have been integral to the remedying of these recent events, and the results should remind us of the power of individuals spontaneously acting together to correct injustices great or small. I would also like to acknowledge with respect the many commentators and reporters, including those with whom my politics do not overlap, for their support. I also wish to apologize to you viewers for having precipitated such anxiety and unnecessary drama. You should know that I mistakenly violated an inconsistently applied rule--which I previously knew nothing about--that pertains to the process by which such political contributions are approved by NBC. Certainly this mistake merited a form of public acknowledgment and/or internal warning, and an on-air discussion about the merits of limitations on such campaign contributions by all employees of news organizations. Instead, after my representative was assured that no suspension was contemplated, I was suspended without a hearing, and learned of that suspension through the media. You should also know that I did not attempt to keep any of these political contributions secret; I knew they would be known to you and the rest of the public. I did not make them through a relative, friend, corporation, PAC, or any other intermediary, and I did not blame them on some kind of convenient “mistake” by their recipients.

Even if Olbermann wasn’t aware of such a rule (and that’s a stretch), it still begs the question of why he bothered. He’s not a straight news reporter, and that’s OK. His show is meant to deliver a certain perspective on current events, and Olbermann’s is a liberal one. He has a loyal following, and those viewers are likely influenced by his analyses. Isn’t that a more powerful way to affect a political campaign than making a monetary contribution?

[See a slide show of 10 celebrities who give big to Democrats.]

MSNBC--which returns Olbermann to his perch Tuesday night--gives conflicting messages with its behavior. A two-day suspension doesn’t harm Olbermann much, and may only establish him as a victim of the mainstream media among his supporters and viewers. A harsher penalty (after a full hearing--Olbermann was right about that) would have underscored the gravity of the infraction. Or maybe MSNBC and other networks should acknowledge the fallacy of calling its on-air columnists news reporters, and allow them to act as partisans off-air as they are on-air. The punishment meted out to Olbermann accomplishes little.

  • Check out our editorial cartoons on the 2010 campaigns.
  • See which members of Congress get the most in campaign contributions from the TV, movies, and music industry.
  • See a collection of editorial cartoons about the Republican Party..