The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
on entertainment and media

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On Keith Olbermann's suspension: Don't cover the candidates you contribute to

November 5, 2010 |  5:25 pm

Keith_olbermann I heard the news about Keith Olbermann getting suspended from MSNBC for contributing to three Democratic candidates as I was driving back from lunch with the Israeli TV newsman Shlomi Eldar, who's made a new documentary called "Precious Life." I'll have more to say about "Precious Life" next week, but at one point during our interview, Eldar made a compelling point about the 2008-09 Israeli military blockade of Gaza. He's a big critic of the Israeli military for not doing more to ensure the safety of Palestinian civilians, many of whom were killed in Israeli bombing raids. When fellow Israelis said to him, "So what? Hamas was shooting off hundreds of rockets, often killing our civilians," Eldar's answer was always the same: We don't have to be like them.

I think the same logic applies in the case of MSNBC suspending Olbermann. His defenders, sounding an awful lot like Eldar's Israeli critics, point out that Fox News hosts Sean Hannity and Neil Cavuto have contributed to Republicans in the past. And of course Fox News' parent company, Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., recently gave $1 million each to a pair of organizations trying to defeat Democratic candidates during the midterm elections.

So why should MSNBC hold Olbermann to such a high standard, especially when he's clearly a commentator, not a newsman? Because MSNBC doesn't have to be like them -- them being Fox News. If liberals want to brand Fox News as a propaganda wing of the Republican Party, which it surely looks like 90% of the time, then they need to cling to some moral high ground, starting with not opening themselves up for charges, as Olbermann has, that they are doing the same thing themselves.

As Politico, which broke the story, reported Friday, Olbermann gave $2,400, the maximum legal donation, to Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva on Oct. 28, the same day Grijalva appeared as a guest on Olbermann's "Countdown" show. There's no way that should happen, for the very reasons stated in NBC's rules against employees contributing to political campaigns--it's a breach of journalistic independence to contribute to the candidates that you're covering.

Not objectivity, since no one is arguing that Olbermann is objective, but independence. How can we, the viewers, possibly expect Olbermann to ask a candidate the toughest possible questions if he's giving him money at the same time? Or even worse, it could be perceived as pay-to-play: I give you money, you appear on my show. The same goes for Fox News, which now has a host of leading 2012 GOP presidential hopefuls all serving as paid on-air contributors. When I see them being interviewed by Fox newsmen, that exchange looks a lot more like media back-scratching and self-promotion than journalism.

The Olbermann mess simply highlights the dilemma MSNBC faces as it plays second fiddle to the Fox News juggernaut. If it wants to be a liberal advocacy network, fine, then it can reinstate Olbermann and start shaping the news to benefit liberal causes, the way Fox does on the right. But if it wants to be taken seriously as a real news network, then it should make Olbermann serve a suspension, make sure its other anchors understand the rulebook and, most important, say loud and clear: Unlike our competition, when we say we practice independent journalism, we really mean it. 

Photo: Keith Olbermann offering an opinion during the "Countdown With Keith Olbermann" show Oct. 27 on MSNBC. Credit: Associated Press/MSNBC