Let’s discuss the MSNBC suspension of Keith Olbermann for making campaign contributions, and thereby relinquishing what claim to impartiality he, and by extension, his employer, might otherwise have been able to claim this election season.

Before the advent of media outlets like Fox News Channel, The Drudge Report, The Daily Kos and many others, there was no discussion necessary. Everyone who worked for traditional news agencies knew the rules: no endorsements, no contributions, and no public discussion of your political proclivities.

The problem is especially vexing to MSNBC, which, unlike other news operations, benefits from the shared resources of a traditional news organization. No one at NBC News would consider making a political contribution. In fact, some people there are quite wary of being associated with an opinion-driven cable channel, even after acknowledging that it is worlds apart from the doctrinaire, made up “news” of a Drudge or Fox News Channel. I’ll stop here to say that the Evil Genius, Fox News creator Roger Ailes, did journalism no favor by supplying the cynical artifice that is at the core of FNC: “Fair and Balanced.” It is a marketing device intended to deceive viewers into thinking they are watching impartial news. Unfortunately, it invites comparisons to generally upright organizations like MSNBC that honor the truth above agenda, even though they express opinion.

There is great tension between the traditional “Just the facts, Ma’am” journalism, and its newborn cousin, opinion-driven journalism, where Op-Ed leads instead of being a walled-garden. As we saw in the NPR/Juan Williams mess, trying to live in both worlds is a recipe for disaster. As yet, there is not a fully formed vision of what the new world needs to look like. Consequently, many are grasping at straws. MSNBC’s response is an example of a work in progress. Joe Scarborough, it is reported in today’s New York Times, was able to make political contributions in 2006 because he had sought and received permission from the network. MSNBC executives say they tightened the policy subsequently, from which I infer they would have denied permission since.

It is worth noting that Rachel Maddow commented on the Olbermann affair Friday night by saying the difference between Fox and MSNBC is that Fox has no rules and is an active fundraising, endorsing, political machine, while MSNBC, a news organization, is not, a fact witnessed by the Olbermann suspension. Still, the tension exists because suddenly, whole organizations are what just the last two or three pages of big newspapers “A” sections are: opinion and editorial. The Wall Street Journal, pre Rupert Murdoch and News Corp, was able to build a wall high enough to satisfy ethicists. The Op-Ed pages were full of fire-breathing conservatives, but the journalism was never attached to a specific outcome. Murdoch’s ownership has made at least the appearance of that big wall less opaque. When sister business Fox News Channel is outwardly cheerleading and allowing its hosts to be fundraisers, and when the parent company gives $1M to the Republican Governors Association, that appearance of impartiality is called into question.

And as the newspaper changes editors and evolves from a sedate financial report to a sexy general interest paper, it’s once un-reproachable objectivity is suddenly suspect. And what of the other distractions attending this circus?

  • Cokie Roberts works for both ABC News and NPR. True, but she is an editorial voice for both, a hard news writer for neither. (The Juan Williams/NPR problem was that he was a news analyst for them and was bound by their ethics rules, which he repeatedly violated in his FNC appearances.)
  • GE, NBCU’s parent company, makes political contributions. True, but GE is a multinational industrial company for whom the media business is a balance sheet dalliance. Pending regulatory approval, Comcast will soon own the NBC Universal properties and GE will be back to its core businesses of building clock radios, medical imaging devices, jet engines, toasters, nuclear weapons, and other products that bring good things to life. Besides, and probably more to the point, NBC has its own long standing rules—pre-dating GE ownership by many decades—that disallow political affiliation and contributions.

My bottom line is that Mr. Olbermann should have known better, and management was right to enforce their well-conceived and correct rules. I want to know that news + opinion (which is how I look at MSNBC), just like the pure news I consume, is uncomplicated and uncompromised by money.

Jon Sinton

Jon Sinton

Jon Sinton is an Atlanta-based serial media entrepreneur and writer. He was the founding president of Air America Radio, is a radio syndicator, and co-founder of the nonprofit Progressive Voices Institute Inc, whose smartphone app, Progressive Voices, aggregates everything watched, read and heard in the progressive world, and puts it in all one place on the Mobile Internet. ProgressiveVoices.com @jonsinton @progvoices