Friday, November 5, 2010

What Was He Thinking and When Did He Stop Thinking

Olbermann Busted

Did not Keith Olbermann at some time while earning his Communications Arts degree from Cornell ever take an ethics course? Did not some hoary professor rail against the mere appearance of partiality, political or otherwise? Did not some mentor along the way pull Olbermann aside telling him the dos and don’ts of journalism? Did not Mr. Olbermann have a policy manual placed in his hands at some broadcast outlet detailing unacceptable behavior unbecoming a journalist? Did he forget or did he think that none of this applied to him anymore?

At the local level I’m on record as a watchdog of sorts for journalists that approach the line of impartiality, even if they don’t cross the line. It’s unacceptable.

As you may have heard or read, Mr. Olbermann is suspended without pay from his job as host/anchor of “Countdown” on MSNBC indefinitely for making three $2,500 contributions to Democratic Party Congressional candidates during the last election cycle. What was he thinking and when did he stop thinking?

Regrettably, his colleague and friend Rachel Maddow defended him on the air Friday, November 05, 2010, comparing what happened to him to a long list of Fox News Channel “journalists” who have made contributions and even raised money for their favorite politicians. Ms. Maddow has a PhD, but it isn’t in journalism. I enjoy her show most of the time, and it has journalistic value. She’s wrong on this one. Her analysis does not approach Journalism with a big “J”.

My dad early on cautioned me to never compare myself to anyone else. Ms. Maddow and Mr. Olbermann would do well to not offer a defense of saying, Fox does it. Doesn’t that prove a double standard?


I don’t care what Fox News Channel does. That’s Rupert Murdoch’s business. His rags (with the possible exception of the Wall Street Journal) that some call newspapers and Fox do not set a high standard. I doubt that Mr. Murdoch’s form of media was taught at Cornell either.

Did not Mr. Olbermann know that campaign contributions are a public record? Did he not think that his rather distinctive name might be noticed?

A former Austin news director and friend of mine and I used to have heady discussions about his decision not to vote in primary elections. His contention was that “someone” would see that he’d voted in a particular party primary. Therefore, he must be a member of that party.

My feeling was that being a journalist should not deprive me of the right to vote. I could and should vote in a primary. Just because I voted in a certain party’s primary shouldn’t label me as a member of that party.

We went round and round about it, and I don’t think that it was ever decided one way or another.

Making a political contributions to a candidate or candidates, on the other hand, is different. It’s commitment. It’s taking cold, hard cash out of your pocket and giving it to a campaign. That tarnishes your credibility. Well, it puts you on the same plain as Fox. Does Olbermann really want to be there?

Recently, Olbermann made a good decision. He decided to abandon one of the features in Countdown—“The Worst Persons in the World”. His intentions were noble. He felt that that portion of the program was less than civil, and he wanted to reset the standard.

Well, Mr. Olbermann has reset the standard alright. He, himself, might now qualify as one of his “Worst Persons in the World”.

I really like his intellect (when he uses it) and wit, but I’ll be very interested to hear what he has to say when he returns.

In the mean time, this should be a lesson to all young people who want to call themselves professional journalists.

Nowadays, the line seems to be blurred between commentator/entertainer/host and journalist. There IS a difference, and I am happy that NBC/MSNBC was quick to recognize that Olbermann had crossed that line and took definitive action even at the outset of a sweeps month. Ms. Maddow might take note too.

© Jim McNabb, 2010


Anonymous said...

Amen, Jim. You're right on.

Also, for what it's worth, I've known several political reporters who refused to vote in primaries. But I'm with you, Jim. If I'm motivated to vote in a primary, I'm going to do it. I've voted in both Democratic and Republican primaries, so I figure I'm safe.

Lee said...

Personally, I didn't see Maddow's piece as a defense of Olbermann as much as showing the differences between what is allowed.
At the end, she said Olbermann did wrong. MSNBC did right, but has made its point and should bring him back.
Even if you defend him as a "commentator" or "entertainer", you still run into that sticky constant: "rules are rules".

Anonymous said...


As a US Citizen, Olbermann has every right to give what he wants to give to a political campaign, and without having to ask permission from his corporate overlords.

Get off your journalistic high horse!

The Inanity Defense said...

I've also wondered at the double standards. Why can my broadcast-industry employer, large corporation or otherwise, give large amounts to candidates and organizations that do not reflect my values and wishes and I'm prohibited from exercising my First Amendment rights?

It seems to be a self-neutering argument. Because I'm a principled journalist, I'm proscribed from political activities. Fair or not, it hurts my interests.

Maybe Olbermann's mistake was not in the giving, but how he did it. He should have used one of those organizations that funneled "foreign anonymous donations" into our recent mid-term elections.

Learn from our "masters."