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Suspending Keith Olbermann Doesn’t Make Sense

November 6, 2010

MSNBC’s suspension of Keith Olbermann for contributions he made to three Democrats makes about as much sense as using a spray bottle on a cat for chewing up the yarn you left all over your living room floor. It’s a cat — we all know cats love yarn, and if you were worried about your yarn, you shouldn’t have left it right out in the open where your cat could get to it.

A quick disclaimer, then I’ll explain my little analogy: I don’t care about Keith Olbermann or his politics. I’ve seen his show a few times and it hasn’t interested or captivated me. I do, however, care about the journalism industry, of which Olbermann is a part — the part that opines, takes sides and sometimes rants.

Which brings me to my point: There is no question that Olbermann is a liberal commentator (I mean, is there?). There’s also little, if any, question that MSNBC is a liberal cable network.

So why the uproar?

If the revelation that MSNBC doesn’t play by the same rules as NBC News isn’t enough to show how ridiculous the suspension is, this segment of MSNBC’s policy on campaign contributions ought to:

“Anyone working for NBC News who takes part in civic or other outside activities may find that these activities jeopardize his or her standing as an impartial journalist because they may create the appearance of a conflict of interest. Such activities may include participation in or contributions to political campaigns or groups that espouse controversial positions. You should report any such potential conflicts in advance to, and obtain prior approval of, the President of NBC News or his designee.”

Keywords: “impartial journalist.” This policy doesn’t apply to Olbermann because he’s about as much of an impartial journalist as the guy who empties out his recycling bin at night. Actually, he’s even less impartial because the MSNBC janitors don’t spout off their political opinions on cable TV five nights a week.

I’m left wondering:

  • Does MSNBC view itself and Keith Olbermann as impartial?
  • If that’s the case, are they high, or do they just think viewers are clueless?
  • Do they know they’re liberal-leaning and this suspension is just a way of keeping up an impartiality charade (if we say it, it will become true)?
  • Are they afraid of criticism from conservatives?

The only thing I can think of that makes sense, since an affirmative answer to any of those questions is unacceptable, is that MSNBC is worried that if Olbermann gets too obviously into bed with the Democratic party, his show might start to look like one, big campaign contribution and run afoul of  Federal Election Commission rules. But that can’t be a legitimate concern with all the cheerleading going on at the other end of the spectrum over on Fox News.

I’ll admit that my own personal journalism ethics are unconventional, so maybe there’s some principle here that I’m missing; if so, please fill me in, in the comments. But I’m curious what other people think of Olbermann’s suspension and why (or whether) his donations should seem so offensive to MSNBC.

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