Keith Olbermann has a right to donate money, but if he wants to be a journalist, he should not have done so. Impartiality and independence are essential to the integrity of a journalist and a story. A journalist who covers or comments on politics should not give money to any politician because one can’t be unbiased if they have a dog in the fight. To give money is to join the action, not review or cover it. MSNBC’s policy to require permission to give money is not oppressive; it upholds standards of journalist integrality so that the line between journalistic commentator and entertainer does not become a blurry one in the eyes of the public. If MSNBC let their journalists participate in the political process without transparency is to sacrifice any distinction between them and FOX.
There are many professions where we ask people to leave their personal rights aside. Doctors who refuse to prescribe birth control pills are ridiculed for choosing their personal belief before the health of their patients. Soldiers give up many of their rights to protect and serve the country. Pharmacists are shamed when they refuse to dispense the Morning After Pill. Some professions come with a responsibility to the public, an assumed cost to the person performing them. Those professions are usually seen as essential to the common good. A fair, unbiased, impartial, independent press is essential to the health of a democracy. With the consent to have a louder voice comes a responsibility to act truthfully, and with as little personal investment as possible. A member of the press must be willing to act with the weight of that responsibility. That means not putting a personal preference before the responsibility to the public. At the very best, Olbermann called his adherence to the basic principles of journalism into question.
Olbermann giving money to Democratic candidates without transparency is no different than a reporter buying stock in Coke-a-Cola while covering their theft of water in third world countries. He may be able to cover it with complete impartiality, but since he has invested money in it, it’s hard not to treat his coverage as self-serving.
Olbermann entered into an agreement with the news agency that employs him to ask before he gave money. This protects the agency and the journalist from the appearance of shady dealings. A member of the media can honestly cover a piece even with a vested interest in the event, but the audience should be suspicious of the impartiality of the information presented and its presentation if the commentator has invested personally in the outcome. In order to prevent this suspicion, MSNBC holds its commentators to the standard they would their reporters, to act as journalists.
There have been a lot of comparisons to Olbermann and the pundits on FOX. This is not a FOX vs. MSNBC issue. FOX says they are not a news agency. They don’t claim to have credibility. Their audience may be unaware of this fact, but after repeated criticism of falsifying information and being too invested in the Republican Party, FOX has disavowed journalism except for a couple of hours a day. Even if they did consider themselves as having high journalistic integrity, it’s been impartially proven they do not. Comparing behavior to the worst possible behavior as our measurement of what we should or should not do is a fast road to a dysfunctional democracy and an uneducated populace. We wouldn’t grade crime on a bell curve, and we shouldn’t put journalistic integrity on one either. We should determine how best to act, and compare behavior to that. As far as I’m concerned, news people cannot make themselves part of the news and still present us with an independent analysis or voice.
Even Olbermann has stated clearly that he is not the liberal equivalent to FOX pundits. He would probably say that he demands a higher standard of himself than Sean Hannity.
We liberals complain because money from Fox flows shamelessly into the Republican Party. It wrecks their credibility, we say. We say that because it does. The same credibility issue is faced by MSNBC when money from journalists from their organization flows into the Democratic camp. There is a difference between MSNBC employees donating directly and Fox donating directly, but only a minor difference. In the end, we have to buy into the credibility of the journalists as well as the organization. If the organization employs incredible people, they will become discredited themselves.
The decision to suspend Olbermann is not a political issue, or a matter of oppression, it is a journalistic integrity issue. I think Olbermann is an honest guy, and would cover things the same way money or no, but that doesn’t change the fact that if he wants us to see him as a news person, and not an entertainer, he has to hold himself to the standard of a journalist. He has to stay impartial, or at least, be transparent about his donations. This is an expectation I put on any journalist and most journalists put on themselves.
MSNBC was right to suspend Olbermann. Everyone makes mistakes, but this transgression does deserve punishment. If they don’t want to be a liberal FOX, they cannot act like FOX and sacrifice the public trust for short term ratings. In any situation, the only way to be better than the other guy is to act better than the other guy. On Tuesday, he will be allowed to return to work after taking his preverbal lumps. I think he will return to work a better journalist, more committed to making sure he is completely see-through about his political involvement and take painful steps to be or seem objective. I know that I have a newfound respect for MSNBC after suspending their most profitable and popular host to protect their integrity.
To those who crow that this was an act of liberal suppression, I ask; is a free, detached, independent, and neutral media populated with journalists of high integrity no longer a liberal ideal? It is to this liberal and I expect it even from members of the media who agree with me.