As I watch the media “spin” one of it’s own, Keith Olbermann, I find myself in a place that is rare for me. Unlike almost everyone on the left that I know, I agree with MSNBC’s decision to suspend Olbermann, whom I watch most every weeknight.
One of the things that makes MSNBC not just left of Fox but much more credible is that it actually has journalistic ethics. How can the left constantly call on Hannity to be punished for violating journalistic ethics if we allow Olbermann to do so? It would be hypocritical. Yes, one can debate the wisdom of MSNBC’s policy, but it is in place, written down, and they are following it. That is commendable.
This policy is a common one. Where I work (ABC) news department staff are not even allowed to express an opinion on an individual running for office or pending legislation/appointments to ANYONE, including their friends. Donating to a campaign would get Diane Sawyer fired. A suspension of Olbermann without pay is a clear message to MSNBC’s viewers (and Olbermann) that they take ethics seriously while at the same time not firing the man for being human.
There is a difference between punditry and advocacy. Punditry uses facts (at least it is supposed to) to support a political philosophy and/or point out the inherent flaws in another philosophy or set of actions. A perfect example is how Rachel Maddow has often taken Obama to task for behavior that contradicts his stated political philosophy. Advocacy is when you directly implore people to take action based on your support of a person or issue, not on information about the person or issue. No one would ever consider Maddow to be “in the bag” for Obama. Yet what if you found out that she actually was giving money to Obama? What if she started showing up at his campaign rallies? Would you be so sure?
Another argument I hear is that the action is hypocritical because GE donates huge amounts of money to political campaigns and causes in their interest, and GE owns NBC. Well, as an employee of a television network owned by Disney I can tell you how ridiculous a point that is. That is like saying that it is hypocritical of me to lean left because ABC News leans right. We work for the same people, but we are not the same people and we are not even in the same business. I believe strongly that corporate spending on political campaigns and advocacy advertising should be strictly limited, but I do not see how it applies at all to this issue. If GE policy was directly linked to MSNBC Policy, there wouldn’t be an MSNBC.
Finally, I am disturbed by those who find his behavior acceptable because as a pundit he should not be expected to be objective. This buys into a false concept, “objective” news.
Objective news is, and always has been, a myth. Was Edward Murrow objective when he took on McCarthy? Were Woodward and Bernstein objective when they took on Nixon? No. In both cases they had stories to tell, and those stories clearly gave away there beliefs as to what this country is or is not supposed to be. Hell, Hearst started the Spanish-American War! The concept of an “objective” media was really born out of the right after Watergate as a way of being able to negatively equate Journalism, which at the time was more left than right, with political favoritism. Eventually in the age of 24/7 news the right realized the power of taking that one step further. They decided to wear objective journalism as an outer layer of skin, and the “fair and balanced” FOX News was born.
The correct measurement of quality journalism is not “objective” Vs “subjective”. There are two correct measurements for journalism; “true” Vs. “false” and “complete” Vs. “incomplete.”
By those measures I believe that Rachel Maddow is the preeminent journalist of our time. Yes, she has a story to tell and she makes no bones about what that story is, just like Murrow. Her research and accuracy is also impeccable like Murrow’s and her completeness in her research is beyond reproach. She regularly has guests from all sides, and is very fair in her questioning. Her reporting from Afghanistan had more time spent in the field with American Soldiers and their Commanders, and more camera time with them speaking openly, then any other coverage I have seen anywhere. She spent two weeks, at different times, in the Gulf Region during the BP disaster, actually going out to the southernmost safety station in the Delta to discuss how you measure oil in a swamp and by boat out into the areas where BP claimed they had cleaning crews in place to show that they weren’t there.
I thus think it is very telling that while calling for the suspension to be lifted, Maddow also supported MSNBC’s decision to impose it. This is even more impressive since Olbermann has been her advocate, mentor & friend and is in many ways the reason she has a television show.
Again, the problem is not that Olbermann donated, it is that he did not seek permission from his producers beforehand. A person does not have to be objective to be fair, but they do have to be open and honest. How a reporter spends money on issues or people that he is reporting on is relevant to the reader/viewer’s ability to decide what weight to give to the story, just as in our legal system an appearance of conflict is enough to dictate if a Judge can hear a case. In the measurement of “complete” Vs. “incomplete” Olbermann comes up on the “incomplete” side. One of the three people he donated to he actually wrote a check for immediately following an appearance on Countdown.
A journalist’s subjectivity is supposed to be in the material that they choose to cover; what do they think it is important to know and how do they communicate it honestly and effectively? It is hard to be seen as honest or effective if you are giving money to people you talk about on the air and don’t tell the people who put you on the air about it. Subjectivity does not permit unethical behavior any more than objectivity assures ethical behavior. I think MSNBC has handled it perfectly, have sent a strong message, and should now let the man deliver a mea culpa and get back to work.