Politico broke a story this morning with news that Keith Olbermann had donated to three Democratic party candidates in the run up to the Nov. 2 elections. The donations, it reported, were a potential violation of NBC News’ ethics policy. As Politico states:
NBC has a rule against employees contributing to political campaigns, and a wide range of news organizations prohibit political contributions — considering it a breach of journalistic independence to contribute to the candidates they cover.
It sounds like Olbermann potentially violated the spirit of the rule if it’s basically trying to stop donations. He did donate to a candidate after having them as a guest on his Countdown show. Whether that counts as “covering” them or not I don’t know, but an argument could be made for it.
This afternoon, MSNBC suspended Olbermann indefinitely without pay. It certainly is their right, but I would urge them to rethink the position.
This is a simple case of defending the indefensible, the false premise that journalists can be objective. Journalism operates under the First Amendment, a right to gather and report information freely as a result of American democracy. To pretend that journalists don’t have a stake in this democracy is nonsensical for that reason alone.
But even if objectivity were possible, why favor it instead of transparency, wherein a journalist puts their biases on the table and then asks you to judge the quality of their actual reporting? This process removes the journalist and their leanings from the equation and lets the public pick apart the results themselves, telling us what questions we didn’t ask or what sources we didn’t talk with that could have enlarged the scope of the story. Objectivity makes the journalist the sole arbiter of fact and truth, whereas transparency allows journalists to construct news in community.
And really this situation illustrates the value of transparency clearly. Is anyone really surprised that Olbermann favors Democrats? Anyone at all? Of course not. He spends his evenings promoting a progressive view of the day’s events, deconstructing the Fox News agenda, and his guests are people who sympathize with that view. He frequently goes after Bill O’Reilly, his chief competitor and the attack dog for Fox News. And you haven’t even seen his Twitter feed.
So Olbermann, if not a registered Democrat, was at least sympathetic to the cause. Anyone who doesn’t know that is either blind or isn’t watching MSNBC.
And it cuts both ways. Search Open Secrets for Hannity’s name and you’ll see three donations. Again, no shock there. He supports conservative Republicans. Joe Scarborough and Pat Buchanan from MSNBC are on there too. I imagine a lot of right-wing talk show hosts are there if you mined it at all. And again, no shock and outrage there.
At least as it pertains to the Hannity/Olbermann crowd, transparency works. We know their biases. They are on the surface. I then can focus on the quality of their reporting and punditry. Is it even worth our time to go back through Olbermann’s work and find hidden biases now that we “know now what we didn’t know then?” Of course not. We already knew. Limiting donations isn’t going to change that. In terms of reporting quality, sourcing, diversity of guests and views, Olbermann is light years ahead of Hannity. They both have biases, but Olbermann does a better job correcting for them. I can see this because he shows his work – transparency.
The other problem with this MSNBC mess is that we’re undergoing a shift where journalists are having to engage community, both in the real world and online. A non-stakeholder journalist that operates under the View From Nowhere isn’t at ease in that kind of world. What communities don’t need is another legion of news people who want to swoop in and moderate. They want answers, and they want to be part of a conversation with the newsmakers. I’m not convinced you can do that while keeping the claim on the mantle of objectivity. The world needs less moderators, more people engaged in helping us solve problems.
In this case MSNBC at least needs to consider new standards for news pundits vs. people who do field reporting and nightly news anchoring. But even then, with news trending more toward analysis, it’s a tough line. Instead, I’d suggest requiring reporters to disclose everything. Get it out on the table, and let me judge your work. This is a good start, but rather than do it to shame them, just put it on the table. We have this wondrous thing called the Web; post it all online, for all to see.
I’ve been critical of past Fox News donations, such as the $1 million donation to the Republican Governors Association, but for a different reason. They claim objectivity as its main value, but they don’t punish donations. MSNBC is at least being somewhat in keeping with policy, whereas Fox News is actively trying to have it both ways. So while I’m critical of MSNBC here, that doesn’t mean organizations like Fox News are off the hook. I’m fine with donations as long as you’re claiming to be transparent; the minute you claim you’re objective the exclusion of other networks, you’re off the rails.
Instead, as a person who actually watches a little MSNBC, I see a network that is afraid of what it’s selling. It’s been promoting Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, Lawrence O’Donnell, and Ed Schultz as its answer to Fox News. You can’t market it that way and then be surprised that they act like people who support progressive causes.