The Olbermann Factor

If MSNBC were consistent, Keith Olbermann would not have been the only on-air personality disciplined for making political contributions.

For those who don't watch his "Countdown" program (which would be most of the country), Olbermann was suspended "indefinitely" after it was learned he donated money without approval from management to three Democratic congressional candidates. The problem for MSNBC was not only Olbermann's failure to get permission, but that he anchored part of the network's Election Night coverage. Apparently at MSNBC, the chair you sit in matters more than the content of your journalistic character.

Unlike Juan Williams, who was fired by National Public Radio for expressing an opinion on the hated (by liberals) Fox News Channel, Olbermann enjoyed a four-day weekend and is back on the air at MSNBC because he is a liberal and liberals mostly take care of their own.

I am intrigued by MSNBC's policy prohibiting host-anchors from financially contributing to political campaigns, because donating money isn't the only way one can make a contribution. Olbermann, along with other MSNBC hosts, regularly make "in-kind" contributions to Democrats by favoring candidates and policies in line with their beliefs. And yes, some host-anchors at Fox, including Glenn Beck, do the same. Most observers of broadcast TV (and cable news) know of other "contributions" made by on-air personalities, contributions that include the types of questions asked and even the kinds of guests invited to appear on programs.

For a conservative guest, the questioning by a liberal usually goes something like this: "What do you say to people who think you are a jerk?" Translated this means, "I think you're a jerk, but I'll couch it in a way that makes me look professional." To a liberal guest, the liberal host asks: "When did you first realize you were right about everything and the opposition was wrong?" I exaggerate only slightly to make a point. What passes for modern "journalism" is something quite different from what I remember growing up.


Mentors from my days as a copyboy at NBC News in Washington look at me now from black-and-white photos on my office wall. Most of their names would not be familiar to people younger than 40, unless they studied the history of the profession. Among them are Martin Agronsky, Ray Scherer, Bryson Rash, Frank McGee and Elie Abel, all now dead. The late David Brinkley is probably remembered more than the others because of his greater fame and a career that extended into the last decade.

These were real journalists who came to broadcast network news mostly from newspapers and wire services. They could write. They believed journalism was a calling and a public trust. Their agenda was to report facts as they discovered them. Probably most were Democrats, but compared to what passes for contemporary journalism, their politics and opinions were mostly kept out of their reporting. The cynicism created by Vietnam and Watergate began to change journalism and compromised many journalists and the ethical standard by which they once lived.

Today's "opinion journalism," which is a contradiction, has eroded the public's trust in networks and newspapers, as reflected in declining ratings and circulation. People today tune in to programming that only reinforces what they already believe.

Still, Keith Olbermann should not have been disciplined, if that's what a two-day suspension can be called. Instead, each time he makes a political comment, a disclaimer should be put on the screen which states which politicians he favored with donations. The same holds true for all the others. Silencing people does nothing for the credibility of a network. Every network "performer" and newspaper political reporter should have information about his or her actual and in-kind contributions available to the public, including any speeches given that endorse a specific candidate or political group.

We in the media demand full disclosure from politicians. If more of us were transparent about our political "contributions," perhaps the public would trust us more. Or not. Either way, what we demand of others, we should also demand of ourselves and show the way by example.

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Cal Thomas
Cal Thomas
Cal Thomas is a nationally syndicated columnist and author