The fact that MSNBC's Keith Olbermann is a progressive liberal Democrat should come as no surprise to American news viewers. Nonetheless, NBC News policy, which also applies to MSNBC, clearly says that donating money to any candidate is a violation, as, "these activities jeopardize his or her standing as an impartial journalist because they may create the appearance of a conflict of interest."
Olbermann's political contributions reflect badly on all of NBC News. Therefore, his suspension without pay is necessary. It sends an important message to the public, as well as to the entire NBC News organization that they must adhere strictly to the organization's news standards. It also underscores that Olbermann's violations were the act of one man and not representative of NBC News, NBC Nightly News or the Today Show.
It is paramount that each news organization avoids even the appearance of a conflict of interest when reporting the news. If a story presentation is unfair, without all sides of the argument, or takes a political point of view, viewers may no longer trust the news organization. A news division's credibility is its bond with the audience.
Most major news organizations have a book of "standards and practices" that is distributed to each employee. It is more of a bible than a handbook. It covers conflict of interest, staging, production standards, use of anonymous sources or third party material, investigative reporting and other important questions. Most organizations require that their employees read the book, and many, like NBC News, hold regular seminars to maintain awareness.
However, in an era of dueling 24-hour news channels, objectivity is often tested and frequently blurred. Opinions and political punditry have become a primary source of content for cable news channels. It is less expensive than covering news stories around the world, and it attracts viewers who are heavy news consumers.
Is there any question where Fox News comes from politically? The daily denunciations of President Barack Obama and Democrats are on overdrive. For Fox News two sides of the story may be "he's incompetent" versus "he's totally incompetent." Not to mention that Fox News' parent company, the Rupert Murdoch led News Corp, donated millions to Republicans this last election.
But MSNBC has found success appealing to progressive and Democratic viewers. Its anchors frequently go into temper tantrums over Republican tactics and Tea Party candidates. At times it gets downright mean, with regular vicious personal attacks on people like former President George Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. "Idiot," "clown" and "fool" are adjectives that are frequently heard during "Countdown with Keith Olbermann." Of course, the word "civility" seldom appears in news standards books.
Most "news" organizations work hard to be fair and preserve balance in their reporting. Yet truth is often in the eye of the beholder. And even the most respected news organizations will come under attack for bias, especially if a candidate or cause can gain favor with his or her base. "The lame-stream media" is one of Sara Palin's favorite talking points. And Delaware GOP candidate Christine O'Donnell blames the media for her downfall. These are volatile times.
As for Olbermann, he has worked for news organizations most of his professional career. He knows the rules. He knows campaign contributions are disclosed. One can only conclude that his political donations were a selfish and arrogant act.
Perhaps during his self-inflicted "time out" Olbermann should reflect on the words of James Thurber, "We all have faults, and mine is being wicked."
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