The money and the mouth

    Keith Olbermann will be back on MSNBC tomorrow night, having been summoned by his superiors from an exile to which he never should have been consigned.

    I can’t fathom why Olbermann was being punished for putting a pittance of money where his voluble mouth always is. A guy who is paid to voice liberal opinions decides to contribute to a few candidates who are liberal…wow, stop the presses. That was a real earth-shaker of a story, right up there with “Dog Bites Man” and “A-Rod Dates a New Actress.”

    But clearly the suits at NBC, the cable network’s parent, saw Olbermann’s behavior as scandalous. Somehow, they believed that Olbermann should still he judged as if he was Walter Cronkite, presiding over the news circa 1970, long before the advent and popularization of viewpoint journalism.

    The archaic NBC ethics rule warns: “Anyone working for NBC News who takes part in civic or other outside activities may find that these activities jeopardize his or her standing as an impartial journalist because they may create the appearance of a conflict of interest. Such activities may include participation in or contributions to political campaigns or groups that espouse controversial positions. You should report any such potential conflicts in advance to, and obtain prior approval of, the president of NBC News or his designee.”

    For those journalists who aspire to practice objectivity (at least to the extent that human beings can do so), that ethics rule is fine. But it’s also woefully behind the times. Because the MSNBC prime-time schedule is specifically geared to liberal viewers who want liberal viewpoint journalism, it’s nuts to describe the hosts of those shows as “impartial,” and to bind them to the standards of old-school journalism. Viewers tune to Olbermann (or tune him out) because they’re already conversant with his views on the news. Why would his “credibility” be undermined by the revelation, via public campaign records, that he seconded his views by writing a few checks?

    Perhaps Olbermann could have mitigated this flap by first obtaining “prior approval” from his bosses, in effect asking the teacher for permission to exercise his First Amendment right of free association. Perhaps he could have found a way to mention his donations on the air, in the spirit of full disclosure. Perhaps he would have dodged the “hypocrisy” charge if he had resisted the on-air temptation to tweak Fox News for its own corporate campaign donations.

    But these are all ancillary issues. The bottom line is that journalism takes many forms today; the ethics rules need to become more nuanced in order to reflect that reality. With respect to the commentating wing of the profession, total transparency might be the best tonic.

    For instance, I happen to be a faithful reader of conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer. Would I stop reading him if I heard that he gave money to some Republican candidates? Not a chance. Over on Fox News, Sean Hannity actually has given money to the GOP, most notably to Republican congresswoman Michele Bachmann. So what? I would expect him to pony up. I watch him anyway, just to see how he’s framing the news. If it is revealed some day that he’s giving money to Sarah Palin, how is that a “conflict of interest,” given the fact that he has already behaved as her obsequious courtier, as far back as 2008?

    Personally, I have never donated a dime to any political candidate; that’s just me, still under sway to the old-school rules that prevailed when I was a cub reporter. But Olbermann, Hannity, Joe Scarborough, Pat Buchanan and other professional opiners should be free to exercise their rights as citizens – and they should feel free to disclose their donations to their audiences. I doubt that anyone would be shocked to discover that their donations are in sync with their views. The journalistic game has changed, and the rules need to be tweaked accordingly.


    In my Sunday print column, I took a look at the likely Washington atmospherics of the next two years – and the prospects for getting anything done. My verdict was downbeat. By contrast, the esteemed scholar Jonathan Rauch had a more optimistic view in yesterday’s New York Times: “Both parties, responsible for governing, have a stake in success…Most important, the country itself becomes more governable and meaningful laws stand a likelier chance of passage, because neither side can easily blame the other for whatever is wrong and because any major legislation needs support from both parties to pass…(D)ivided government, in today’s world of ideologically polarized parties, is the only way of attaining sustainable bipartisanship.” Let’s hope he is right.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.