Tuesday, November 9, 2010

I’m shocked, simply shocked, to find political donations from Fox and MSNBC hosts

Keith Olbermann’s “indefinite suspension” for violating NBC’s policy barring donations to political candidates turned out to be just two days’ off the air. Which probably makes sense because his misstep was not in making the donations to three Democratic candidates but in not informing the NBC powers that be, as the network’s policy demands. Put in that context, the “punishment” was just a company’s way of showing who’s boss, of not letting an employee act “too big for his britches.”

The real question remains unanswered: should real journalists make donations to political candidates? The short answer to that is No. Not. Never. If you’re gathering and reporting the news, you need to project an open-mindedness and the ability to tell a story without bias. The Globe’s Brian Mooney and the Herald’s Jessica Van Sack would be sacked if they ever contributed to candidates, I am sure, and their writing would lose credibility.

Keith Olbermann is a journalist only in the broadest sense of the word, “a writer or editor for a news medium.” But the definition of journalism I grew up with was closer to Webster's definition of one engaged in “the direct presentation of facts or description of events without an attempt at interpretation.” That is not what Keith Olbermann is about. Given how clearly he states his political opinions and preferences, he is really more of a news entertainer, just like Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity on Fox. If NBC really cares about separating news from opinion, it should bar Olbermann from anchoring coverage of election night returns.

Even when I earned my living as an editorialist, always writing and airing opinion, I would never contribute to a candidate because it would appear to compromise my ability to gather information (on which the opinion would eventually be based) in the most neutral way. I would hope that today’s editorial writers abide by that rule. For they are, in the best sense of the word, opinion journalists.

But in the cable news business, the pitchmen (and women) on Fox and MSNBC are shilling for their viewpoints and favorite candidates on a daily basis. As David Carr points out in Monday’s NY Times, that amounts to an in-kind contribution. Fox News has even had three presidential hopefuls (Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin) on the payroll as commentators. Its website headlines Christine O’Donnell, Carl Paladino, Meg Whitman and Joe Miller.

Fox is fine with all this (hey, Rupert Murdoch donated $1 million to the Republican Governors Association). MSNBC doesn’t ban donations. It only wants those who donate to inform the higher-ups. This is a distinction without a difference.

In today’s cable environment, a defined point of view is part of the station’s brand. It’s why those inclined to the right tune into Fox and those on the left tune into MSNBC. What difference can it make at this time that their stars are donating to candidates? I may not like it, but, if I’m in the market for balanced and credible news, theirs are not the places to which I turn.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.


  1. KO’s sin was that he violated a company policy about which he knew and interviewed the candidates to whom he contributed on his program without disclosing to viewers that he financially supported his guests. Len Downie’s long-held belief that he shouldn’t vote to protect the virginity of the Wash Post is foolish. Journalists should not openly shill for candidates or be the “face” for a ballot referendum, but if they financially support candidates and are outed through no action of their own by another media outlet trolling the Federal Election Commission database, what’s the transgression? Journalists are citizens and have a 1st Amendment right to support politicians of their choosing. The objectivity argument doesn’t hold water. How is it a blow to journalistic objectivity if a police reporter contributes to a Democratic candidate any more than if her newspaper endorses a particular party’s candidate? Give credit to the journalist’s professionalism–just as a Republican CPA will diligently complete the tax returns of a liberal Democratic client, a reporter can put aside her beliefs and fairly cover a story. The public doesn’t believe journalists have taken priestly vows of objective fairness anyway.

  2. Re: your comments on "How is it a blow to journalistic objectivity if a police reporter contributes to a Democratic candidate any more than if her newspaper endorses a particular party’s candidate?" Traditionally there has always been a firewall between the editorial and news section of a paper, which has been a good thing. The public may not believe that journalists have taken priestly vows of objective fairness, but they have a right to expect that reporters will approach a subject with a clean slate and an open mind and not twist the facts the comport with his/her beliefs. Political donations by reporters call that into question. I do agree that not voting (to protect the news outlet's "virginity")is stupid and a failure of civic responsibility.

  3. Hi Margie,
    Thanks for all your thoughtful posts.I always enjoy checking out your point of view.First time reply.I support the view of strong firewall.Journalists/editors of all stripes can decide how a story is reported and in doing so shape what is and is not included in story.All there may be factually correct but what is left out is also important.