Ethics Collision at MSNBC

Donny Deutsch, a guest host at MSNBC, lost his gig, at least for now, after including MSNBC’s Angriest Man, commentator Keith Olberman, in a segment called “America the Angry.” It examined how media pundits are stoking public anger with inflammatory rhetoric and appeals to emotion rather that reason. MSNBC objected to the criticism of one of its own on its own airtime.

Based on  stated policy, the objection and Deutsch’s punishment were justified. MSNBC boss Phil Griffin had send a stern warning to all producers and on-air talent, saying,

“We have many strong personalities with differing, passionate opinions, but it is important to remember that we are all on the same team. I want to reiterate my long-standing policy: We do not publicly criticize our colleagues. This kind of behavior is unprofessional and will not be tolerated.”

No doubt about it, Deutsch ( a glib PR whiz whose emergence as a pundit is a long-standing mystery) violated the policy by using his show to highlight Olbermann’s unattractive side.  His duty to his employers was to follow their conditions and rules, no matter how wrong-headed they might be.

And a “no criticism rule” in a news organization is stunningly wrong-headed. Increasingly, media’s handling of key stories and issues is news, and specific personalities like Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, Lou Dobbs, Anderson Cooper, Larry King, and of course, Sarah Palin often make statements that spark controversies and have an impact on the national dialogue. MNBC’s position is either that it can’t cover news stories involving its own personalities, which is irresponsible, or that it can’t cover them honestly and fairly, which is worse. Even the much-maligned Fox News doesn’t have such a policy, with its own Angry Man Bill O’Reilly often taking issue with other Fox commentators. Griffin’s edict is the equivalent of the New York Times forbidding Frank Rich from disagreeing with David Brooks, or ordering its “public editor,” Clark Hoyt, not to do his job, which is to challenge the ethics and judgment of Times writers, reporters and editors. It is, in fact, an admission that MSNBC has no integrity as a news organization.

The Deutsch flap pretty much proves this. Anger among voters, anger in the public, anger in Tea Party rallies, anger on talk radio, anger in the blogosphere, anger in the public discourse generally is a major topic right now, and promises to be for a long, long, time. Olbermann’s red-faced tirades on his MSNBC show could be Exhibit A in any case against the media for using rage to fuel ratings, and he has been taken to task for them in numerous forums, including satiric riffs by Jon Stewart and “Saturday Night Live”. It would be misleading and incompetent journalism to examine the excessive rage in America without including Olbermann, and poor coverage of the issues to avoid covering the issue at all. Those are the only options allowed at MSNBC, apparently.

Donny Deutsch was rightly punished for a disloyal and intentional violation of a clearly communicated policy that itself is an endorsement of irresponsible, incompetent and biased journalism. He was engaging in responsible journalism in a workplace that prohibited it, at least the kind he did.

In Bizarro World, its unethical to be ethical,  and in the Bizarro cable news world of MCNBC, its disloyal to be objective.

One thought on “Ethics Collision at MSNBC

  1. Dear Jack:

    That one statement of your’s sums it up. MSNBC has no integrity as a news organization. They have many competitors in this! But few so often display the unremitting and aggressive bias that MSNBC does.

    I’m a conservative myself, so I naturally take issue with the content of the bulk of their commentators. But, as a constitutionalist, I recognize the pivotal role that a responsible media needs to play in the affairs of any free nation. I maintain that organizations like MSNBC are the anithesis of this. They hide behind the First Amendment the way filmmakers and pornographers do… or as traitors and gangsters hide behind the Fifth.

    It’s difficult to prosecute those who pervert the Bill of Rights as these people do- some with the overt intention of doing so in order to effectively bring down the Constitution in the first place. But their infamies should be proclaimed for what they are and their crimes- when they stray beyond their legal limits- pursued in both kinds of courts: The juristic kind… and the all-important one of public opinion.

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