Every so often there is a news story that exposes the serious deficiencies in the ethics comprehension in the public and the media. The Clinton-Lewinsky scandal was one such story; Major League Baseball’s steroid controversy was another. I confess: I didn’t see the Keith Olbermann suspension for making political donations as having the potential to be another test of ethical competence, but it is. And almost everyone is flunking it.
The facts of the Olbermann incident are deceptively simple. The rant-prone, self-annointed champion of the Angry Left violated an NBC ethics policy that forbade its reporters and commentators from making political contributions, on the theory, absurd when applied to Olbermann, that it compromises their reputation for objectivity. Olbermann has no objectivity, or reputation for it either. Nonetheless, he intentionally and flagrantly violated his employer’s policy. That alone justifies his suspension, whether or not the policy is idiotic. And it is.
But Olbermann’s fans and critics alike are all over the internet attaching rationalizations and flawed ethical reasoning to the episode. Such as:
- “MSNBC is unfair to punish Olbermann for doing the same thing that Sean Hannity and other Fox News commentators have done: make political contributions.” Wrong. Olbermann violated his employer’s policy; Hannity didn’t violate Fox’s policy. There is nothing unfair about having to be accountable for the rules you break when others who work elsewhere are held to different rules. If Olbermann worked for Fox and was punished for doing the same thing Hannity did and was not punished for, that would be unfair.
- “If you think NPR was wrong to fire Juan Williams, then you have to agree that MSNBC was wrong to suspend Olbermann.” No, you don’t. There is no similarity between the two cases as all, not an atom or a molecule in common. Williams was suspended for expressing an opinion that NPR didn’t like, and they used a vague, contradictory and selectively applied ethics policy to justify the firing. In fact, Williams’s firing violated NPR’s own supposed standards. Olbermann undeniably violated NBC’s corporate policy for journalists.
- “Olbermann was a hypocrite, because he condemned Rupert Murdoch, who owns Fox News, for making large gifts to Republican organizations, then made donations to Democratic candidates.” It was not hypocritical. Fox claims that it is a news reporting organization, which means that it cannot have a conflict of interest tying it to the entities and organizations it reports on. For Fox News’s owner to give million dollar gifts to one party does raise questions about its ability to be, or interest in being, “fair and balanced.” Olbermann, in contrast, has never pretended to be anything but partisan and ideologically aligned with progressives and Democrats.
- “Olbermann should remain politically neutral, because, unlike Hannity or Glenn Beck, he is a correspondent as well as a commentator.” No, he is a commentator that MSNBC outrageously uses as a correspondent, along with other extremely partisan opinion journalists like Larry O’Donnell, Rachel Maddow, and Chris Matthews. MSNBC has no genuine, objective correspondents; this was obvious to anyone watching its election coverage. Olbermann is supposed to magically become believable as an objective reporter just because he’s put in that role occasionally by a shameless network? How stupid does MSNBC think viewers are?
- “MSNBC had ethical standards that Olbermann broke; Fox’s lack of a donation ban shows that it is unethical.” No, MSNBC’s standards are deceptive and based on a foolish and illogical tradition, while Fox’s policy is transparent, logical, and fair. Why should partisan commentators masquerade as anything but? What interest is served by having then feign neutrality when everything that comes out of their mouths makes their biases obvious? Fox’s policy allows its journalists to put their money where their mouths and beliefs are, letting the public know about the ideological tendencies that color their reporting. What is the matter with that?
Well….it’s just wrong, that’s all, according to theoretical journalist watchdog Howard Kurtz, who argues—if you can call it an argument—that Olbermann was wrong and Fox’s policy is worse:
“[Olbermann’s] mistake is not in the same league as what some Fox contributors have done. Karl Rove raised about $50 million in recent months for an independent group supporting Republican candidates. Dick Morris has raised money, spoken on behalf of candidates and refers to Republicans as “we.” Sarah Palin barnstormed the country on behalf of her favored candidates, often of the Tea Party variety. And one full-time Fox News host, Sean Hannity, has attended GOP fundraisers. Fox allows such activity for talk-show hosts and contributors, whom the network doesn’t consider journalists. I’ve written about this from time to time; few people seem to care. At CNN, where I host a weekly media program, James Carville and Paul Begala are contributors who also sign fundraising letters for the Democratic Party. If it were up to me, I wouldn’t allow any of that.”
And Kurtz wouldn’t allow this because………?????? He doesn’t say, and I have no idea what his reasoning could be. Does anyone on earth think Karl Rove, Sarah Palin, James Carville or Paul Begala are objective reporters? Non-partisan? Then what ethical principle is served by their being prevented from making political donations? Well, Howard? HOWARD???
“When you become a journalist, you give up certain rights. You can’t write speeches on the side for politicians. You can’t march in political demonstrations. And you shouldn’t be able to donate money to politicians, unless you’re hosting a cooking show.”
But why, Howard? Nowhere in your article do you ever explain why. Because in the old days, journalists like Walter Cronkite used to pretend to be neutral and not solidly in the liberal camp, so people would trust them? Because allowing journalists to be open about their biases would make them less trusted and believable as independent, objective observers—as indeed they deserve to be? Preventing journalists from making political donations either allows them to hide what they want to do and how they really feel, thus misleading the public, or, as in the case of people like Rove, Palin and , yes, Olbermann, accomplishes nothing at all, other than taking a basic American right away from them for no good reason.
And then there’s the fact that Keith Olbermann is no more a journalist than James Carville or Dick Morris who are no more journalists than Lassie. He just sometimes plays one on TV.
Howard Kurtz flunks the Keith Olbermann test. Since Kurtz is supposedly an expert on journalist ethics, I suppose the public shouldn’t feel so bad about flunking too.