MSNBC’s sudden suspension of top-rated Keith Olbermann has spurred a debate about the relevance of network rules against staffers contributing to political campaigns.
Olbermann, whom MSNBC president Phil Griffin once labeled as the network’s “rock star,” yesterday was suspended indefinitely without pay for having contributed $2,400 each last week to the campaigns of three Democratic congressional candidates. NBC News guidelines prohibit such contributions without prior approval.
Given today’s hyper-partisan political climate, some media experts say it’s time for the rules to change. At MSNBC (blue state) and Fox News Channel (red state), for example, every prime-time host espouses a clear political bias. Moreover, that bias drives their viewership.
“I am shocked, shocked, to learn that Keith Olbermann is a Democrat,” deadpans Alex S. Jones, director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.
Requiring employees to be politically agnostic makes sense when they work for objective news organizations, Jones says. However, MSNBC and Fox “don’t follow that standard [in prime time], and it’s absurd to pretend anything else. It’s a fig leaf that doesn’t cover anything.”
Rich Hanley, director of graduate programs at Quinnipiac University’s School of Communications, goes so far as to call the rules “quaint and disingenuous,” particularly in light of Fox owner Rupert Murdoch’s recent $1 million-plus contributions to Republican groups.
At MSNBC, where Olbermann is paid to give opinions, the irony is inescapable to Hanley: “It’s funny how a network that calls itself ‘the place for politics’ pulls a host for being political.”
The solution, according to Hanley, is for cable to follow the model of a newspaper op-ed page and make a distinction between daytime and nighttime lineups. Before opinion-driven programs, they could run a simple disclaimer that would distance the host’s views from their own.
“Prime time could become the op-ed page of cable news,” says Hanley. “It just needs to be labeled as such.”
Exiled CNN anchor Aaron Brown is troubled by partisan media, but he says NBC “is entitled to make policy, even if it doesn’t make much sense in this instance. It just shows how crazy things are.
“At least Fox doesn’t pretend it is fair and balanced. Oh wait, it does.”