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Was MSNBC right to Suspend Keith Olbermann?

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On Friday, Keith Olbermann essentially got the boot from MSNBC for making three undisclosed political contributions—or that’s how I interpret suspended without pay. The donations violated MSNBC policies designed to prevent any apparent (or even actual) conflict of interest. For someone who does cover politics (Hey, wasn’t that Keith headlining election-night coverage?), it’s not unreasonable that there be no apparent bias.

Bias, eh? Don’t make me laugh. In some mythological land existing in some news management’s imagination, there is unbiased reporting. In the real world, there is no such thing. Good journalists may strive for objectivity, but there is always some slanting influence, even nothing more than culture, experience or personality. News reporters are as opinionated as anyone else. They have their favorite brands and political leanings that can be tough to set aside, even unsconsciously. Then there are factors going on behind the scenes, like the quest for ratings, subscriptions or pageviews.

Keith’s show long ago moved from news to opinion. A real peacock (not the NBC mascot) couldn’t bluster more colors than KO’s liberal primping. For example, on October 27th, Keith opined: “If the Tea Party wins, America loses“.

Keith pontificated:

Vote backward, vote Tea Party. And if you are somehow indifferent to what is planned for next Tuesday, it is nothing short of an attempt to use Democracy to end this Democracy, to buy America wholesale and pave over the freedoms and the care we take of one another, which have combined to keep us the envy of the world.

That’s a fairly strong opinion. So, what? NBC brass is shocked that one of its star anchors has liberal political leanings? I mean, c`mon now. That said, MSNBC does have policies in place governing political contributions. Keith violated them, and, strangely, fairly late in the election process. I guess someone put the fear of Tea party into him.

Keith donated 2,400 bucks to each of three Democrats: Jack Conway in Kentucky and Gabrielle Giffords and Raul Grivalva in Arizona. Those aren’t exactly huge sums of money. But any one of the contributions would violate NBC news rules prohibiting political donations without special exception. This kind of restriction is common among reputable news organizations, and KO has been in the business long enough to have known better. Bias considerations aside, he broke the rules.

Did Keith think that perhaps he was above the rules? After all, he is among MSNBC’s most popular anchors, if not the most. I’m much more bothered by attitudes of entitlement than political contributions. Quite possibly Keith is the news because he believed he was above the news.

This afternoon, KO thanked his fans, whose support perhaps he hopes will get him off the hot seat and back into the anchor’s chair. He tweeted: “Greetings From Exile! A quick, overwhelmed, stunned THANK YOU for support that feels like a global hug & obviously left me tweetless XO”. Exile? Yeah, I’m bleeding for you (of course, that’s sarcastically meant!). No doubt, the headhunters are banging down the door with job offers. No one should feel sorry for Keith Olbermann.

But you should feel, or think, something about his self-described exile. Was MSNBC right to suspend him? Please answer the simple poll above.

[Update: About 30 minutes after I posted, MSNBC announced that KO would return on Tuesday (November 9th). So I’ve added a second poll, to supersede the first. Did MSNBC do the right thing? Also, I corrected the time stamp. Looks like my Webhost failed to turn back the clocks. I hope that won’t cause other problems.]

Do you have a media ethics story that you’d like told? Please email Joe Wilcox: joewilcox at gmail dot com.

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