On Journalistic Ethics

By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson

Keith Olbermann, the host of Countdown on MSNBC five nights a week, has been suspended without pay for an undetermined period.

There’s no denying that he violated the ethical code of NBC, his employer. Last week he sent contributions of $2,400, the most one can give a candidate, to three Democrats running for the House, one of whom appeared on his show the very day Olbermann made his contribution.

Olbermann’s contributions were disclosed on the blog Politico, which reported

MSNBC President Phil Griffin said in a statement Friday: “I became aware of Keith’s political contributions late last night. Mindful of NBC News policy and standards, I have suspended him indefinitely without pay.”
Olbermann’s obviously progressive leanings have boosted the cable network’s ratings (hence income) significantly in the last few years, to a point where it now outranks CNN for viewership. Suspending Olbermann cannot have been an easy decision.
I’m speaking as a former reporter on the politics and public affairs beat for a regional daily newspaper on Massachusetts’s North Shore. A political activist before and after my reporting years, I found the hardest thing about my job was keeping my politics to myself while I was on the paper’s payroll.  But during those years I never let a politician buy me so much as a cup of coffee; if we sat down for an interview and coffee or a sandwich showed up on the table, I paid. And I’m proud that nobody I covered, even the politicians and public servants who had to find other work after I wrote about some of the things they did, ever accused me of inaccuracy or unfairness.
Those were the years immediately following Watergate and the revelations that came to light. Times have changed. Big time.
People are weighing in on Politico and elsewhere, mostly defending Keith. The arguments are compelling: “Look what they do on Fox,” and “NBC is violating Olbermann’s First Amendment rights” are the two most frequently advanced.
To which I offer the following rebuttal (stay with me, Olbermann fans, I’m one of you, and I have more to say after these few  paragraphs):
Arguing that Fox should set the standards for journalism is like saying we should let the folks in Lower Manhattan build an Islamic community center when Saudi Arabia starts issuing building permits for synagogues.  I don’t know where the people who advance this argument get their role models, but I think it’s just this side of the dumpster.
Arguing that  NBC is violating Keith’s First Amendment rights has two flaws: first, that precious amendment is about what Congress can’t do, not what an employer can’t. NBC has a right to tell its news people to avoid the appearance of partiality. Fox has a right to do otherwise, but not to expect any clear-headed thinker of whatever political persuasion to then consider the network “fair and balanced.”  In fact, they are unfair, unbalanced, and they lie outright.
The second flaw is that hauling out the First Amendment free speech banner to defend  political contributions belies the disgust so many people who make this argument express in regard to the so-called Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.  The Supremes ruled that money is speech and unleashed all the billionaires in the world who want to buy the US of A and turn it into a third-rate dictatorship.
Money talks, all right, but it shouldn’t have First Amendment rights.
OK, there’s my justification for what NBC has done. But I still want Keith back on the air. We need his passion and his outlook.
Losing one’s journalistic balance is not a capital offense. Disobeying one’s bosses shouldn’t be, either.
Yes, Keith should get his tush spanked, and he has. Now he should be brought back, and soon. so he can say his mea culpa in public and we can all move on. Let Fox consume a couple more news cycles on how awful his transgression was. They can’t get any more hypocritical and self-righteous, anyway.
And the best thing those of us who expect and respect integrity in our media can do is ignore Fox — and never use the word “news” right after the animal’s name.
Keith Olbermann is an excellent human being who lost his vision one day. Running on adrenaline, which is what you do when you’re working in or reporting on a political campaign, will do that to you.
Let it go, NBC.  It will be OK.
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