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November 5, 2010

OLBERMANN'S CHECKBOOK.... [Update: there's an important follow-up to this story]

There's a reasonable debate to be had over the propriety of media professionals donating to political candidates. I have a hunch the discussion might heat up again.

MSNBC host Keith Olbermann made campaign contributions to two Arizona members of Congress and failed Kentucky Senate candidate Jack Conway ahead of Tuesday's election -- a potential violation of NBC's ethics policies.

Olbermann, who acknowledged the contributions in a statement to POLITICO, made the maximum legal donations of $2,400 apiece to Conway and to Arizona Reps. Raul Grijalva and Gabrielle Giffords. He donated to the Arizona pair on Oct. 28 -- the same day that Grijalva appeared as a guest on Olbermann's "Countdown" show. Grijalva, a prominent liberal who was only declared a winner in his race Thursday night, was in a tight contest against tea party-backed candidate Ruth McClung when he appeared on Countdown -- one of several appearances he made on the show.

NBC has a rule against employees contributing to political campaigns, and a wide range of news organizations prohibit political contributions -- considering it a breach of journalistic independence to contribute to the candidates they cover.

Now, if Olbermann's employer has a policy prohibiting these kinds of contributions, I can assume the "Countdown" host should expect a call to the principal's office today. How that shakes out is between Olbermann and the folks who sign his checks.

But before Olbermann's critics get on their high horse, a little context seems appropriate. The MSNBC host donated a total of $7,200 in checks to help three candidates. He did so in his personal capacity; he disclosed his contributions; and did not encourage others to support these campaigns.

At the same time, News Corp made multiple undisclosed donations to the Republican Governors Association, totaling at least $1.25 million, in addition to a $1 million contribution to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for its pro-Republican election-year activities. Fox News has helped GOP candidates raise money on the air; Fox News personalities are featured guests at Republican fundraisers; while other Fox News personalities continue to help generate financial support for Republican candidates now, even after the elections.

I suspect Olbermann will take some heat over $7,200 in donations, but the qualitative and quantitative differences seem relevant here.

Postscript: In the interests of disclosure, I should note that I did not financially support any candidates for public office in 2010. I also did not donate to any political party or party campaign committee.

Steve Benen 10:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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I am sure that the rabble at FAUX News will set up a terrible howl over Olbermann's clear ethics violation because, they will no doubt point out, there is a clear difference between a corporate contribution to political organizations that they support and individual on-air personalities contributing to individual candidates. And they are right. The corporate contributions are much worse and make a mockery of any pretense at journalistic ethics. But they are too dumb to see that. All they know is, what they did was different than what Olbermann did and what they do is OK and what Olbermann does is evil.

Just a corollary to the general rule IOKIYAR.

Posted by: majun on November 5, 2010 at 10:53 AM | PERMALINK

Well, it's clear what should happen here. All those contributing to a Republican (whether direct donation, secret contributions, unlimited airtime with softball questions, etc.) are as pure as the driven snow, while anyone contributing to a Democrat should be driven from their position, citizenship revoked, and banished to a Balkan province.

I still remember the abuse Dan Rather had to endure for appearing at a fundraiser FOR HIS DAUGHTER...

Posted by: artsmith on November 5, 2010 at 10:53 AM | PERMALINK

Fox News has helped GOP candidates raise money on the air; Fox News personalities are featured guests at Republican fundraisers; while other Fox News personalities continue to help generate financial support for Republican candidates now, even after the elections.

I'm pretty sure that under the tax code and FEC rules, those activities are considered to be in-kind donations and subject to limitations as if they were cash. But there is a clause in the tax code and FEC rules that they only apply to Democrats, so it's all okay.

Posted by: Mustang Bobby on November 5, 2010 at 10:59 AM | PERMALINK

And don't forget employing future (and past) candidates for public office, thereby giving them fat paychecks, free publicity and exposure that it would be impossible to buy. But hey, that's not a conflict of interest, right?

Posted by: gifgrrl on November 5, 2010 at 11:01 AM | PERMALINK

I believe there should be a major difference between what a host of a entertainment/politic/news show should be held accountable for and one who reads the news. KO has never made any secret of where he stands politically, while, many at FAUX keep throwing out their canard about being both "Independent" and "fair and balanced".

Posted by: berttheclock on November 5, 2010 at 11:05 AM | PERMALINK

This is only an issue because the area of professional journalistic "ethics" has become a morass of contradictions and illogic.

NBC's policy made sense back in an era when their entire news team was supposed to appear unbiased.

Until this was revealed, was someone under the delusion that Keith Olbermann was unbiased? Does anyone think that Maddow or Hannity or Brit Hume or O'Reilly are impartial? I highly doubt it.

IMO, I would prefer if news organizations re-adopted their traditional non-partisan reporting guidelines. However, they don't maintain those guidelines and show no interest in returning to them. Talking heads like Olbermann are openly encouraged to express their viewpoints, even partisan viewpoints. Why on Earth should they not be permitted to donate to candidates that they openly support?

The News Corp. donation is far more insidious because it looks far more like legal bribes to elected officials in exchange for pro-News Corp. policies. It is a lot harder to see what Olbermann, personally, gets out of a donation to a Kentucky Senator.

Posted by: square1 on November 5, 2010 at 11:08 AM | PERMALINK

"All they know is, what they did was different than what Olbermann did and what they do is OK and what Olbermann does is evil."

Actually, i think you exaggerate. What they will say is Olberman did exactly the same thing as Fox News did so why the complaints from the whiners on the left. $7200 is the same as Millions. Classic example of false equivalence.

Posted by: Johnny Canuck on November 5, 2010 at 11:09 AM | PERMALINK

There is a precedent here. In 1996, I believe, Chuck Scarborough, longtime news anchor at WNBC-TV, NBC's flagship station in New York, was revealed to have contributed to Bob Dole's presidential campaign and was disciplined for it or at least chastised. I think the concern was legitimate -- if they knew of his political preferences, viewers might wonder, Is Scarborough fair?

Posted by: navamske on November 5, 2010 at 11:10 AM | PERMALINK

Like any ethics issue involving an individual journalist, the Olbermann case will no doubt be the subject of endless rounds of pronouncing, pontificating and navel-gazing.

BUT, if this becomes an occasion for people also to discuss the outrageous News Corp political donations then it would be well worth it. And it's up to the blue team to make it so.

Posted by: Basilisc on November 5, 2010 at 11:10 AM | PERMALINK

he disclosed his contributions

He didn't "disclose" them. He admitted it when Politico confronted him after Olbermann's contributions showed up in the candidates' disclosures.

Why liberals keep making excuses for this guy is beyond me -- the only explanation is that with the glaring lack of excellent analysis from the left, we're hanging on to this fool for dear life. He's frequently poorly informed. He's a self-satisfied blowhard. He interviews himself instead of guests (no matter what a guest says, watch Olbermann respond with his prepared rejoinder and smirk at his supposed cleverness). His shticks -- especially the voices -- are badly delivered and excruciatingly boring. He takes five sentences to say what a smarter and less self-promoting person could say more compellingly in one.

I watched the MSNBC election analysis on Tuesday night. There were three intellectual heavyweights up there: Maddow, O'Donnell and Robinson. Every time they were deep into some solid analysis of substantive questions -- which all three of them manage to do engagingly; they're not the least bit dry or boring -- buffoon Olbermann would come in with a "Look at me! Look at me!" dumbass attempt at a joke. He's a pain in the ass.

Posted by: shortstop on November 5, 2010 at 11:11 AM | PERMALINK

I agree with you on most occasions, but I guess I'm a bit of a stiff-necked hardliner on this point. Sorry. I know it's debatable whether Olbermann falls into the newsman category, but he certainly works for an organization that wants to be considered a news operation. As such, there should not be any wiggle room on questions of ethics. To become financially involved in campaigns crosses a line. You try to argue that a few thousand dollars is less unethical than millions, but one might as well argue who is more or less pregnant. Once you cross the line, you are what you are. To justify it by saying, "Yeah, but they were worse," sounds like the justification of a 9-year-old caught with his hand in the cookie jar.

Posted by: kw on November 5, 2010 at 11:20 AM | PERMALINK

me: with the glaring lack of excellent analysis from the left

To clarify: on cable. We have plenty of outstanding analysis online and in print.

Posted by: shortstop on November 5, 2010 at 11:20 AM | PERMALINK

Gee Keith Olbermann is a liberal? Who knew?

Posted by: Micky effin mouse on November 5, 2010 at 11:23 AM | PERMALINK

seriously, why bother with this? Olbermann, whatever else he may be, is also a citizen and entitled to do what he likes with his money.

Posted by: homerhk on November 5, 2010 at 11:25 AM | PERMALINK

Many people think of politics as sports, unfortunately, and so we see this protect my team right or wrong mentality in both, if not all, political spheres. Then we have the my father/mother was a lifelong X______ and so am I thunk.

Posted by: Kill Bill on November 5, 2010 at 11:26 AM | PERMALINK

if only Olbermann set up his own 503c and funneled money into that to fund a 504 corp to write checks...

Posted by: johnnymags on November 5, 2010 at 11:37 AM | PERMALINK

MSNBC policy=If a contribution, monetary or otherwise, to a candidate or group with a political or social agenda could create the appearance of a conflict of interest due to the employee’s responsibilities at MSNBC.com, the contribution must receive the prior approval of the section Executive Producer or Editor in Chief. Any participation in a political campaign must be reported to the employee’s immediate manager.

Has anyone checked to see if "prior approval" was given and if so isn't this "disclosure"?

Note other standards at other news outlets. Fox allows such contributions.

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/19178161/

Posted by: flyonthewall on November 5, 2010 at 11:57 AM | PERMALINK

The guy's a pompous blowhard, but he's a citizen, and as such he's got a right to donate his money to political candidates. To argue that he doesn't is ridiculous.

Posted by: Screamin' Demon on November 5, 2010 at 11:57 AM | PERMALINK

Whether the contributions are justifiable or not, it still was hubris and stupidity on Olbermann's part. When the Right-wing Attack Machine has painted a big target on your back, you have to be more pure than driven snow.

These three contributions will be be brought up for decades and used a examples of "equivalence" to justify all manner of electoral and journalistic criminality by the right. The small contributions just weren't worth the amount of sound and fury that they'll cause.

Posted by: SteveT on November 5, 2010 at 12:01 PM | PERMALINK

Contrary to what some are arguing, there is a profound difference between a relatively small donation (even at the individual max level) that is an expression of preference and a donation that ventures into the realm of "buying access."

When NewsCorp. gives to the GOP, it isn't just saying "we like Republicans." It is also saying "Govern in favor of NewsCorp. if you want the money to continue to flow."

There is no bright line that tells us when a donation becomes a bribe. But I'd argue that the grey line lies somewhere $1M and $7,200.

I do care that News Corp. gave the GOP $1M. But if you told me that Brit Hume gave the max to Angle, O'Donnell and Rand, I really couldn't care less.

Posted by: square1 on November 5, 2010 at 12:02 PM | PERMALINK
NBC's policy made sense back in an era when their entire news team was supposed to appear unbiased.

NBC's policy also makes sense in an era where the news media is owned by giant corporations that expend significant efforts to guarantee that policies of one political faction get enacted to serve the interests of those corporations, and all surveys done of news media employees show that those employees overwhelming support an opposing faction.

Posted by: cmdicely on November 5, 2010 at 12:11 PM | PERMALINK

"whoever signs his checks"

They give Glenn Beck a flour sack full of gold coins and some walnuts.

Because checks are how they keep track of you.

Posted by: cld on November 5, 2010 at 12:26 PM | PERMALINK

"The guy's a pompous blowhard, but he's a citizen, and as such he's got a right to donate his money to political candidates. To argue that he doesn't is ridiculous."

Absolutely he has the right to contribute to political candidates. But he doesn't necessarily have the right to be employed by NBC when he does it. Again, I'm kind of inflexible on this point of journalism ethics, but I think it's a standard that needs to be maintained. To paraphrase Bart Simpson's assessment of Principal Skinner: The stick up my ass has a stick up its ass.

Posted by: kw on November 5, 2010 at 12:30 PM | PERMALINK

Fox News' Mike Huckabee is already all over this one!

link

Posted by: Roger Ailes on November 5, 2010 at 12:37 PM | PERMALINK

Shortstop-the question isn't whether or not he's an ass. BTW, to me he's not. He's entertainment. He should be held responsible to whatever the brass decides. And the three heavyweights you mention are particularly good. Who would you hold as good from the right?

Posted by: ComradeAnon on November 5, 2010 at 12:38 PM | PERMALINK

I love to watch Keith Olbermann. He is thoughtful, provocative and on rare occasions a blowhard. He is as biased for his point of view as the majority of the stable of Fox on-air entertainers.

He has a great show and I love to watch "Countdown". By the way I love the voices. I will generally be on the floor laughing out loud.

I also love his Friday segments when he reads James Thurber. Great entertainment and great TV!

Posted by: James at home on November 5, 2010 at 12:41 PM | PERMALINK

The guy's a pompous blowhard, but he's a citizen, and as such he's got a right to donate his money to political candidates. To argue that he doesn't is ridiculous.

No one's arguing that he doesn't have that right as a citizen. He doesn't, however, have that right as an employee of NBC when his employer's policy explicitly forbids it.

Whether the contributions are justifiable or not, it still was hubris and stupidity on Olbermann's part. When the Right-wing Attack Machine has painted a big target on your back, you have to be more pure than driven snow.

These three contributions will be be brought up for decades and used a examples of "equivalence" to justify all manner of electoral and journalistic criminality by the right. The small contributions just weren't worth the amount of sound and fury that they'll cause.

Bingo. It's just one more example of Olbermann's total self-absorption. Which brings us to...

the question isn't whether or not he's an ass.

Isn't it?

Posted by: shortstop on November 5, 2010 at 12:47 PM | PERMALINK

NBC's policy also makes sense in an era where the news media is owned by giant corporations that expend significant efforts to guarantee that policies of one political faction get enacted to serve the interests of those corporations, and all surveys done of news media employees show that those employees overwhelming support an opposing faction.

Sure. And wouldn't it be great if the News Corp.'s $2.25 million (which appallingly but unsurprisingly doesn't violate company policy) and Olbermann's $7,200 were used as a springboard for an honest national discussion about the political leanings of media owners vs. the help -- and which group actually determines the media entity's coverage and tone?

Me, too. I bet that's what Olbermann was intending when he made those donations. Wait, what?

Posted by: shortstop on November 5, 2010 at 12:58 PM | PERMALINK

Apparently you belive he is an ass. That's fine. I personally don't. Pompous at times, yes. But neither opinion is relevant to this post about someone donating money to a political cause when their employer told them not too.

Posted by: ComradeAnon on November 5, 2010 at 1:02 PM | PERMALINK

Will the Fox folks be all over Hannity for supporting Bachmann???

Posted by: Gridlock on November 5, 2010 at 1:12 PM | PERMALINK

Shortstop, KW, why do you think this is a question of journalism ethics? For a long time I have wondered about this; I've never heard an answer that satisfies me.

I'm a reporter. I have contributed money to political candidates, and I have canvassed by phone and door to door. I don't think there's anything wrong with it.

When I studied this issue in college, I concluded that the prohibition against political involvement had nothing to do with ethics, and everything to do with economics. With the demise of partisan newspapers and the rise of "objective" newspapers, it would harm circulation if readers found out that reporters were volunteering on political campaigns. That's an economic issue, not an ethical issue.

If it's unethical for a reporter to give money to a political campaign, is it unethical to give a vote to a political candidate? I have known at least one reporter who refused to vote, for that reason. I think he's silly. From there, it's easy to conclude that it's unethical for a reporter to have an opinion.

The ethical thing for a reporter to do is to connect with his or her community and to try to make it stronger. If that takes the form of political participation, then that's fine.

Posted by: Holdie on November 5, 2010 at 1:25 PM | PERMALINK

But neither opinion is relevant to this post about someone donating money to a political cause when their employer told them not too.

That depends on why he did it, doesn't it? As I noted above, if he did it as a way of opening up discussion about real and alleged media bias and which members of a news organization control that organization's editorial choices, we could have a cool public conversation about those highly significant issues. Anybody think that's why he did it?

Or maybe he did it to open a dialogue about what he sees as an unfair employee policy that apparently not all of NBC's competitors emulate? Any takers on that theory?

If either of these ends were his goals, it's pretty odd that he didn't make his contributions more openly, accompanied by his customary trumpets and flourishes, and explain why he's doing it, rather than waiting for some reporter/opposite party apparatus to read the FEC filings and put out a story on it (which is, by the way, the exact same way that News Corp.'s contributions were brought to light -- contrary to Steve's arguments, there's no "Keith disclosed and News Corp. didn't" here).

So did he do it because his judgment is exceedingly poor? Because he couldn't look six seconds down the road? Because he was indulging his desires of the moment?

Doesn't everything in that last group of possibilities fall into the "ass" category?

Posted by: shortstop on November 5, 2010 at 1:26 PM | PERMALINK

Shortstop, KW, why do you think this is a question of journalistic ethics?

I really haven't argued anywhere here that it is, Holdie. The entirety of my remarks have addressed a) the fact that Olbermann's donations violated his employer's policy and b) the completely unnecessary fallout that Olbermann's idiotic violation of that policy will cause.

Posted by: shortstop on November 5, 2010 at 1:34 PM | PERMALINK

I see what you mean, shortstop. I'm not sure how I misread you, but I did. You're not arguing whether NBC's ethical rules are right or wrong; you're noting that Olbermann violated his employer's rules.

Posted by: Holdie on November 5, 2010 at 1:48 PM | PERMALINK

and indeed Olbermann has been suspended indefinitely without pay.

Posted by: zeitgeist on November 5, 2010 at 2:18 PM | PERMALINK

This story PROVES Faux News IS NOT A News station since it is VERY CLEAR NONE of THEIR talking heads have any 'journalistic ethics', in WHAT they say, HOW they say it, to WHOM they say it to, to WHOM they say it against.

Posted by: iggy on November 5, 2010 at 2:33 PM | PERMALINK

OK, I'm a TEA Party supporter.

I hope Barack Obama is the first of many African-American U.S. Presidents, and the last of many Democratic U.S. Presidents. So you can guess where I stand on many issues.

But I cannot see where Mr. Olbermann's contributions are a problem. It's not as though he has lost any appearance of objectivity.

Posted by: MKS on November 5, 2010 at 2:55 PM | PERMALINK

Olbermann is one of the republicans many punching bags and a major target as is anyone that dares cross them.

Right wing media today is little different than the mafia

Posted by: BurghMan on November 5, 2010 at 3:17 PM | PERMALINK

"NBC has a rule against employees contributing to political campaigns, and a wide range of news organizations prohibit political contributions -- considering it a breach of journalistic independence to contribute to the candidates they cover."

I see nothing wrong with Olbermann contributing to any political candidate. His personal politics are not exactly a secret. The NBC policy is even more stringent then Hatch Act restrictions for federal employees, and may even be illegal. What if their policy forbade employees from wearing certain colors at work or mandated they wear their underwear backwards. When I was a fed I knew the rules - no campaigning in the workplace, no solititation for candidates in the workplace, no campaign buttons or displays in the workplace, etc.; but I could mail a check to any candidate I supported on my own time. Besides, the notion of journalistic independence is a joke in today's cable news climate. Many of us search the Internet every day for decent journalism. This is silly. Who is NBC kidding here? Why do they think people tune in to watch MSNBC or Fox; their political affiliations are part of their marketing strategy.

Posted by: max on November 5, 2010 at 3:29 PM | PERMALINK

So nice that MSNBC has ethics and I did send them an email, I am not happy with the suspension.
However, I did support NPR's decision to let Juan Williams go and I cannot be hypocritical of MSNBC if they suspended Keith because he violated the rules.

I have to say that we as a Democrats and as a country need to have a discussion about what Fox News does and it's lack of integrity.
To call yourself a news organization, contribute millions of dollars,be so extremely biased for one political party is very very troubling. Another point that was made was that they employ future republican candidates that allows them free air time and exposure worth millions.
The FCC should be looking into this. i will not hold my breath.

Posted by: Diane on November 5, 2010 at 4:27 PM | PERMALINK

A better comparison than anyone at Fox, which is never ethical and always offensive, would be Joe Scarborough's contributions. Olbermann doesn't pretend to be a news reporter any more than Scarborough does - both shows are clearly opinion-based. I think MSNBC needs to hear from the listeners. Either Scarborough goes, or Olbermann returns.

Posted by: cmacc on November 5, 2010 at 5:38 PM | PERMALINK

I think MSNBC needs to hear from the [viewers]. Either Scarborough goes, or Olbermann returns.

Which viewers? Scarborough's or Olbermann's? There's almost no crossover, and one group is quite a bit larger than the other. It's not the latter group.

Posted by: The original Frank on November 5, 2010 at 7:12 PM | PERMALINK

You can e-mail Boss Griffin at: phil.griffin@nbcuni.com

Posted by: max on November 5, 2010 at 7:28 PM | PERMALINK

Why is all the rant about FOX?

Posted by: Yanks on November 5, 2010 at 7:37 PM | PERMALINK

Why don't they just admit that he was canned because he sux.

Posted by: glennmcgahee on November 6, 2010 at 8:47 AM | PERMALINK
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