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."
According to a 2007 summary on MSNBC.com, parent company NBC warns each staff member to avoid activities that "could jeopardize his or her standing as an impartial journalist because they may create the appearance of a conflict of interest."
True to the blurring of news and advocacy throughout the cable-news universe, Olbermann is an ambiguous figure at best. Angered at the Bush administration's Iraq war policy, he started taking Countdown from straight news toward leftward advocacy. He and hosts Chris Matthews and Rachel Maddow have helped make MSNBC's weeknight lineup competitive with leader Fox News. Countdown, which often draws more than 1 million nightly viewers (good for cable, but not as good as Fox News leader Bill O'Reilly) is by now aggressively liberal. And yet Olbermann was the coanchor for MSNBC's election coverage this week. He has had several clashes with Griffin and other higher-ups over editorial decisions.
The three major cable-TV news channels - MSNBC, Fox News, and CNN - remain locked in a grim struggle for dominance, with Fox News in the lead. Many commentators see Fox News as heavily biased toward Republican and conservative causes. CNN, avowedly centrist, often lags in prime time. MSNBC has taken what some analysts see as a center-left approach. In October, it began an ad campaign with the slogan "Lean Forward," which some find biased to the left.
Standards regarding political contributions vary in the media industry. CBS, ABC, and NPR forbid staffers to make political donations, while NBC/MSNBC TV requires staffers to get permission from the president of NBC News. (Olbermann apparently didn't do so.) Reuters allows staffers not working on political material to make contributions.
Fox News allows contributions as long as they are not from corporate funds. Personal involvement in political activity "is permitted as long as the activity does not interfere with or impair the performance of the employee's duties for the company."
Fox News commentator Sean Hannity donated $4,800 to the campaign of House hopeful John Gomez (R., N.Y.), who lost, and $5,000 to the political action committee of Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R., Minn.), who won. Hannity has also appeared at several political rallies. In turn, political figures such as Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee are regular contributors.
News Corp., the company that owns Fox News, gave $1.25 million to the Republican Governors Association and another $1 million to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber was aggressive in pro-GOP campaigning in the election season just past.
Many media blogs were critical of the MSNBC move, on a variety of grounds. Derek Thompson of the Atlantic wrote that news of Olbermann's contributions "reaffirms the biases we all knew he had. But does it jeopardize his standing as impartial?"
Calling the MSNBC move "hypocrisy," the Daily Kos pointed out that Joe Scarborough, conservative host of MSNBC morning show Morning Joe, has contributed to Republican candidates for years, including a much-publicized $4,200 to Republican House candidate Derek Kitts of Oregon in May 2006 - a week before Kitts appeared on Scarborough's show. Pat Buchanan, a conservative commentator often on MSNBC, donated repeatedly between 2005 and 2008.
Inquirer policies and procedures make clear that "staff members may not make contributions of money or time to candidates, parties or groups taking a partisan stance." Staff members also are instructed to "avoid activity that could create the appearance of a conflict" with their professional duties.
Roy Peter Clark, vice president and senior scholar at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla., says that while the NBC policy is "pretty clear," it is also likely to have been "formulated in an earlier time."
"No one should expect journalists to be civic celibates," Clark says, "but you can't put a campaign sign on your lawn or bumper sticker on your car. If I'm supposedly nonpartisan, I shouldn't wrap myself in public in the flags of partisanship."
Contact staff writer John Timpane at 215-854-4406, email@example.com or twitter.com/jtimpane.
Staff writer Jonathan Storm contributed to this article.