Stu Bykofsky: Through donations, Olbermann didn't even try to be impartial

Journalist or talking head? Keith Olbermann can't be both.
Journalist or talking head? Keith Olbermann can't be both.
Posted: November 08, 2010

ON FRIDAY, MSNBC's top-ranked commentator/anchor Keith Olbermann was suspended without pay for putting his money where his mouth is. Last night, MSNBC said the suspension would end tomorrow.

He admitted making donations totaling $7,200 - the maximum allowed - to three political candidates. Recipients were - to no one's surprise - all Democrats.

What's wrong with that? This is a democracy. People can support who they like, can't they?

Journalists can't, or shouldn't.

But is the talking head a journalist?

Most journalists operate under ethical constraints, and Olbermann violated MSNBC policy prohibiting any activities that "may create the appearance of a conflict of interest" or harm the person's standing "as an impartial journalist," such as making political contributions without prior approval.

Anyone who thinks Olbermann is an impartial journalist would also have to believe Eliot Spitzer's whore was a virgin.

Hagit Limor, president of the Society of Professional Journalists, told me that the SPJ Code of Ethics warns journalists to avoid "associations that might compromise integrity or damage credibility." (Personal disclosure: I am a longtime member of SPJ.)

Had Olbermann done what I just did, he might have had lessened his problem, but I'll get back to that.

Is Olbermann an impartial "journalist" or not?

The network has wanted it both ways. He's a commentator on "Countdown with Keith Olbermann," which The New York Times recognizes as "a leading forum for liberal politicians." As my column last Thursday showed, it is a forum for liberals only. But MSNBC also allowed him to anchor, as he did for the network's Tuesday election-night coverage.

Being openly partisan kills your credibility as an objective journalist, which anchors should be. They, and reporters, must avoid even the appearance of partiality.

Although Olbermann made the conceited tactical mistake of describing himself as a "newscaster" on political-donation forms unearthed by Politico, he is really a megaphone for Democrats, those who are far enough left, anyway.

That's why he should never anchor and why MSNBC was criticized in the past for allowing his dual roles. (It's also why NBC's real journalists reportedly avoid working with the MSNBC bomb-throwers.)

"We do recognize a difference between journalists and commentators," said SPJ's Limor, who wishes "that anyone who calls himself a journalist would avoid political involvement and certainly disclose any political involvement."

This is a major point because one recipient of Olbermann's generosity, U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., was a guest on "Countdown" on Oct. 28, the same day K.O. donated to his campaign. Olbermann treated Grijalva like royalty on-air, but didn't disclose his financial fealty.

"I don't believe any journalist would find it proper to contribute to a candidate that appears on the same day on your program and not disclose you had done so," said Limor.

During MSNBC's election-night coverage, Olbermann ridiculed Kentucky Senate candidate Rand Paul without informing his audience that he had sent money to Paul's opponent, who lost.

Would Olbermann be his own "worst person in the world" if he didn't cancel that segment last week?

Does Olbermann consider himself a journalist or a commentator? I e-mailed him that question.

I also asked him if he felt hypocritical, having blasted nonjournalist Rupert Murdoch, head of the company that owns Fox News, for making contributions to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Republican Governors Association.

Last month - proving you're never too old to learn something stupid - K.O. self-righteously grumped about "a national cable-news outlet [Fox News] that goes beyond having a point of view and actually starts to shill for partisan causes and actually starts to donate to partisan groups of one party."

Do as I say, not as I do?

More trouble rolled in. After the Murdoch donations were disclosed, MSNBC president Phil Griffin last month told The New York Times, "Show me an example of us fundraising."

Donating is worse. That misplaced rectitude may explain why Olbermann got zapped so fast - but not for long.

The fact that Olbermann is MSNBC's most popular personality explains why the suspension was so brief.

E-mail stubyko@phillynews.com or call 215-854-5977. For recent columns:

http://go.philly.com/byko.

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