Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Olbermann provokes question of objectivity

By Harrison Searles

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Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Keith Olbermann is a man who has never been coy to speak his mind about the world. His infamous daily segment “The Worst Person in the World” has been used as a means to degrade any individual who happened to be the object of his wrath. He utilized wit, wrath, and satire to great effect. It also just so happens that Countdown with Keith Olbermann is also so partisan to the left that any supposition that it is a specimen of objective journalism is laughable.

However, he was recently suspended without pay by MSNBC for violating newsroom protocol by giving donations to several Democratic candidates. However, is this not a moot point? Yes, he did violate the code of conduct by donating to political candidates thus jeopardizing his objectivity, but how does this matter if it is widely known that he is an ideologue for the left? A tacit assumption in the policy is that the objectivity of journalists be held to a high standard, but there is nothing of the sort to be found in Olbermann. He has already provided far more assistance to the Democratic party through his opinionated new show than the measly $7,200 that he gave, and herein lies a problem for the entire concept of political donations.

It is justly undisputed that giving money to a politician or political party is a political donation. When the Supreme Court ruled that that a ban on corporate spending in candidate elections was unconstitutional, Olbermann went berserk about how this would kill free speech. Indeed, he has frequently lambasted the media mogul Rupert Murdoch, who along with Bill O’Reilly was a frequent Worst Person in the World, for his large donations to Republican candidates. While decrying the influence that wealthy donors could play in politics, his Countdown has provided a pulpit from which both the agenda and arguments of the political left could be pontificated from.

Though that pulpit may not be a direct donation to Democratic candidates, it cannot be denied that it is a great advantage in their favor – at the very least it is acting as free advertisements in their favor. To accept this, and then act like Olbermann’s campaign contribution constituted anything like a breach of objective journalism, which ought to be the proper end of any code of conduct for journalists, is simply illogical.

For so long MSNBC has profited from having Olbermann as their feature commentator, and his partisan views have helped to provide the network with a niche as being the place for the left-wing news. Indeed, his hostility against Bill O’Reilly who occupies the 8 p.m. spot on Fox News has also helped maneuver it as an ideological alternative to Fox. Despite this, Rachel Maddow has commented that MSNBC suspended Olbermann for campaign donations – though there are no such rules at Fox banning campaign contributions. Adding this proves that the latter is a “news operation” and the former a “political operation.”

However, this statement is at best naïve and at worst deceptive, as the point of banning commentators from giving political donations is to preserve the impartiality of journalists. The content of their shows offers anything but. At least Fox does not try to suggest Sean Hannity’s commentary is compromised by his own political donations.

If there is a scandal to be found here, it is the attitude of MSNBC in allowing its newscast to provide on-air support to politicians and political causes with softball questions, public relations and airtime – while at the same time decrying the influence money has on politics.

They may pretend that they are the protectors of public discourse, while money only serves to warp it by making puppets of politicians, but there is no way one could honestly assert this. Olbermann himself exemplifies this contradictory attitude. When the Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional to ban political spending by corporations in candidate elections; he was one of those condemning this as preventing any checks on “large agglomerations of power to decide our elections.”

However, Olbermann forgets to attribute the power of the media and their judgment on events, including the power of his own Countdown, to also decide elections. By doing this he tries to play the role of the public watch-dog for Democracy, but this is simply an assault on the reason of his viewers since they should know, as should all, that he is the watch-dog of the public rather than the watch-dog of the left. Even though one may agree with Olbermann, asserting that he is both an objective journalist and that his news program is not to the advantage of politicians on a certain side of the political spectrum is lunacy.

In the end, MSNBC should have never tried to act as if Olbermann’s political donations to Democratic candidates constituted a breach of any true journalistic code of conduct that the slanted content of his Countdown does not. At the same time both MSNBC and Olbermann must stop pretending that big money constitutes any more of a threat to public discourse than the big media they participate in does.

3 Comments

3 Responses to “Olbermann provokes question of objectivity”

  1. Emily on November 12th, 2010 12:02 am

    Are you serious? The fox news pundits actively campaign for Republicans. They shout down those who disagree. And Olbermann was arguing for campaign donations from _corporations_, not individuals, as being a threat to free speech. No individual, even O’Reilly and Olbermann, can contribute as much as milti-million dollar corporations can. And the corporations support the interest of their own profits, at the expense of the American people. It does not support democracy.

  2. Alex on November 12th, 2010 12:32 am

    As a proud leftist, I completely agree with you that partisan TV stations are just as much of a threat to democracy as political donations by corporations.

    My solution, however, is to place limits on both – not to let both run rampant.

    I will gladly agree to take Olbermann and Maddow off the air if you agree to take Beck, O’Reilly and Hannity off the air.

  3. Phil Omar on November 12th, 2010 4:38 am

    “At the same time both MSNBC and Olbermann must stop pretending that big money constitutes any more of a threat to public discourse than the big media they participate in does.”

    This is almost nonsense. How in the world could anyone think that Big Media exists *independent* of Big Money. Big money OWNS big media. And yes, it is a threat to public discourse. The only reason Olbermann stays on the air is because he is relatively popular. Didn’t they just try to axe him, JUST like Phil Donahue (who was also their #1 show at the time)? Chris Matthews has been on for a very long time and has never justified his place except that he doesn’t challenge big money in any meaningful way. So his position is generally safe.

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