Keith Olbermann Suspended for Political Donations

Friday, November 05, 2010

Joel Meares, assistant editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, will be discussing the Olbermann suspension on the Brian Lehrer Show Monday, November 8th at 11:20am.

UPDATE: In a statement on Sunday night, NBC president, Phil Griffin said “After several days of deliberation and discussion, I have determined that suspending Keith through and including Monday night’s program is an appropriate punishment for his violation of our policy. We look forward to having him back on the air Tuesday night.”


MSNBC has suspended news anchor Keith Olbermann for donating to three Democratic candidates this election cycle, one of the latest examples of the dangerous territories stars in opinion journalism are finding themselves.

Olbermann acknowledged the donations after they were reported by Politico Friday Morning. Olbermann, as host of MSNBC’s Countdown, fiercely denounced rivals at Fox News when their organization donated more than a million dollars to the Republican Governor’s Association.

Olbermann donate $2,400 to Democratic Representatives Raul Grijalva and Gabrielle Giffords, both of Arizona, and to Jack Conway, a senatorial candidate in Kentucky.

Some are merely shrugging off the fact that a news anchor actively engaged in politics.

“Who did people think he was going to give money to…the Tea Party,” asked Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf.

Others are using the opportunity to continue their criticism that certain media outlets are underperforming because of their emphasis on opinion journalism.

“He’s a hack and considerably more biased than anyone on Fox,” said Alex Carey, a spokesman for the New York State Republican Party. “Typical of MSNBC and indicative of why that network’s ratings are so low.”

Tell us what you think. Justified? Overreach? Is a temporary suspension the appropriate response? Post your thoughts and start the conversation below!


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Comments [38]

geTaylor from Bklyn., NY

The conversation around the Oberman issues (it could have easily been about Juan Williams) suffers from the same problems most of these “discussion moshes" that WNYC prefers to stage suffers from.

To wit: ? What exactly are we talking about?

Should MSNBC or NBC (any employer) be allowed, as a matter of public policy / law, to limit / control its employees’ "freedom of speech" / ("freedom of association") as a part of its contract with its employees - either as a general HR policy or on a case by case basis?

Does such a public policy / law differentiate between a "Brian Williams" and the person who does Brian William’s on-set makeup?

Does the justification for such a policy rest on the supposed effect the objected-to speech or association will have on the employee’s job performance or does it arise from the effect such behavior might have on the employer’s reputation?

More pointedly for the discussion at hand, "What specifically did Oberman's contract proscribe? What is MSNBC citing as the actual behavior that violated the applicable contract provisions?
(You would expect that the “characterization” of these items would be different from show to show or even between different persons in the same conversation; but isn’t it important to have the actual words of the contract discussed? Are we abandoned to isolated reliance on clever characterizations of reality without any recourse to the reality itself?)

Does Oberman’s contract proscribe all donations to all “political” causes? such donations without notification to MSNBC? such donations without MSNBC permission? such donations that MSNBC determines are detrimental to the reputation and commercial interests of MSNBC? such donations made by reporters / anchors / analysts / commentators / editors (as those terms may be defined by the contracting parties)?

Nov. 08 2010 12:51 PM
Jim from Morristown, NJ

Is there a question, aside from journalism, of the right of employers to discipline employees for the expression of political opinion? If Olbermann had been a janitor or a train conductor could his employer have fired or otherwise disciplined him for political expression? Are journalists in a special class with regard to their freedom of expression? "Ordinarily, the First Amendment only applies to prohibit direct government censorship", and "A private authority figure may reserve the right to censor their subordinate's speech, or discriminate on the basis of speech, without any legal consequences". (See ). So it seems that corporations may freely contribute unlimited funds to political causes, while censoring their employees.

Nov. 08 2010 12:28 PM
David from Brooklyn

I wonder if we should also be thinking about just what a "news" organization is. At one point in Brian's discussion today the US Chamber of Commerce came up (I think Sean Hannity used it as a vehicle for an anonymous political donation). It wasn't mentioned but Brian's guest's own Columbia Journalism Review recently reported that the Chamber is not only spending huge amounts of anonymously donated money on political causes but they are also funding and setting up their own "news" outlets to further their causes. See this article for details:

Nov. 08 2010 12:11 PM
I'm from lost in NY

I watch Countdown frequently and can see his personal political viewpoint nightly - clearly no surprises. However, I have worked for big companies and big companies have rules. Breaking these rules have consequences. From being late to work or even stealing a couple of pencils, the punishment has to fit the crime. What he did was dumb at worst and he needs to suffer accordingly - shame being the best punishment I can think of. I would not want them to fire the guy. I think calling him on the carpet in public has to be a serious shot to his ego and should be a good life lesson. Especially when he has handed Fox a rotten tomato to toss at him and his entire network. I expect that he will have an interesting comment tomorow and I'll be sure to watch.

Nov. 08 2010 11:52 AM
Mike from Tribeca

What the corporations call a suspension, the rest of the world calls a weekend.

Nov. 08 2010 11:49 AM

So Olberman was oblivious to what he was doing when he donated to those compaigns? He foolishly thought his donation would be unnoticed? He was making a point? I think his actions were no accident -- or something done surreptitiously. I think he acted deliberately and provocatively. But what exactly was Politico's motive for revealing this? How objective are they as a neutral news source?

Nov. 08 2010 11:47 AM
Hugh Sansom

Come on .... NBC has _kept_ on staff people who have confirmed donations to conservative political groups and candidates.

NPR has Linda Gradstein, who has vocally supported Israel's illegal occupation of Palestine.

Why not bar journalists from voting? Isn't voting support for a candidate?!

This nonsensical pretense that journalists have to be neutral is nothing more than a whitewash of the facts -- journalists are people. The real issue is honesty.

Painful nonsense that WNYC is taking party in.

Nov. 08 2010 11:44 AM
Joe from New York

Suspension - 3 days? You have to be kidding.
Where is the discussion of journalistic standards, not just for contributions, but for news and opinion reporting? How is Brian Lehrer maintaining the standard of balance that is required for a public station?

Nov. 08 2010 11:44 AM
Amy Heller

Do the networks have the same obligation to refrain from corporate political donations that it imposes on its broadcasters?

Nov. 08 2010 11:43 AM
John Kayser from Hicksville NY 11801

All this discussion about whether yes ot no Olberman should have been suspended really should be about civil rights. Networks shoukld not be able to make rules about campaign contributions by anyone ... period!

Nov. 08 2010 11:43 AM
Bernie from New York

Ethics matter. Olberman violated a clear policy. He should have sought a reprieve from the policy. 2 night suspension appears about right.

The bigger issue is MSNBC's election night coverage which was hosted by its opinion personalities rather than its straight news folks.

MSNBC should not be the lefty version of Fox.

Nov. 08 2010 11:39 AM
Naomi from Bronx

I think what's missing from the conversation is the word ETHICS. Here we are discussing this topic and no one has spoken of ethics. And it gets even more sticky now than ever--ethics in journalism or "journalism"--because news is big business now. And in business ethics, besides disclosure, one would consider the issue of whether or not someone would financially benefit by an action, such as supporting a candidate or a "product." I've thought of that some in analyzing the Olberman situation.

Nov. 08 2010 11:39 AM
mc from Brooklyn

The problem was not his donation, it was his failure to clear it with his employers as is required in his contract. This is really between him and them. It may be bad policy, and certainly his slant is no secret, but he did sign the contract. I think with this and with the Juan Williams episode, we are running up against the thinning wall between commentary and journalism.

Nov. 08 2010 11:39 AM

Do we really believe that Olbermann's contributions were made without the understanding and expectation that he would be 'disciplined'?
Is this not increasing his 'credibility' as a liberally minded journalist not to mention making him part of the news cycle? This can also be a recurring topic on his show for the next week. Is this not sort of a perfect storm?

Nov. 08 2010 11:37 AM
Laurie from UWS

MSNBC violates its own policy: each night it runs a one-hour fundraiser -- in the form of Olberman's show -- to the democratic party and democratic candidates.

As a democrat, I love the help. But frankly, I think MSNBC's hypocracy stinks.

Nov. 08 2010 11:37 AM

Your expert for this segment just admitted that he was less than fully knowledgeable on FOX's policies or the behavior of their on air personalities. This is unacceptable. Either have a someone who is fully versed in the issues -- or wait until you can find someone who is. Having a less than forceful discussion on this subject is not helpful. Very disappointed.

Nov. 08 2010 11:36 AM
Mike from Tribeca

Stealth advertising, pure and simple. The corporations have it down pat, and the press goes right along. I felt the same about Comedy Central's recent rally.

Nov. 08 2010 11:36 AM

Fox News is the propaganda arm of the GOP. It is NOT a fair and balanced news service. Period.

While we're at it, what about the financial cheerleaders at CNBC? Shouldn't they be suspended as well for political contributions?

Nov. 08 2010 11:34 AM
John Lamont from New Jersey

So long as the networks are taking so much money from politicians, I'm not sure they have much of a leg to stand on.

Nov. 08 2010 11:33 AM
Robert from NYC

As stated on Democracy Now this morning, GE, MSNBC/NBC's parent company donated tens of millions of dollars to campaigns this year. So is that a double standard? Seems like it to me.

Nov. 08 2010 11:31 AM

So long as FOX can serve as an arm of the right wing in this country, this issue is a total red herring. What we really need to look at is what happens to MSNBC when Comcast completes the purchase of NBC from General Electric. I read that the newhead will be a former member of the Bush administration and that the entire progessive tilt maybe affected. So there will be no counter to the right wing media maching -- regardless about how one feels about the personalities on MSNBC.

Nov. 08 2010 11:31 AM
Mike from Tribeca

Here's hoping you'll mention that both Joe Scarborough and Pat Buchanan have made numerous contributions to candidates over the years, as well as the fact that NBC's owners, General Electric and Vivendi, have always made large political "donations" to political campaigns, especially to the Republican party.

Nov. 08 2010 11:31 AM

This was all a stunt by PMSnbc for ratings and PR purposes - when will you all realize then! It's garbage - he'll be back and his ratings will SOAR thanks to WNYC's contribution to this idiocy.

Nov. 08 2010 11:28 AM
desdemona finch from Brooklyn

This is an interesting situation. As a former journalist, I cringed when I heard the news of Olbermann making campaign contributions. However, he is a political commentator -- which puts him in a slightly different class than your typical journalist. He should have disclosed to his viewers that he made those contributions. If MSNBC hadn't suspended him, a whole Pandora's box would have been opened.

Nov. 08 2010 11:11 AM

To have a clause in an opinion host's contract forbidding political donations unless approved by management can actually lead to more possible abuses of this by management. We have seen this in the last series of elections where people were "bussed in" by employers to support certain candidates or issues. Perhaps the clause should allow the donation, but prohibit discussion of it on air. It would be hypocritical of an opinion host to not donate-- if one is trying to get an audience to become involved in their political process, one should be able to participate in the same process. Again, these are opinion hosts, not bound by the same standards as hard news. It has to be up to the audience to think for themselves, balance opinion against fact and be aware of which is which.

--Nate C

Nov. 08 2010 10:26 AM
Nate C from West Orange NJ

To have a clause in an opinion host's contract forbidding political donations unless approved by management leaves more room to possible abuses by management. We have seen this in the last series of elections with groups of people being "bussed in" to support certain candidates. Perhaps the clause should allow the donation, but prohibit discussion of it on air. It would be hypocritical of an opinion host to not donate-- if one is trying to get an audience to become involved in their political process, one should be able to participate in the same process. Again, these are opinion hosts, not bound by the same standards as hard news. It has to be up to the audience to think for themselves, balance opinion against fact and be aware of which is which.

Nov. 08 2010 10:16 AM
antonio from park slope

This is hypocritical. From the PDA (progressive democrats of america) "According to the Center for Responsive Politics, GE made over $2 million in political contributions in the 2010 election cycle (most coming from the company's political action committee). The top recipient was Republican Senate candidate Rob Portman from Ohio. The company has also spent $32 million on lobbying this year, and contributed over $1 million to the successful "No on 24" campaign against a California ballot initiative aimed at eliminating tax loopholes for major corporations (New York Times, 11/1/10)."

Nov. 08 2010 10:06 AM
Thom from USA

Bottom line is both companies have two very different sets of rules with it comes to political donations and if the roles were reversed, this discussion would go in a very different direction. There would be outcries of journalistic integrity because one has a policy that says “NO” and the other has a policy that says “policy? what’s that?”.
Why anyone here bothers to try and discuss this kind of stuff is beyond comprehension. Less that 5% of the regular posters here have an objective viewpoint, while the rest are so far in one direction or another, if it were boat it would be rocking port to starboard to port to starboard to port to starboard, etc.

Nov. 07 2010 01:43 AM
Gary Epstein from USA

Not only can corporations anonymously give unlimited funds to political messages, but they can also forbid their employees from exercising their political rights on their own time and on their own dime. This sounds like a new form of fascism to me.

Nov. 06 2010 07:50 AM
Max Katz

When will MSNBC realize that the rules for free speech and journalistic ethics have changed? Fox kicks below the belt and MSNBC flicks ears. Stay ethical but change your family kitchen rules MSNBC.

Nov. 06 2010 12:14 AM
Huh? from Real America

1. Opinion commentator is personally involved in politics. So? He makes no pretense of being a neutral reporter. Why should I care?
2. Might have broken something in his contract with his employer. Whatev... he ain't starving, they want to fire him it's betweenn the 2.
2a. It makes MSNBC look like they've admitted a fault, while
3. The entire Fox network .... err, it's run by a Republican campaign advisor and contributes millions rather than a puny thousand or two to their affiliated party.

People get the government they deserve. We should have had 12 years of Bush, then the folks who dug us into a hole could get busy explaining that there's no hole, deficits still don't matter, and we have to cancel Social Security to pay for Bailout II. Oh -- and GM + Chrysler would have gone CH 7, thus taking down the supply network used for machining and prototyping the few things still made in USA. Wouldda been a good lesson.

Next time the country is in a deep recession, vote for the party who dug us into it. Then, and only then will their game be over.

Either that, or we keep it up and the "Keep the government's hands off my Medicare" crowd can apply for benefits at the new management's office - co-pays in Renmimbi only, please.

Nov. 05 2010 11:49 PM

obermann shouldn't be suspended for this. he should be fired because he's an idiot...

Nov. 05 2010 07:30 PM

Probably a violation of some outmoded code of ethics, but hardly a surprising or worse than what goes on at FOX everyday...

Nov. 05 2010 07:09 PM
Karol from NYC

I think Olbermann is a vile human being, a hypocrite and a terrible tv personality but on what planet were his political opinions in question? MSNBC didn't know that Olbermann was a leftist Democrat? Were his guests unaware? Again, he's disgusting so I'm not unhappy about his troubles but the decision seems incredible odd.

Nov. 05 2010 04:13 PM
Diana Murray from Phoenix, Az

Losing Keith is a major blow to democratic discussion; who is next? A few legal questions: Did his contract clearly state that he is not allowed to contribute to political candidates? How much did ComCast contribute to secret political groups? Could this begin a showdown between individual contributors and corporate contributors? I hope so.

Nov. 05 2010 03:13 PM
rodolfo de la Garza from New York

Oberman's mistake was not announcing his contribution to a guest. His preferences are clear, and it would be wrong to ask him to declare them explicitly. But given his status and role, his contributions open him to right-wing attacks. Too bad right-wing commentators and Fox News in general won't be held to the same standards.

Nov. 05 2010 03:03 PM
Gus wynn from Ny

Good move but we need same ethics guidelines for Hannity who donated even more. Fox has no such guidelines against conflicts of interest, indeed Fox has it's own fundraising operation. Down with propaganda in the USA.

Nov. 05 2010 02:43 PM
Konstantin Doren from Boiceville, NY

A bit harsh, indefinitely w/o pay. Making the contribution isn't bad. Not disclosing the contribution is. Journalists are citizens, too.

Nov. 05 2010 02:31 PM

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