I am stunned — and not in a good way — by NBC News’ decision to suspend MSNBC anchor, Keith Olbermann, indefinitely and without pay. Olbermann’s sin: he donated money to three Democratic Party candidates in this past (2010) election cycle. Does this “news” really surprise or shock anyone?
But I’m more stunned by the reaction of some conservatives like Michelle Malkin and Andrew McCarthy, who, in my estimation, don’t fully appreciate the facts of the case. Malkin and McCarthy also don’t seem to grasp why it is important to allow journalists to freely express themselves in the marketplace of ideas.
For example, in a blog post entitled, “Support Olbermann? No freaking way,” Malkin declares that Olbermann’s free speech doesn’t warrant support. It doesn’t warrant support, she says, because Olbermann failed to disclose a campaign donation to a candidate, Arizona Democrat Rep. Raul Grijalva, on the very night he interviewed that candidate.
In addition, Malkin blasts Olbermann for hypocrisy. Olbermann, it seems, has criticized Fox News’ parent company, News Corporation, for making donating to the Republican Governors Association. Yet, Malkin says, Olbermann whitewashed donations to Democratic groups made by NBC News’ parent company, General Electric.
I like Michelle and admire her work, but I’m afraid she’s letting her personal feelings toward Olbermann cloud her judgment about the importance of free speech.
Olbermann is a far-left partisan Democrat. That, in fact, is why NBC News hired him. And everyone who tunes into his show, Countdown with Keith Olbermann, knows this. So the fact that he donated money to Democratic candidates is hardly surprising. That disclosure, in fact, would not have changed or altered viewers’ understanding of Olbermann’s broadcast.
Moreover, the exercise of free speech doesn’t require that one be pure or free of hypocrisy; for let who is without sin cast the first stone. No, the free marketplace of ideas is open to everyone, because all of us are sinners.
And if we’re going to complain about hypocrisy, why not start with NBC News, which apparently does not uniformly enforce its supposed journalistic “standards”?
Indeed, as the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent has observed, both Joe Scarborough and Pat Buchanan — who opine regularly on MSNBC (heck, Scarborough even has his own daily show, “Morning Joe”!) — have donated to political campaigns. Yet neither Scarborough nor Buchanan apparently has faced disciplinary action from their NBC employer.
Nor should they: because as Sargent notes, NBC News’ “code” or regulation specifically applies to NBC News employees who have standing as “impartial journalist[s].” But Olbermann, Scarborough and Buchanan never pretend to be “impartial.” In fact, quite the opposite: they are paid to make arguments and to voice their opinions.
That’s why one anonymous NBC News insider told Gawker:
It’s common knowledge within the organization that MSNBC’s increasingly left-wing programming and personalities aren’t required to abide by NBC News’ exacting rules—if they were, it would be a much less bombastic and politically charged network.
So while Olbermann’s donations may have run counter to the NBC News brand and [MSNBC President Phil] Griffin’s wishes, there doesn’t appear to be a chapter-and-verse policy applying to MSNBC employees barring them.
McCarthy at least expresses sympathy for Olbermann, but then seems to excuse NBC News for suspending him. That’s because, McCarthy notes, NBC News apparently has a policy that requires an “impartial journalist” to refrain from “activities [that might] jeopardize his or her standing as an impartial journalist.”
According to the NBC News’ policy, a reporter’s ability to do his job could be compromised because of “the appearance of a conflict of interest.” But as I’ve explained in a post for the Daily Caller, there is no “conflict of interest” for Olbermann or any other journalist for that matter.
First off, as is obvious to anyone who’s ever watched him on MSNBC, Olbermann is a far-left partisan Democrat. That, in fact, is why NBC News hired him. So how is it a conflict for a self-avowedly and transparently far-left partisan Democrat to donate money to Democratic Party candidates?
Answer: it’s absolutely not a conflict of interest.
But even if Olbermann were a straight news reporter covering Congress, there is no “conflict of interest” were he to donate money to Democratic Party candidates. A conflict is something that might prevent or inhibit you from doing your job. But how does donating money to Democratic candidates prevent or inhibit a journalist from covering Congress?
Answer: it doesn’t, or at least it doesn’t necessarily prevent or inhibit a journalist from covering Congress. The test is a journalist’s work product — his articles or broadcasts — which are available for everyone to see and judge for themselves.
The truth is that some of the more ideologically partisan journalists are also some of our best journalists. The late great Robert Novak is a case in point; NPR’s Nina Totenberg is another.
As for the perception of bias from said donations, again: judge a journalist by his work. If his work is biased, unfair or lacking in credibility, then that will show; and readers and viewers can discount his work accordingly. But if he produces great journalism, that, too, will show; and his bias really won’t matter much.
In short, the key is not to pretend that journalists don’t have biases or opinions, because they do, whether they — or we — admit it or not. And their biases and opinions absolutely affect their reporting and analysis of the news.
For this reason, it is important to maintain a free and open journalistic market, with a wide variety of publications and stations, which represent a diverse array of views that span the political and ideological spectrum.
It’s also important for ostensibly “objective” news organs like NPR and NBC News to promote political and ideological diversity within their newsrooms: Because this will help to ensure that readers and viewers really do get a very close approximation of “the truth.”
All of which is to say that censorship is almost never the answer; greater and more robust speech is. The American founding fathers, of course, understood this, which is why they bequeathed to us the First Amendment and its proscription of governmental censorship.
McCarthy makes one other anti-free speech argument, which I find disconcerting. He notes that “NBC took Olbermann off its Sunday night NFL telecasts this year. That made sense,” he argues.
If you’re into politics but you can’t abide Olbermann, you can simply join the 300 million Americans who choose not to watch MSNBC. But if you like football, your choice was to endure Olbermann, not watch, or watch with the sound down. That was a stupid position for NBC to put its audience and sponsors in, so they stopped doing it.
Nonsense. Olbermann, despite his politics, is a superb and entertaining sports analyst. And his work for NBC Sports had nothing whatsoever to do with his political commentary for NBC News. These were two totally separate work assignments, which Olbermann — and viewers — kept separate.
That, after all, is why, a few years ago, ESPN hired Rush Limbaugh to provide pre-game commentary about professional football — not because of Rush’s politics, but because of his ability to analyze football in interesting and provocative ways. (Rush ultimately was canned, of course, for making controversial remarks about then-Philadelphia Eagle Quarterback Donovan McNabb.)
The bottom line: Keith Olbermann did nothing wrong other than remain true to himself and his principles; and that’s no crime. NBC News should admit its error and reinstate him immediately. And yes, on his first night back on the air, I hope and expect that Olbermann will name MSNBC News President, Phil Griffin, his “Worst Person in the World!” Griffin has earned that moniker, at least for a day.