Why the Right Should Back Olbermann

November 7th, 2010 at 8:13 pm | 29 Comments |

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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.

John Guardiano blogs at www.ResoluteCon.Com, and you can follow him on Twitter: @JohnRGuardiano.

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29 Comments so far ↓

  • pampl

    I think this is my favorite Guardiano piece. I’ll defend MSNBC’s decision again anyway, though: I think Olbermann’s viewers wanted him to behave according to a set of principles that involved not being beholden to any particular candidate or using filthy lucre to buttress a (supposedly) corrupt campaign finance system. Olbermann violated his audience’s standard, even if he didn’t violate Guardiano’s or Golinkin’s or my own. It would be like a Fox anchor getting gay married or something.

  • nwahs

    Well many on the right do see the hypocrisy of MSNBC. They’re not going to demonstrate it by joining the Olbermann fan club, but most people who were appalled at NPR’s Schiller are just as appalled at MSNBC’s Griffin.

    Schiller and Griffin are stellar examples of incompetence in media. Even though Olbermann will return Tuesday night, what on earth can be gained by publicly treating an employee as a child? What possible sense can be made of a MSNBC’s idiotic rule that requires approval before donating to a candidate? Why the approval? Are these donations publicly listed somewhere? Or perhaps its Griffin’s little narcissistic trip of placing his fingerprint on MSNBC?

    But you have to understand why the right is not surprised. The left has a history of oppressing people they disagree with. Olbermann usually defends the left’s hierarchy and participates in it, so its understandable the right would defend him on strictly theoretical grounds. Its a lot like having to defend neo-Nazi organizations on theoretical grounds.

  • nwahs

    Also, one should note why the right is exactly correct about the liberal media’s intolerance. Compare how Fox News handled Sean Hannity’s gaff with how NPR, CNN and MSNBC handled their problems. Who would you rather work for? Who showed more tolerance? Who showed more respect to the people involved?

  • The American Spectator : AmSpecBlog : NBC News' Phil Griffin Still Has a Lot to Answer For

    [...] in the Internet era! Indeed, no sooner had I posted couple of pieces (at both the Daily Caller and FrumForum) arguing that conservatives should support Keith Olberman's right to free speech, than MSNBC [...]

  • mickster99

    1300 hundred words on the Keith Olbermann tempest in tea pot. Yawn. Even more insipid than the Golinkin piece I just read.

    As for the usual paranoia I am surprised that no one in the cadre of hysterical rightwingers have not speculated that perhaps this was a setup; a secret plot dreamed up by KO to generate some ratings and get a lot of free buzz and to get liberals and rightwingers panties in a bunch.

    Some of the comments here are much more on the mark as far as paranoia I expect.
    And nwahs (shawn spelled backwards I am guessing) does not disappoint.

    I expecially enjoyed “the left has a history of oppressing people they disagree with”. Now there’s some serious mental deterioration exemplified.

    Oh, if I could only find a way of oppressing “GUARDIANO” and “GOLINKIN” and “NWAHS” because I disagree with them.

    But my secret Oppress Righwingers ray gun is in the shop.

    I’ll just have to settle for an insulting troll-like comment instead.

  • John Guardiano


    Thanks for your note, but with respect: Free speech is never a tempest in a teapot. It is, in fact, one of our most fundamental and sacred rights. And it is worth a lot more than 1,300 words, I assure you!


  • Rabiner


    Care to make the distinction between NBC News and MSNBC? Because I’m pretty sure they’re different entities under the same umbrella organization. Personally I’m not troubled by Olbermann’s week long suspension since he broke a workplace policy. This policy is there for a reason as you cannot donate to a candidate for public office and then cover them without the audience thinking you have personal bias towards them (their opponents as well). And to not disclose the fact he had donated to his campaign is problematic to me (unless he wrote the check after the interview).

    The funny part is how Fox News and conservative media figures have blown this out of proportion which only shines the light on their own policies which allow for blatant bias in reporting. How many Republicans who will be seeking public office or have recently are on the payroll? How many commentators and news persons have done fundraisers and given softball interviews for their cause?

  • mickster99

    Is this really the “John Guardiano”?

    If so, thanks for the reply.

    As a corporate troll for many years if I could have walked into the CEO’s office and told him in so many words what I honestly thought of him of his way of running the company.

    Then, perhaps that afternoon of the next day, I could expect to find myself packing the contents of my desk into box and being escorted from the building.

    I guess I could scream about “Freedom of Speech” and file a discrimination law suit.

    But I don’t think I could find any intelligent lawyer to take my case.

    Free speech is one thing.

    Violating the rules to which you agreed to when you were hired and then getting punished for breaking those rules is another.

    It’s important to understand the contract between employer and employee is sometimes not the same thing as the 1st amendment.

    I am guessing Clarence Thomas would agree. But since Keith didn’t file a lawsuit alleging his civil rights were violated we’ll never know, will we?

    I have no idea how it works in corporations you have worked in.
    I have seen how it works firsthand from my cubicle.

  • mickster99

    I read that NPR forbad it’s employee’s to attend the Rally for Sanity/Fear.
    Is this a 1st Amendment infringement or “if you want to work here you follow the rules”.

    I and group of friends want to gather to protest the President.
    We need a permit. Then we are safely sequestered blocks away from the President behind a cyclone fence barrier.

    1st Amendment infringment or “if you want to challenge the Secret Service and the US Government go right ahead”?

    What’s the ACLU stance on Olbermann or Sanchez or Dr. Laura or…

    Can I submit a comment to Frum Forum and use abusive and/or troll like language and not expect to have someone question or deny my ability to do so?

    Is this a “right” or a “privilege”?

    The idea that Keith Olbermann has become a cause cé·lè·bre for the opinonists at Frum Forum is laughable.

  • John Guardiano


    You’re misconstruing the whole point of this post. My post is not about the narrow legalities of NBC News’ rights vis-a-vis Keith Olbermann’s rights. I’ll leave that argument, for now, to the lawyers.

    My point is about the importance of free speech as a political principle. It is about the need for conservatives to support and champion free speech for all Americans, even our far-left political opponents.

    And it is about the need for newsrooms to seriously examine and reconsider policies that restrict the free speech rights of their journalistic employees. These restrictions, I believe, don’t make much sense in today’s increasingly open and freewheeling media environment.


  • John Guardiano


    One more thing: Read this post, and especially my American Spectator post (referenced above in the comments), more carefully.

    The NBC News rules that you reference may be more murky and ambiguous than you suggest — especially given how these rules might have been applied and enforced in practice. NBC News needs to be more forthcoming and to explain itself.


  • mickster99

    Wow and double-wow.

    Invocation of the dreaded spectre of the “Far left”.

    The double-whammy of rightwing takedowns.

    NBC “must” be more forthcoming.


    I have never read a single word of the NBC News rules.
    And why should that be relevant?

    KO makes $15-20 million a year.

    If his contract says: “thou shalt make no undeclared and unapproved contributions to politicians without prior approval” and he does so anyway, he has violated his contract. If he read the contract before he decided to take the %20 million dollars a year from NBC news and signed his name to the said agreement is that all we need to know. Even if the contract said “I hereby wave my first amendment rights to take home $20 million a year” as any fool would.

    If he didn’t like the terms of the agreement he could have walked or re-negotiated the agreement to something more to his liking.

    How does a contractual violation amount to a free speech issue?

    Because, and I am guessing, rightwingers like to make issues out of issues when it serves them politically not because of any deep abiding sense of the Constitution. Excuse me while I laugh out loud (LOL)

    I suggest you read my comments more closely.
    It is you who is not getting it.

    What am I missing?

    How is it this a free speech issue and not a issue of contractual law?

    By the way, I am of course a far left liberal who really likes Keith and Rachel and Dylan and Ed and all of the other far leftists. And I read Chairman Mao while I brush my teeth in the morning and read Lenin just before bed in the evening.

    But we need to be able to think clearly about this.

    You have not made your case that suspending KO for violation of his contractual agreements is any different than ARod getting caught taking steroids which is of course against league rules. Perhaps even more insignificant.

    Send me a copy of the rules that apply to talking heads on Fox News or the American Spectator and we can compare notes.

    Warm Regards,


    PS: I do this as an assignment in my Creative Web Blog Comment Posting 101 Trolling course so I am earning college credits on a per words basis even as I type.

  • Rabiner


    “My point is about the importance of free speech as a political principle. It is about the need for conservatives to support and champion free speech for all Americans, even our far-left political opponents.”

    This is not a free-speech issue. This is a journalistic ethics issue and a workplace issue. Keith Olbermann has no right to the platform provided to him by MSNBC. He can speak with his voice or wallet if he chooses to and he did. He paid the consequences of such action as deemed by his employer. As long as his employer is not the US Government then Free Speech does not come into play as the First Amendment only applies to government censoring if I’m not mistaken.

    For example, Alex Knepper was a common writer on this blog forum and is no longer employed due to a post he made under a pseudonym on another blog. Was his losing his forum by David Frum a violation of his free speech? No, since it was not the government censoring him.

    “And it is about the need for newsrooms to seriously examine and reconsider policies that restrict the free speech rights of their journalistic employees. These restrictions, I believe, don’t make much sense in today’s increasingly open and freewheeling media environment.”

    Now this is a good point and worthy of discussion: are the rules he was asked to live by worth while and did they have a point? I think they do to maintain the credibility of the news organization and journalist when he reports on political figures. If Katie Couric went out and disclosed a $2,400 donation to the Obama Campaign in 2012 how do you think her journalistic integrity would be affected? I think it would harm her ability to critique the President in a non-biased way due to the perceptions the audience would have of her.

  • mickster99


    re: Katy Couric hypothesis “if she donated money to Obama campaign.”

    No big deal.

    I watch her on TV when my wife has the TV on. Like all talking heads I see/listen to my always-on skeptic kicks in.

    Regardless of who she/he’s talking about and who she/he supports financially I need proof.

    Basic logic, reason, and a healthy skepticism kicks in (usually).

    Call it the sniff test. And it’s always on even when I am the talking, typing.

    Biases and opinions are always coming through the cable, the net, your email challenging your mental awareness, regardless of the abundance of meaningless slogans like “fair and balance” etc. Sort of like the phishing emails from Nigeria, etc.

    Whether its Couric, Williams, Beck, Olbermann, Maddow, Frum, etc.

    Being able to think for yourself and sort through the crap is the key ingredient, the master skill. And I am always learning.

  • mickster99

    Did KO sign a contract saying he wouldn’t make donations to a political candidate or party or didn’t he?
    If he didn’t and he’s being suspended because he did I support his 1st amendment rights.
    If he did, he needs better lawyers.
    If its unclear, he needs better lawyers.

    This can’t be too hard to get?

    But if you want to use it as a cause to support far-left commie pinko MSNBC talking heads then go for it.

    Warmest of Regards


  • mickster99


    If this is all you got, Frum needs better talent or bigger cojones or both!

    Best Regards,


  • Rabiner


    You may, but I’d rather my journalists remain non-partisan when delivering news. It is the same reason why I was fine with NPR firing Juan Williams as I felt his comments could lead to an inability for him to report on Islam, Middle East, or Terrorism topics without the audience thinking he was biased against Muslims before the story every came about. Also his role at NPR was unopinionated reporting and analysis which differed greatly from his role as commentator at Fox News.

  • mickster99


    What you say seems right to me. Thanks for the thoughtful reply.

  • PracticalGirl


    While I appreciate your post, I have to disagree:

    “My point is about the importance of free speech as a political principle.”

    Is speech “free” when you have a commentator who donates to a campaign and then has said candidate on his airwaves? Olbermann crossed a line, drawn clearly by his employers. He deserved his moment in the penalty box.

    I am, however, in hearty agreement with you on this:

    “The NBC News rules that you reference may be more murky and ambiguous than you suggest — especially given how these rules might have been applied and enforced in practice. NBC News needs to be more forthcoming and to explain itself.”

    NBC seemed to have no issues with Joe Scarborough doing the same thing a few years back, and take a peek at the contributions of some of the CNBC hosts even in this cylce. I have to wonder: Did NBC single out Olbermann as a knee-jerk reaction to their displeasure at seeing the Fear/Sanity Rally highlight him as a “nasty”, along side the Fox News crew? Was this to appease the crowd and ease their empbarrassment?

  • Rabiner


    The Joe Scarborough incident is not the same thing for a few reasons:

    1. He notified his bosses before he donated
    2. The donation was suppose to be from his wife to the candidate and was later changed
    3. I don’t recall him ever having that candidate on his show during an election.

    If you’re going to do something in the gray area regarding workplace policies, you should probably ask your bosses about it first off.

  • easton

    I am with Pampl on this. His suspension has far more to do with the self-regard of MSNBC and their audience and less to do with workplace violations. Now they and their audience can say “yes, we are intrinsically superior, we have standards” and I imagine the Olbermann will come on the air, issue a mea culpa about how he let his viewers down and everyone will feel righteous. But Guardiano is right, this is unbelievably petty. Olbermann can have Grijalva on, give him a lovey dovey softball interview which has got to be worth millions as free advertising, but the problem is he cut him a check for $2,500 which would have covered the airfare and hotel (I didn’t see the interview so I am only guessing)

    Not that I am coming down on Foxes side, they don’t have any journalistic standards at all. But a pox on both their houses. I don’t watch either Fox or MSNBC. I just want news, if I want opinion I come here.

  • PracticalGirl


    I wasn’t aware that Scarborough obtained advance permission- a difference, indeed. But he did donate to an Oregon House candidate Derrick Kitts (R) AND interview him on his show in the same election cycle. And don’t forget that Scarborough hosted a program and campaigned for Bush at the same time, as well. Advanced permission or not, this seems a bit irregular on NBC’s part.

  • PracticalGirl

    Rabiner- one more thought you’ve jogged with this:

    “If you’re going to do something in the gray area regarding workplace policies, you should probably ask your bosses about it first off.”

    That’s where this entire issue, with respect to NBC, gets muddy with me. Why have a policy, intent on preserving network-wide ethics, if there can be a gray area at all? Either they want NBC/subsidiary on-air employees to maintain arms-length in the political arena or they don’t.

  • DifferentFrumer

    Pampl claims:
    Olbermann violated his audience’s standard
    I’ve been looking for *anyone* who thinks MSNBC’s entire lineup is “impartial”.

    Morning Joe
    Chris Matthews
    Keith Olberman
    Rachael Maddow
    Lawrence O’Donnell



    I watch them *all* because they *aren’t* impartial. I read David Frum for the same reason. I watch Bill O’Reilly *precisely* because he’s not impartial.

  • Rabiner


    “That’s where this entire issue, with respect to NBC, gets muddy with me. Why have a policy, intent on preserving network-wide ethics, if there can be a gray area at all? Either they want NBC/subsidiary on-air employees to maintain arms-length in the political arena or they don’t.”

    Well the gray area arises not so much from the policy but the person looking for a loophole. ‘Am I considered a journalist?’, ‘since I work for MSNBC am I an NBC employee?’, ‘since my show is not a ‘news show’ but rather commentary does this apply to me?’ Most workplace policies are not written like legislation with such legalese as to eliminate the loopholes that can arise.

  • easton


    And that is precisely the reason I don’t watch any of those shows.

  • nhthinker

    Oberman has contracts and Comcast’s purchase is allowing them to flex their view that any employee that ever appears as an anchor or reporter on NBC need “journalistic integrity”

    And Comcast executive vp David Cohen said: “We have been quite clear about our irrevocable intent to preserve the journalistic independence of NBC News, even making a written commitment on the same day we announced the transaction to that effect.”

    Olbermann in an e-mail told the New York Times that he doesn’t expect the same fate as Nolan. “I’ve run into O’Reilly many times in public — at Yankee Stadium as recently as a month ago — and never have instigated, and never would dream of instigating, something like that,” he wrote. “For that matter, I don’t think Bill would, either.”

    Meanwhile, New York magazine also touches on Olbermann and others in a wide-ranging story about the cable news networks and their continued showdown. It has color on such developments as former CNN U.S. president Jonathan Klein’s attempt to poach Olbermann. But, according to the report, his boss Jim Walton pushed back, arguing he won’t be the guy who turns CNN into an opinion network.


  • Gramps

    Media Matters, makes note of “Hammer Heads” rather interesting silence in the aire headed, spacey, sphere of wingnut, radio yakkers…

    Awkward Silence: Sean Hannity refrains from discussing Keith Olbermann’s suspension http://mediamatters.org/blog/201011080032

  • Headlines

    [...] the Right Should Back Olbermann”–headline, FrumForum.com, [...]