Did Olbermann violate NBC ethics code by contributing to Democrats?; Update: MSNBC suspends Olbermann “indefinitely without pay”

posted at 10:10 am on November 5, 2010 by Ed Morrissey

Would it shock anyone to know that Keith Olbermann donated thousands of dollars to three Democrats in the midterms?  Two House incumbents from Arizona and Jack Conway, the Senatorial candidate fro Kentucky who lost after running the notorious “Aqua Buddha” attack ad, received the maximum donation from Olbermann in the final days of the general election season, a fact discovered by Politico when reviewing FEC filings.  The donations violate NBC’s stated ethics code for its journalists, and it may apply even more since one of the recipients appeared on Countdown at the same time Olbermann made the donation:

MSNBC host Keith Olbermann made campaign contributions to two Arizona members of Congress and failed Kentucky Senate candidate Jack Conway ahead of Tuesday’s election — a potential violation of NBC’s ethics policies.

Olbermann, who acknowledged the contributions in a statement to POLITICO, made the maximum legal donations of $2,400 apiece to Conway and to Arizona Reps. Raul Grijalva and Gabrielle Giffords. He donated to the Arizona pair on Oct. 28 – the same day that Grijalva appeared as a guest on Olbermann’s “Countdown” show. Grijalva, a prominent liberal who was only declared a winner in his race Thursday night, was in a tight contest against tea party-backed candidate Ruth McClung when he appeared on Countdown – one of several appearances he made on the show.

NBC has a rule against employees contributing to political campaigns, and a wide range of news organizations prohibit political contributions – considering it a breach of journalistic independence to contribute to the candidates they cover.

Three years ago, MSNBC stated categorically that the rule applies to both the traditional NBC network and its opinion cable network:

NBC and MSNBC TV require permission of the president of NBC News. (MSNBC.com is a joint venture of NBC Universal and Microsoft.)

“Anyone working for NBC News who takes part in civic or other outside activities may find that these activities jeopardize his or her standing as an impartial journalist because they may create the appearance of a conflict of interest.  Such activities may include participation in or contributions to political campaigns or groups that espouse controversial positions.  You should report any such potential conflicts in advance to, and obtain prior approval of, the President of NBC News or his designee.”

The question then becomes whether Steve Capus approved of Olbermann’s contributions, or whether he was asked at all about it.  The rule does allow NBC to decide on a case-by-case basis whether to enforce the ethics code or not.  If Capus gave the green light, then one has to wonder whether he has ever been asked about donating to Republicans in House and Senate races and whether he allowed those contributions or not.  If waivers only come for Democrats, then that speaks to NBC’s approach to politics in general, and not just MSNBC.

However, let’s not pretend that this somehow proves Olbermann’s bias.  Despite NBC’s insistence on calling Olbermann a news anchor, he’s one of the most obvious opinionaters in the cable news industry.  The disastrous election coverage at MSNBC helmed by Olbermann proved that beyond doubt for those few who ever doubted it.  And to be fair, Olbermann himself doesn’t seem terribly concerned about pretenses of objectivity or fairness.

That doesn’t mean that Olbermann and his network haven’t been hypocritical on this issue, however:

Olbermann, who has become of the most prominent liberal commentators on cable television, has been a critic of the political donations made by Fox News’ parent company, News Corp., which contributed $1 million each to a pair of organizations trying to defeat Democratic candidates.

MSNBC President Phil Griffin also tweaked rival network Fox over the contributions. “Show me an example of us fund-raising,” Griffin told The New York Times last month.

Well, putting Grijalva on while Olbermann makes contributions to his campaign may not quite be fundraising, but the failure to disclose it at the time does look questionable in terms of journalistic ethics.  On MSNBC, that’s hardly news, either.

Update: Just to make my point clearer — there seems to be some confusion about it in the comments — I don’t think that Olbermann’s contributions mean too much on their own.  We all know from watching his broadcasts that he dislikes Republicans and cheerleads for Democrats, so these contributions do nothing for his credibility in any direction.  The question here is whether NBC will hold MSNBC to its ethical standards, and the hypocrisy of shrieking about Fox’s contributions while donating his own.

Update II: Jonah Goldberg offers some wisdom:

So Olbermann gave money to some Democratic candidates. Ostensibly the rules against this are intended to prevent journalists from giving the appearance of bias. Whether or not such rules make sense for actual reporters, such rules are silly for someone like Olbermann. Does anybody, and I mean anybody, suddenly trust Olbermann’s opinion less because of this news? I’m waiting. Does anyone think he’s less biased? More biased? Un-biased?

Second, the larger problem with these kinds of rules is that they do little to prevent media bias and a great deal to hide an important form of evidence of it. Banning liberal journalists from giving money doesn’t prevent them from being liberal, it just gives them a bit more plausibility when they deny it. Now, I can see the argument that someone who makes a donation would be more interested in protecting their investment, as it were. So I don’t think the policy is completely misguided. But at a certain level banning donations is like NPR barring staff from attending the Jon Stewart rally. It doesn’t fool anyone, but gives the accused a lawyerly rebuttal to accurate accusations.

Wouldn’t it be better to check Open Secrets to see where the journalists put their money?  And frankly, wouldn’t that be utterly redundant in Olbermann’s case?

Update III: Looks like Olbermann didn’t get permission after all:

MSNBC president Phil Griffin released the following statement Friday following the news that Keith Olbermann had donated to three Democratic candidates this election cycle:

“I became aware of Keith’s political contributions late last night. Mindful of NBC News policy and standards, I have suspended him indefinitely without pay.”

I’d be surprised if it lasts longer than the weekend, but it looks as though MSNBC felt it had to act.

Update IV: The more I think about this, the more ridiculous it gets.  MSNBC offers the most ridiculously biased televion coverage of politics possible, crowning it with Election Night coverage that had people wondering if NBC needed to hire grief and anger counseling for the entire on-air staff.  And now, because Olbermann contributed to three Democrats last month, suddenly Griffin suspends him because “these activities jeopardize his or her standing as an impartial journalist because they may create the appearance of a conflict of interest”?

For this, Griffin gets the Captain Louis Renault Award for his shock, shock! at finding that Olbermann may have jeopardized his standing as an impartial journalist:


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