Keith Olbermann’s suspended suspension: Why did MSNBC move so fast?
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Keith Olbermann has just emerged from one of the shortest exiles in cable news history.
On Friday, MSNBC President Phil Griffin announced that the “Countdown” host had been suspended indefinitely for making unauthorized campaign contributions to three Democratic candidates. The move was widely criticized: Over the weekend, an advocacy group called the Progressive Change Campaign Committee delivered 300,000 online signatures directly to Griffin, demanding Olbermann’s return to the network.
By late Sunday night, Griffin was stating that Olbermann would come back to MSNBC on Tuesday. Even Olbermann’s critics wondered: If he really did violate ethical standards, why did Griffin change his mind so quickly?
MSNBC declined to comment. But Joel Meares, assistant editor for the Columbia Journalism Review, says, ‘I’m not particularly surprised that they reversed their decision, given the amount of blowback they’ve gotten. Most media critics have been saying that it wasn’t the wisest move because no one watches Olbermann expecting to see both sides played out.’
Meares questions the timing of Olbermann’s suspension, however. “MSNBC’s midterm election coverage and Olberman’s in particular was roundly criticized for being far less balanced than Fox’s,” he says. Acknowledging that the news also came less than a week after the Rally to Restore Sanity, during which Jon Stewart blasted Olbermann and the Fox News Channel for their politically divisive commentary, Meares admits, “People might read something into that.”
Online, cynics have suggested that MSNBC might be using Olbermann’s suspension to distinguish their own standards from those of Fox, which does not prevent employees from donating to political campaigns. Just days before the suspension, Olbermann announced that he was indefinitely shelving his “Worst Persons in the World” segment, effectively distancing himself from Stewart’s critique. Now, after an outpouring of support that Olbermann described on Twitter as “a global hug,” he’s become a cause celebre for liberals and conservatives alike. No one was particularly surprised by Olbermann’s support for liberal politicians, since he’s aired his own views frequently on “Countdown.” According to Politico, Olbermann was suspended not because he violated network policy but because he initially refused to apologize, on the grounds that he didn’t know campaign contributions were forbidden. (Olbermann has not made this claim publicly.) Some predict that he will give his mea culpa on air on Tuesday night.
Commentators like the Daily Beast’s Meghan McCain have suggested that the real issue behind his suspension is that the lines between entertainment, commentary and journalism have become so blurred that it’s difficult to tell the difference.
Bob Steele, the journalism values scholar at Poynter Institute, believes news organizations need to have clear ethical standards that apply to all three categories. “Whether they’re news journalists or opinion journalists, they should follow the same standards,” he says. “As journalists, our real contribution is in serving the public interest, and we do that through our fair, independent reporting on the political process. When we become individual activists, it corrodes that role.”
But Jay Rosen, a professor at New York University, believes MSNBC is relying on an old code of ethics at a time when networks should be disclosing their anchors’ political biases and donations online. “The traditional way of establishing trust is by wearing a mask of impartiality. A different way of trying to be trusted is by being transparent. What MSNBC needs to do is shift from what I call the View From Nowhere to a place where they say, ‘Here’s what we’re about.’ ”
Despite the problems Olbermann’s suspension has created for MSNBC, Meares believes this is a winning situation for the “Countdown” host. “There was a recent study that surveyed the general population about news anchors, and only the minority of the population even knew who Keith Olbermann was,” he says. “Now he’s got the name recognition.”
Whether that higher profile will lead to higher ratings remains to be seen on Tuesday.
— Melissa Maerz