The abrupt suspension of MSNBC host Keith Olbermann for making donations to Democratic candidates has ignited a national debate over journalistic objectivity and media partisanship, with many critics, including a U.S. senator, questioning the motives of network parent General Electric as it prepares to hand the No. 2 cable news outlet to new owners.
"Is this simply a 'personality conflict' within MSNBC or is one of America's major corporations cracking down on a viewpoint they may not like?" Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent, asked in a statement late Friday, calling the suspension "outrageous."
The uproar comes just days after National Public Radio, another news outlet often accused of liberal leanings, landed in hot water after it fired commentator Juan Williams for making remarks deemed objectionable to Muslims.
The Olbermann affair unfolded quickly. The website Politico called MSNBC on Thursday night and began asking about Olbermann's contributions of $2,400 apiece to Democratic Reps. Raul M. Grijalva and Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona and Democratic Senate candidate Jack Conway in Kentucky. NBC has rules against news employees contributing to political campaigns. Conway lost, Grijalva has declared victory, and votes in the Giffords race are still being counted.
The reaction from network management was surprisingly swift, especially considering that Olbermann has become a standard-bearer for liberal politics and "Countdown with Keith Olbermann" is widely credited for helping rescue MSNBC from ratings oblivion. The network is battling CNN for second place in cable news against longtime No.1 Fox News Channel. Olbermann's contract is said to expire in 2012.
As part of NBC Universal, MSNBC will soon become part of cable giant Comcast, which is due to close its acquisition of the company before year's end.
"I became aware of Keith's political contributions late last night," MSNBC President Phil Griffin said Friday in a statement. "Mindful of NBC News policy and standards, I have suspended him indefinitely without pay."
In a statement, Olbermann said he had made the Arizona contributions on Oct. 28 after a discussion with a friend about that state's politics. "I did not privately or publicly encourage anyone to donate to these campaigns nor to any others in this election or any previous ones, nor have I previously donated to any political campaign at any level," his statement said.
An MSNBC spokesman said he had no information on when Olbermann might return to air but emphasized that the host had not been fired. However, the indefinite nature of the suspension, combined with Olbermann's high visibility, would probably make an amicable return tricky to pull off any time soon.
The Friday "Countdown" was supposed to be hosted by Chris Hayes, Washington editor for the Nation magazine and a familiar face on the show, but the network changed course after it was revealed he had also contributed to Democratic campaigns. Thomas Roberts, an anchor and correspondent for MSNBC, was tapped at the last minute to substitute.
News organizations generally frown on journalists openly supporting political candidates or causes, and Olbermann's partisanship — on full display in "Countdown" — has gotten MSNBC in trouble in the past. He anchored the network's election coverage Tuesday and was attacked in some quarters for favoring Democrats and ridiculing Republicans. When critics complained about his lack of objectivity during the 2008 election cycle, network executives ultimately brought in David Gregory as a more balanced anchoring choice.
Olbermann's fans reacted to the suspension with outrage. A Facebook page appeared urging his reinstatement. The advocacy group Progressive Change Campaign Committee reported that a petition demanding a reversal of Griffin's decision drew 55,000 signatures by early Friday evening.
Olbermann even attracted some unlikely supporters. Conservative writer Bill Kristol, who frequently appears on Fox News Channel, wrote in a blog post: "Perhaps Olbermann violated NBC News 'policy and standards.' But NBC doesn't have real news standards for MSNBC — otherwise the channel wouldn't exist. It's a little strange to get all high and mighty now."
Many viewers pointed to apparent double standards of journalistic objectivity applied elsewhere. Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman who co-hosts "Morning Joe" on MSNBC, made a political donation in 2006. But a network spokesman said that donation was made in accordance with company policy and that Scarborough had asked for permission first.
Fox News host Sean Hannity made a $5,000 donation this year to the political action committee of Rep. Michele Bachmann, a Republican from Minnesota. But a Fox News spokeswoman contended that unlike Olbermann, Hannity does not anchor coverage of news events. Also, News Corp. policy does not preclude employees from donating to political campaigns, although corporate funds may not be used to do so.
Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at New York University, wondered if there may be a disconnect between the journalistic codes of NBC, the parent company with a traditional "objective" news operation, and MSNBC, where opinion now flows freely.
"NBC's rules are saying that you can't engage in any activity that may jeopardize your standing as an impartial journalist," Rosen said. "But is impartial journalism really what MSNBC is about right now?"
Times staff writer Melissa Maerz contributed to this report.