COMMENTS: Keith Olbermann's Willful Contribution to the Campaign

With his primetime bully pulpit five nights a week to publicize his anti-Republican talking points, Keith Olbermann was already contributing plenty of resources in kind on behalf of the Democratic Party during Campaign 2010. The idea that he thought that three extra checks written from his personal account to individual candidates would have made any incremental difference to the outcome of the midterm elections is laughable. Yet apparently he did it anyway, in full knowledge that he was specifically forbidden to do so by his contract with NBC News.

I am no psychoanalyst--but it is impossible to see these campaign contributions as political acts; self-destructive is more like it.

MSNBC had no choice except to suspend him indefinitely for such a blatant violation.

[UPDATE: Spud at Inside Cable News points out in a comment at Jay Rosen's PressThink that the violation was not the campaign contributions themselves, but the failure to clear the contributions with NBC News management.]

No matter that the spirit of NBC News' injunction against partisan involvement in political contests is not broken over and over again on its cable outlets. It is not only Keith Olbermann who is unrestrained in his partisan commentary against conservatives; Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O'Donnell are liberal lions; Chris Matthews is more of a centrist in his Democratic enthusiasms; Ed Schulz has no pretensions towards journalism--he is a populist partisan activist pure and simple.

It would be wrong to label the violations of NBC News' anti-partisan strictures in its cable programing as purely left-leaning. Joe Scarborough and Pat Buchanan are respectively fiscally conservative and paleo-conservative in the morning timeslot. Lawrence Kudlow is an incessant supply-side propagandist on CNBC; Rick Santelli is an ur-Tea-Partier.

All of these examples expose NBC News' rulebook as being hopelessly anachronistic, designed for its broadcast operation, in the days of tight FCC regulation, oligarchic network profits, and narrower range of TV news viewing options for audiences. It is interesting that the major names on MSNBC's programing who routinely abide by the spirit as well as the letter of NBC News' anti-partisan rulebook are those who also appear regularly on NBC's legacy broadcast side: Chuck Todd, Andrea Mitchell and Savannah Guthrie.

It is that broadcast legacy that caused Olbermann's violation. Over at FOX News Channel, non-journalist Glenn Beck contributed cash openly to the non-neutral but formally non-partisan campaign spending effort by the United States Chamber of Commerce and did so without breaking FNC's rules. Indeed, Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, FNC's owner, was even more explicit it its partisanship, making its donations directly to the warchest for Republican governors.

So we are not seeing new ground broken by Olbermann here: not only partisanship but partisan spending had already established a beach head in the editorial world of cable TV programing. What Olbermann did was willful. He refused to abide by the nod-and-a-wink agreement that turned a blind eye to all sorts of violations in spirit; he went ahead and made a violation of the letter, a jab in the eye with a pointed stick that his management could not ignore.

A while ago, this challenge to management would have had more clout. Olbermann, after all, was the first success in MSNBC's bid to dig its way out of third place in the primetime cable TV ratings wars. He was the first anchor to find a voice that could seem to answer back to Bill O'Reilly's. Countdown was the first hour to put a squeeze on CNN, executing the right-&-left pincer movement with FNC, that undermined the non-ideological middle ground that CNN tried to stake out as its turf.

Since Olbermann's breakthough, Maddow has established her own voice in her own right, less dependent on his lead-in. O'Donnell's 10pm hour has exceeded expectations, both critically and in the ratings. Ratings were not harmed by Olbermann's absence on bereavement leave. MSNBC in primetime is not the one-man-wonder that it once was.

Furthermore, Olbermann did not cover himself with glory on Election Night. FNC played partisan jujitsu with MSNBC, covering the Republican triumph with less gloating, more as a hard news story. The tendentious MSNBC anchor team was the one that came across as shrill and spinning. NBC News' election coverage was superior on its straitlaced broadcast side, where its non-argumentative political director Todd led with reporting, analysis and insight.

So the revelations of Olbermann's violations come at a time when his star is on the wane anyway at MSNBC. His suspension--indefinite or even permanent--is less of a problem for his network than it would have been in years or months past. Indeed the future for MSNBC in primetime looks bright. Heavily political coverage on the cable TV news channels thrives when their core ideological audience is aggrieved. Such an opinionated on-air style seems to work better in opposition than when justifying the unpopular actions of a governing group. MSNBC advanced during 2007-2008; FNC found its voice again in 2009-2010.

We can expect a newly reinvigorated MSNBC to amp up the Boehner-bashing over the next 18 months. They shall be able to do that with or without Olbermann and his in-kind contributions on Countdown.


A media analyst critical of MSNBC???? Never dreamed I'd see it. Keep up the good work.

You must be logged in to this website to leave a comment. Please click here to log in so you can participate in the discussion.