At first blush, the indefinite suspension of Keith Olbermann by MSNBC for donating money to candidates for office might seem the cherry on top of a delectable political week. With the crushing GOP victory, the probable deep-sixing of the radical Obama agenda, and the hysterical spectacle of liberals alternately calling the American people stupid and Democrats cowards, there has been enough crowd-pleasing entertainment to make Barnum and Bailey jealous.
If it were just Olbermann, or just MSNBC, the celebrations would go on far into the night. Certainly, the faux journalist Olbermann, whose “Special Comment” is among the most hyperbolic, exaggerated, and mean-spirited political commentary available, is the least deserving of sympathy of any figure on the left in America. He oozes a sneering, self-righteous superiority that only liberals who feel similarly blessed with outsized notions of transcendence can stomach. Reportedly, he is not a very nice fellow either, but how could he be otherwise given the manner in which he routinely portrays the opposition as a cross between the devil and Hitler?
None of this is news to anyone who has a passing familiarity with political debate in America. Yet the rapidity with which MSNBC bounced Olbermann from the network begs several questions. What did he do that other journalists — including those at Fox News — haven’t done? Why now? And why should MSNBC all of a sudden feign an interest in impartiality?
Alas, Babylon. The press in America have never been “impartial,” and the grandiose proclamations of objectivity and neutrality in covering politics this last century made by sober-minded newspaper editors were always more for purposes of marketing than related to any claim based in reality. “Yellow journalism” aside, the great publishers in the 19th and early 20th century were all house organs for one of the two political parties. Major dailies were political kingmakers, and a word from a Horace Greeley or Robert McCormick could make or break a politician’s career.
What made this arrangement preferable to the insufferable hypocrisy we experience today with the media is that everybody knew which side the press was on. Being forewarned is being forearmed, and at a time when there were a dozen dailies in New York City alone, if you didn’t like Hearst’s take you could always read what the Sulzbergers had to say about politics. There was never a lack of choice as far as the news consumer being exposed to the spin from both parties.
Today, even little children know that MSNBC has a strong, pronounced liberal Democratic bias and a demonstrated animus against conservative Republicans. This is not a secret nor is it necessarily bad. If you don’t like the network’s tiresome promotion of Democratic candidates and causes, you can always switch over to Fox’s equally tiresome boosting of conservatives and the GOP.
This makes the NBC News policy against “journalists” giving money to their favorite candidates inexplicable. Who are they kidding? According to Politico, NBC isn’t alone in this exercise in serio-comic absurdity:
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.
How can you “breach” something that exists only in the minds of arrogant popinjays who think that journalism is a “calling”? One assumes the humanity of reporters — normally — and therefore they cannot be immune from the biases shared by everyone else. Editors, whose job description includes removing as much bias as possible from a story, generally share the point of view of their reporters and are either too lazy or too blinded to their own prejudices to recognize bias when it pops up in someone else’s work. In the end, journalists are about as “independent” as Eastern Europe was during the Cold War. You don’t have to scratch very far below the surface to reveal the nauseating hypocrisy that is contributing to the end of journalism as we know it.
Olbermann’s punishment does not fit the crime. He violated company policy — a policy rooted in fantasy and outmoded notions of journalists as ink-stained cavaliers of fairness and justice. It may be elevating to believe in “independence,” but it isn’t practical.
And this is just cause to kick Olbermann off the air? And why now? William Kristol wonders if NBC’s parent company, General Electric, isn’t trying to curry favor with the new GOP majority in the House. More likely, as Bryan Preston points out, since Olbermann’s ratings have been tanking, his prickly presence in the newsroom has caused enormous friction with both on-air and behind-the-camera staff. MSNBC President Phil Griffin may have taken the opportunity afforded by Olbermann’s transgression to send the Kos-darling packing, ridding himself of this meddlesome high priest of hyperbole.
Beyond that, Griffin cannot be unaware that his new bosses at Comcast have been shaking up NBC’s top brass, and that Olbermann’s ethics problems don’t reflect well on him. Perhaps this was a move to lance a boil before it suppurated and caused his own departure.
It would have been nice to see Olbermann exit the old-fashioned way: driven from his job after trying the patience of America with his ignorant ranting and because nobody could stand listening to his shtick anymore. But the entire affair smacks of overkill. Jonah Goldberg writes:
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.
With MSNBC not even trying to pretend to be impartial anymore, one wonders about the ethics of a company that overtly promotes a political point of view and then punishes an employee when they act on that bias.