MSNBC, worried that its reputation as a fair broker of the news hung in the balance, sent Keith Olbermann to the woodshed on Friday for an unpaid suspension because he had donated $7,200 to some of the Democratic politicians he had championed on his hit show “Countdown.”
Golly, that ought to take care of everything.
If MSNBC were really worried about coming off as impartial, don’t you think it would have chosen somebody besides Mr. Olbermann, one of the most rabidly partisan figures in national news, to anchor its election coverage? Even Fox News knows better than to do something like that.
MSNBC is new to the network-as-political-identity game, and its parent company, NBC, is far less comfortable with pure play political programming than the News Corporation — and it shows. MSNBC backed into its current identity, driven by the outsize ratings of Mr. Olbermann, and the success of Rachel Maddow’s frankly liberal take on the world.
So what message is being sent by the suspension? Apparently, Mr. Olbermann is supposed to fire up the base like a convention keynote speaker at 8 p.m., but conduct himself like Brian Williams the rest of the time.
The lines separating politics, entertainment and news were already fading. This election obliterated them. Both Glenn Beck and Jon Stewart held well-attended and well-received rallies on the Mall in Washington, and Fox News had three Republican presidential hopefuls — Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin — on the payroll as commentators.
And Mr. Olbermann not only gave airtime on Oct. 28 to Representative Raúl M. Grijalva, Democrat of Arizona, he engaged in a new version of checkbook journalism that same day, contributing $2,400 to Mr. Grijalva’s campaign, according to Politico, which broke the original story on Mr. Olbermann’s contributions.
The shift of audiences toward cable news outlets — with their manifest agendas — as sources of truth and transparency may have something to do with a credibility gap that now confronts more mainstream news outfits. Lately, the idea of objective journalism has been on a pretty rough ride (that means you, CNN), with viewers deciding to align themselves with outlets that share their points of view — warts, agendas and all.
On election night, that shift was outlined, oddly enough, by Tom Brokaw, the éminence grise of the network anchor desk, who sat in on NBC’s coverage. Mr. Brokaw wasn’t explicitly talking about mainstream media, but he might as well have been: he described how a war that was sold under false circumstances was still being fought, how people encouraged to buy homes now found themselves underwater, how globalization had buried the hopes of many.
“So almost nothing is going the way that most people have been told that it will. And every time they’re told in Washington that they have it figured out, it turns out not to be true. And you see a manifestation of that tonight,” he said, pointing to the pushback from the electorate.
And elsewhere on the dial, it was obvious that people were voting with their remotes. Fox News had seven million viewers on election night, lapping not only its cable brethren, but besting network coverage as well.
The sidelines, which is where American journalism and news used to live, have become a far less interesting place. Why merely annotate events when you can tilt the playing field?
In news operations, opinion used to have a separate address. In newspapers, the publisher or his surrogates would toss around lightning bolts in a walled off section at the back of the paper, and on television, some odd guy (usually the owner) whose tie was a little tight would come on at the end of the broadcast and make Olympian pronouncements on monetary policy or the importance of the coming school board elections.
Sounds quaint, doesn’t it? Now news anchors lecture the federal government on its response to disasters, cable networks function as propaganda machines for political parties and newspaper writers throw aside neutrality to tell readers what is really going on behind the headlines.
On television, the news business is increasingly living in a world fostered by Fox News and its audacious success. Fox News personalities give money to candidates without consequence — the Fox host Sean Hannity donated to the political action committee of Michele Bachmann, the Republican congresswoman from Minnesota — and Rupert Murdoch, ever the savvy pragmatist, saw which ways the winds were blowing and dropped $1 million on the Republican Governors Association, explaining that he did so “in the best interest of the country.”
The Foxification of the cable universe has created significant collateral damage in the last few weeks. Juan Williams was paid to spout opinions on NPR, but when he spouted the wrong one on the wrong outlet — he acknowledged during an interview on Fox News to having a personal fear of occupying the same airspace as people in traditional Muslim garb — NPR gave him the gate.
Never mind that Mr. Williams was actually suggesting that fear leads to bad policy decisions and that we all need to be on guard against bigoted impulses: that got lost in the rush to oust him. (Rick Sanchez, a CNN anchor, was canned after making bigoted statements.)
Now Keith Olbermann is suspended, indefinitely, for writing a check to support candidates. That was really dumb on Mr. Olbermann’s part. As a die-hard partisan, he had to know that his willingness to provide untrammeled airtime to liberal candidates was a form of in-kind contribution that his measly $7,200, given to three campaigns, could never match.
Then again, the man who suspended him, Phil Griffin, president of MSNBC News, threw down a gauntlet before the election in an interview with The New York Times: “Show me an example of us fund-raising.” Conservative bloggers happily obliged and came up with numerous examples, including Representative Alan Grayson, Democrat of Florida, pitching for dollars on
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MSNBC is enforcing a set of standards meant to apply either to another entity — NBC News — or another era, when news people had to act as if they didn’t have political rooting interests. The game has changed, but the rules remain the same, at least at some media outlets.
And now MSNBC is in a fight that will resemble nothing so much as a brawl within a political party, with the base — in this case the audience — pushing back against the leadership. While Mr. Olbermann is not talking to the media, he is using Twitter to reach his supporters: “Greetings From Exile! A quick, overwhelmed, stunned THANK YOU for support that feels like a global hug & obviously left me tweetless. XO.”
Already, there are more than 275,000 signatures on a petition demanding the return of Mr. Olbermann. The language seems less like the keening of a group of television viewers and more like an outcry from the progressive wing of the MSNBC Party.