November 11th, 2010
What Olbermann doesn’t get
By Kevin Smith
Tuesday night MSNBC commentator Keith Olbermann spent the last five minutes of his show issuing apologies for the furor that erupted last week when it was revealed he had made political contributions to three congressional candidates.
For his action MSNBC execs, citing ethical guidelines, suspended him for two shows, and America was forced to live through another example of journalism gone wrong.
So, there he was Tuesday night, the snarky tone evident in his voice and that jeering look in his eyes as he began his mea culpa.
He apologized on three fronts. First, for subjecting the audience to the drama (though he seemed to relish the fact he had more than 300,000 people sign a petition supporting his actions); second, for not knowing “by observation” there was company policies against political contributions without prior notification to superiors (he said he thinks it’s completely illegal to have such mandates) and finally, for not revealing a contribution to his audience the next day when he slapped Arizona Republican congressional candidate Jesse Kelly in his “Worst Person” segment. Kelly’s opposition was Democratic candidate Gabrielle Giffords, a $2,400 donor recipient. His other $2,400 benefactors included candidates Jack Conway in Kentucky and Raul Grijalva, also of Arizona.
But, what I never heard was an apology for the donations themselves. There was nothing to suggest that Olbermann thinks there was anything wrong with a journalist giving money to politician candidates. He dodged apologizing for the basis of the problem. In fact, he went in the opposite direction saying he thinks the donation rules “need to be adjusted to adapt to the realities of 21st century journalism.”
Olbermann just doesn’t get it.
He can snarl and flash those leering looks into the camera all he wants, and he can have colleagues point accusatory fingers at Fox News on his behalf, but the bottom line is clear: His obvious conflict of interest and his forfeiture of independence doesn’t register with him nor the legions of supporters, some journalists themselves, who think that taking overtly subjective stands and advancing those causes is the “reality of 21st century journalism.”
Olbermann used to cover sports, so maybe this analogy helps. Think Pete Rose betting on baseball games. Both men placed money in a gamble to achieve a desired outcome, one that ultimately benefits their interests and careers. Olbermann hopes that by his donation he can help create Democratic victories, something that certainly stands to benefit his program that relies on a steady feast off the liberal carcass. In the end they both wanted to alter the outcomes in a way that benefitted them. Both represent corruption of the profession.
So we are lead to believe by Olbermann’s assessment there is a new age in 21st century journalism that tosses aside reliable tenets of fairness and honesty in reporting. That this new age can turn its back on independence and disclosure of conflicts and that “partial” journalists who deal in commentary get to live by a different set of rules than “impartial” journalists (most everyone else who doesn’t work for MSNBC or Fox).
That we are separating journalists into subcategories of “partial” and “impartial” as I’ve seen touted by bloggers means American journalism is hosting a growing ethical sideshow. Where once uniform credibility meant everything to a journalist, many are gladly opting now for “niche” or “community” credibility among like mentalities.
Niche credibility translated means I report whatever I want, say whatever I want, alter the facts and reality however I want and tear down the foundations of ethical journalism if they become an obstruction. In the end, as long as I have credibility within my select audience or community, then that’s what stands for responsible journalism.
When Plato put forth the notion of communitarianism as an ethic foundation, one that puts community values and development first over individual morals, it’s a safe bet that he wasn’t supporting the notion of rouge communities springing up within a greater society, each with their own set of standards that would repeal the overarching values of society as a whole. And it’s doubtful he’d advocate for journalism’s ethical foundations to be pared into subsets depending on how you chose to practice the craft or the medium you resort to.
For now, Olbermann and his minons don’t get to stratify ethics based on titles and television ratings. They’ll have to follow the standards most journalists do in developing that sacred trust with the public. And that’s a trust you can’t put a price on, though we know now you can lose it for $2,400.
(Kevin Z. Smith is the chairman of SPJ’s ethics committee and immediate past president.)