What Olbermann doesn’t get

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.)

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  • After listening to Olbermann rift on Ted Koppel tonight (11/15/10), I believe he is correct, there is no real equality between FAUX NEWS and MSNBC. For just because the “false god” of journalistic “neutrality” is dead, doesn’t mean that journalists need act unethically when they voice opinion or even show their personal bias.

    Keith Olbermann, in admitting his bias publicly, not only informs the audience, but insures his independence. The problem is not what “trustworthy” journalists tell us, it is what they DO NOT TELL US. As Olbermann said tonight, Ted Koppel never told you what he left out of his NIGHTLINE broadcasts. You never got all the facts, so you couldn’t make an informed decision.

    As a well paid News Anchor, Keith can afford to make the maximum political contribution to several politicians not in his neighborhood, and as a citizen of the nation it is his right. In doing so, and admitting it, he not only enlightens people to the problem of campaign finance, and its conflict of interest with media, but also makes us think critically about the nature of our political system.

    In this day when Corporations can make UNLIMITED campaign contributions, yet human citizens are limited to just $2400.00, it’s refreshing that Olbermann informed us of his bias up front. Rather than let us find out from his competitors, just as we heard about Murdock’s NEWS CORP spending MILLIONS to elect REPUBLICAN Governors across the land.

    I think you malign Keith Olbermann unfairly, by misreading his actions:

    “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.”

    That is not what Olbermann or the Liberal Journalists on MSNBC do at all. They rightly claim the high-ground, because they stick to the facts, where their counter weights at FAUX NEWS do not.

    Facts are facts, what they mean is a matter of opinion. FAUX doesn’t discriminate between facts and opinion. They make it up as they go. Olbermann reports the facts, then gives his opinion to put them in context. And knowing where he is coming from, leads me to trust his opinion, but because I have the all facts I can make up my own mind.

    Yes, Olbermann may be betting on the game, but he is betting on himself to win, not against his own team like FAUX. He is on the side of Truth, Justice, and the First Amendment. For too long journalists have profited from the unethical sale of political speech in the USA, but Olbermann isn’t promoting the broken system, he is calling attention to it, and trying to bring some real balance to the corporate media. Hate the game, not the player.

  • JMills


    Mr. Smith, I have to disagree. It really is time for a new look at journalists like Olbermann.

    As new kinds of reporting emerge, I am saddened to see such stumbling in the ethical reasoning responding to it.

    In my opinion, MSNBC’s ethics is not keeping up with its obvious programming. They are a bad fit.

    Let’s assume Mr. Olbermann is the journalist you say he is, factually accurate and free to opine as well.

    Honestly, his only ethical sin was in not disclosing the donation to Gabrielle Giffords in an opinion piece condemning Kelly and his not disclosing his donations in general.

    I therefore strongly disagree with Olbermann, MSNBC and SPJ on this. Why that is so, why Olbermann, MSNBC and SPJ don’t see it this way frankly surprises me as it seems pretty obvious. I am open to hearing how I might be missing something.

    Plato’s moral theories are interesting ones and please, reread. All Plato asks, through Socrates, is that we seek virtue, or “the good” and that our laws and rules be just.

    Kant’s categorical moral imperative is the heir to Plato and neither advocates for virtuous behavior of any kind to be curtailed to fit outdated norms, the opposite is true, that moral ratification be accorded to moral behavior of any kind.

    We have to look at Olbermann’s activities and evaluate them. It is rather new, or at least more common now, to have editorial reporters. If finding these activities in themselves and in the aggregate worthy we then codify or at least identify some of the ethical universals that emanate from them and the standards we would like to see.

    Given the kind of journalist he is, one who is factual but also opines and advocates, and is expected to opine and advocate, his sin here only was in the lack of transparency.

    He should have broadcast his donations prominently in his stories addressing those particular elections, and in general.

    This distinction, that one who advocates can only do so in speech is as wrong a conclusion as we can reach in this ethics analysis. SPJ, MSNBC are losing their way very much by raising that as the principle. What is the principle there?

    No, the integrity here of journalism, in the case of a journalist of this type, is protected and maintained by the journalist disclosing, not by only opining a little. No one expects him not to be advocating for one side or another, one politician or another in his role at MSNBC. It’s his job.

    I truly feel that the profession is in a real intellectual crisis if it is stumbling on an issue this rudimentary. Am I missing something?

  • LibelFreeZone

    JMills wrote: Given the kind of journalist he is, one who is factual but also opines and advocates, and is expected to opine and advocate, his sin here only was in the lack of transparency. […] Am I missing something?

    Yes, JMills, you’re missing something.

    Please don’t call Keith Olbermann a journalist. What an insult to actual journalists! He may have been one, but he’s not anymore. He’s just an incredibly stern-faced former jock with an opinion and a computer. Big deal. He doesn’t deliver the news in an unbiased manner, free of self-interest. He’s merely a highly paid pundit, of which we have too many.

    He should wear a big sign on his chest as he opines (what a quaint word for bloviates) so we can tell the blo–er, opiners from the journalists. How about we label them, “J” for journalist and “P” for pundit–and no fair switching back and forth without full disclosure! “Yesterday I was an opiner. Today I’m a journalist.”

    Stay in your corner so we know what we’re getting when we turn the channel. Better yet, put all the journalists on one channel and all the pundits on another. Then I can avoid the pundits just as I do the Food Channel. I’ll form my own opinions, thankyouverymuch.

    My kingdom for a good journalist! Where are they?! I used to think Anderson Cooper kept a pretty consistent poker face. I had no idea what his politics may be. Now he runs a segment called the Ridicu-List where he makes fun of people for mis-steps such as Steve Johnson fumbling a game winning goal and complaining to God about it. Good grief.

    Eh, fergeddaboudit…journalism’s circling the drain. If we want transparency and no editorializing, we’ve always got Wikileaks.

  • JMills


    There is a lot of punditry on TV. I’ve watched Olbermann twice. I’ve watched Rachel Madow twice. That’s about all the nibble I need.

    Your suggestion of the Pundit Channel was entertaining.

    I am not aware that he has been confronted with making factual errors. Has he? Honestly, as I said, I can only watch so much of those programs. I appear to be out of the loop.

    But does anyone know if Columnists/Opinion people have ever been barred from donating to political causes? I guess I have to do my homework. I’m less familiar with those restrictions because I have been a reporter. I guess it would make sense.

    What I find strange is that MSNBC apparently is putting forth Olbermann, and others, like Madow, as journalists practicing conventionally detached reporting, expecting them to follow codes designed for that rather than codes designed for what they actually, and so obviously, and are expected to do. My point is, is that real?

    Believe me, I agree there is an oversupply of punditry on television. I wasn’t so much addressing that in my post.

    But the notion that there shouldn’t be any is not something I would ascribe to either and no one posting seems to be saying that either.

    Editorial zeal has always been with us, and we’re all thankful for that. There are Pulitzer prizes for opinion.

    If it weren’t for blistering editorial cartoons Boss Tweed would still be running NY.

    Read any old Pogo cartoons lately?

    But this still doesn’t address the ethical framework for punditry/opinion reporting at MSNBC, whatever you want to call what Olbermann does.

    I guess you are suggesting I watch a few more episodes and when I am done I will realize I was trying to find the form for mud. I’ll take that advice if I can.

    To shift a bit on a blog that perhaps isn’t the best suited for it, since it is about Olbermann, I hear you about journalism circling the drain but there are some emerging trends that are interesting.

    Because the forms of communication are changing so much it causes us to return to the core values in ethics codes, which is kind of good. To seek truth, to minimize harm and so on. OK, maybe you’d like one addressing driveling.

    But when you return to the roots, it gets exciting too. I like to reach back in history and ask what were Jacob Riis’s ethics? What were Jack London’s ethics? What were Pogo’s? What were Thomas Paine’s? What were Peter Zengers? What were the ethics of the lone pamphleteers, because a lot of the applications of the codes are for large newsrooms and actually become confused with the actual ethics.

    I have to fault American journalism most these days for failing to seek the truth, for lacking the courage and focus for that, the commitment to it, HOWEVER which way that gets done. Any which way, you know?

    Reporters Without Borders ranked us 36th freest press in the world last year. We used to be first. These are really volatile times and government pressures are rising as the press becomes less powerful.

  • JMills

    Actually, I still don’t get barring campaign donations for an editorial writer or columnist as long as they disclose it. How is it inconsistent with anything they are doing? They advocate positions.

  • JMills

    Here is an interesting survey of campaign donations by reporters, editors etc:



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