The suspension of MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann for making campaign contributions to three Democratic candidates seems like a clear cut case of a journalist violating ethics standards. How can we trust him to be fair in his assessments of candidates when he’s financially supported campaigns?
But in the wake of the announcement that Olbermann will be off the air indefinitely, there are those who have come to his defense – arguing corporate hypocrisy - since MSNBC’s parent company – GE – has made campaign contributions of its own.
Leading the charge is the group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. It has issued an “action alert” – urging readers to contact MSNBC President Phil Griffin and NBC President Steve Capus and ask them to “explain their inconsistent standards regarding political donations.”
FAIR cites the Center for Responsive Politics as reporting that GE made over $2 million in political contributions in the 2010 election cycle, mainly via the company’s political action committee. It also notes that Comcast – which is bidding to buy NBC, has been pumping cash into the campaigns of lawmakers who support the proposed merger.
GE isn’t the only news media owner to be making campaign contributions. Fox News Channel’s parent corporation, News Corp, was recently criticized for its contributions to the Republican Governor’s Association (GE has also contributed to the Republican governors as well as the Democratic governors, according to the Washington Post).
None of this lets Olbermann off the hook, of course. News organizations have, and should enforce, ethics standards. But questions are correctly being raised now about the ethics of those organizations and their parent companies as well.
When the stories of News Corp’s contributions to the Republican governors came out, Democrats lashed out, claiming that was proof that Fox News Channel was biased. Today, Republicans are questioning MSNBC’s objectivity because of the Olbermann contributions.
News organizations will always be accused of bias. Critical reporting and biting analytical commentary will foster those reactions. But they shouldn’t add to the perception of favoritism. Not by the actions of their journalists nor their parent companies.
Gary Baumgarten is news and programming director at the Paltalk News Network.