Friday, November 5, 2010

Keith Olbermann Suspended From MSNBC

Keith Olbermann is pictured. | AP Photo
MSNBC wants to “Lean Forward” – but apparently not that far forward.

Keith Olbermann’s suspension over three donations to Democrats prompted an outcry from across the blogosphere Friday as writers from the liberal Daily Kos to the conservative Weekly Standard criticized the move.
They agreed about one thing: It didn’t seem fair that MSNBC had so quickly and severely punished its flagship personality over something that seemed quite in line with what he did on the air five days a week: support liberal candidates and causes.

Olbermann’s decision to give embattled Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva six appearances in about six months was worth thousands of dollars in free media exposure, for instance. How is that different, these bloggers ask, than Olbermann’s $2,400 check to Grijalva, cut five days before the election?

The debate throws into sharp relief the difficult balancing act that MSNBC has been trying to pull off with its new identity. On one hand, the network has aggressively moved to court progressives with its new branding campaign “Lean Forward” and eyebrow-raising decisions like assigning an all-liberal panel to cover the midterm election results Tuesday.

But on the other, it remains tightly bound to its straight-news network sibling NBC, with which it shares both talent and management, and for which its liberal identity is a cause of concern.

This tension was particularly visible last month when MSNBC launched its new slogan and branding campaign. Even amidst a grand roll-out of the new theme, MSNBC President Phil Griffin was reluctant to own the cable network’s ideological turf.

“I don’t think we are overtly left,” he told POLITICO at the time. “We have a progressive sensibility, but that embraces a lot.” He said that viewers were smart enough to understand that opinionated hosts like Rachel Maddow are playing a different role than straight news journalists like David Gregory.

Two days later, an internal memo was leaked to the New York Times showing that the new tagline had worried the leadership at, a separate company, which considered itself an “impartial news product” and was worried about “misalignment” of the brand.

On Friday, Griffin said he suspended Olbermann over the three donations, first reported by POLITICO, while being “mindful of NBC News policy and standards.” Those standards require that staff report “potential conflicts” that might threaten their status as an “impartial journalist” to their boss before doing them.

But bloggers almost immediately began poking holes in this case. No one – not Olbermann, not MSNBC – pretends the ex-ESPN anchor is an “impartial journalist.” Not only that, MSNBC had seemed to bend this rule before, saying MSNBC’s opinionated talent had been exempted from NBC standards to attend Jon Stewart’s rally, a liberal love-fest.

And several people seized upon donations by MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, who recently became a POLITICO columnist, as evidence that MSNBC was using a double standard in dealing with the former Republican congressman. (MNSBC has since said that Scarborough’s 2006 campaign donations were cleared by his boss beforehand, which is allowed under the rules, and Scarborough’s co-host said a more recent contribution was actually by his wife.)

Greg Sargent, blogging at the Washington Post, began parsing the ethics policy, arguing that since Olbermann never purported to be an “impartial journalist,” he hardly risked being subject to “potential conflicts.”