Heather Michon

Heather Michon
June 25
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Editor’s Pick
NOVEMBER 8, 2010 9:33AM

Journalists Are Citizens, Too

Rate: 13 Flag
As America tucked into to bed last night, a light went on somewhere in NBC News headquarters in New York. A computer was booted up. A statement was tapped out and released into the wild:

"After several days of deliberation and discussion, I have determined that suspending Keith through and including Monday night's program is an appropriate punishment for his violation of our policy. We look forward to having him back on the air Tuesday night."

“Several days,” of course, meaning the roughly 48 hours of media chatter following their suspension of MSNBC personality Keith Olbermann for his failure to clear $7,200 of political donations with NBC, in violation of corporate policy.

Olbermann_11In those two days, more than 300,000 people signed a petition to get Keith back on the air. Pro-Keith Facebook groups were launched. Blog posts were written. Comment on said blog posts reached into the thousands. It was talked and written about on other news networks and newspapers.

And all this was over a weekend. Unwilling to let the story drag on into the week, NBC clearly decided it was preferable to employ the supple spine needed to survive our modern spin cycle, and it declared “Mission Accomplished.”

Like many of these stories, The Olbermann Affair has a lot of layers -- not the least being Keith’s tendency to butt heads with his superiors in dramatic, often career-derailing, ways. There was plenty of spewage this weekend about how Fox is still way more biased than MSNBC, and even if it isn’t MSNBC’s bias is better, because it’s more factual.

The most disturbing sub-argument, though, was succinctly stated by Howard Kurtz in his Friday post on The Daily Beast: “When you become a journalist, you give up certain rights.”

Kurtz and other journalists argue that the appearance of impartiality demands that people in the media cannot participate in civic affairs the way we civilians can. “You can't write speeches on the side for politicians,” he continues. “You can't march in political demonstrations. And you shouldn't be able to donate money to politicians, unless you're hosting a cooking show.”

Even Keith Olbermann subscribed to this theory. In November 2008, he told the ladies of The View that he doesn’t even vote. “It's a symbolic gesture. It's the only thing I can do that suggests even that I don't have a horse in the race."

....Which sort of sums up the silliness of the whole exercise. Nobody who has spent more than thirty seconds listening to Keith doubts who he would have voted for in 2008, if he allowed himself the right. Nobody can really be surprised he donated money to Arizona Democrats (and SB 1070 opponents) Gabrielle Giffords and Raul Grijalva and Kentucky Senate candidate (and Rand Paul opponent) Jack Conway.

Not only does he have a horse in the race, he’s ridden that horse into a multi-year, multimillion-dollar contract with MSNBC.   

That’s fine with me. Nor do I have much problem with Sean Hannity donating money to candidates, or Karl Rove raising money for the GOP by day while shilling for them on Fox by night.

We all know where these people stand, and we have the power to change the channel if we don’t care for those stands.

It’s absurd to think that policing journalists’ private behavior -- from the checks they might write from their personal bank accounts to political campaigns or causes, to the ballot they cast in the privacy of a voting booth, to the rallies they attend on their time off -- somehow makes them appear more “impartial” on air or in print.   

“When you become a _____, you give up certain rights.”

That’s about as anti-American a statement as you can make. Any profession benefits from a code of ethics, but nothing about being a soldier, or a cop, or a journalist, or an airline passenger should be incompatible with basic civil rights. We are, always, citizens first.   

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I'm surprised Fox News didn't snatch Keith up because his free speech right were violated by NBC.
I'm glad Keith's back. But the dialogue about electioneering will not end any time soon.

I worry, as did the writers of the Constitution about the power of "factions". The court decision in "Citizens United", which essentially says that a Union or a Corporation has the same rights as a citizen has me tormented. The rise of "K" Street Lobbyists and 527's has mangled the meaning of "one citizen, one vote"

Do I think that Hannity, Olbermann, et. al should be able to individually contribute to political causes and electioneering endeavors...YES.

Do I think that "The U.S. Chamber of Commerce" or "American Crossroads" or the SEIU or the AFL-CIO should have the same status as myself, with the same unalienable rights as myself...that's a different story. And "Dick Cheney" private citizen is a far cry from "Dick Cheney", leader of a 527 group.

I wish we could do as in many European countries. Control the length of time allowed for ads and electioneering, and limit the amount of money spent for all candidates, even the rich ones like Meg Whitman.

Right...and monkeys might fly out my butt...*sigh*
well put, and congrats on the Big Salon cover
I think the idea that Olberman is politically neutral is laughable per Kurz; he and Beck are partisans, and no one has any doubts about that.
Most journalism was always assumed to be partisan historically speaking.
Rated. Shared. Good to see this getting attention not only on Open Salon but Salon.com too.
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It would be an interesting test case if it ever went to court. The Supreme Court has said in several ways that campaign contributions are protected speech. An employee cannot sign away his/her constitutional rights, nor can an employer require that.

That said, we all have to choose how we will participate in the political progress, and I think Olbermann's choice to participate financially in a fairly minor way has hampered his ability to contribute in a far greater way.
Donations or other activities from the talking heads doesn't bother me. We all know what they stand for. They make a living telling us. The ones that I worry about are the super rich ones who get money in by way of groups that don't have to report donors so we don't know who they are.
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Journalists like Kurtz really should know the difference between being neutral and being honest. Being entirely neutral is impossible, but you can have an opinion and still report the facts honestly. I think the greatest danger to journalism are those reporters who refuse to state what the facts are simply because one side of the political spectrum is trying to deny those facts. "He said, she said" isn't reporting, it's stenography.
Who is Keith Olbermann?

Serious-this was just internal politics. Keith broke a rule and was punished. Rules is rules. I doubt he has much of a problem with it, but I'll bet we will find out tonight.
You make some good thoughtful points. But I still think that journalists/op-eds/opinion pundits/whoever should not contribute to campaigns (and really they are allowed - just have to declare it or get okay or whatever). I don't know that I'd totally characterize it as giving up rights. But I do think that they should be outside of that arena as far as money or contributions go, even if they are as opinionated as Olbermann.