On Monday morning's AirTalk, I was surprised to get so much listener reaction against news organizations’ typical bans on employee campaign contributions. I expected many would argue against NBC’s suspension of Keith Olbermann for making such a gift, given that he’s really a commentator and not a traditional journalist. Some listeners made that point, but others rejected restrictions on non-advocacy journalists, too.
I suppose the thinking behind such bans (which are in effect for KPCC news personnel) is that it distracts listeners/viewers/readers by putting the journalist’s politics front-and-center instead of the way he or she is reporting the story. I certainly agree with that. Even if KPCC didn’t have such a policy, I wouldn’t make a campaign or advocacy contribution that would be publicly available. I’d rather the focus be on the competing arguments I’m refereeing than on what I must think about the issue.
However, it’s entirely different for Olbermann. What he thinks about an issue or candidate is what his show is about. It’s a chance for progressives to hear someone give voice to their views, frustrations, and interests. No one watches “Countdown” to try to figure out what she or he thinks -- it’s to be part of a community that thinks similarly. That’s what Fox News Channel has cultivated into a cable powerhouse. Not surprisingly, Fox’s personnel financially support Republican candidates.
I think the disconnect between Olbermann and NBC News really stems from the network’s unwillingness to admit what MSNBC and Obermann are. NBC still seems to think MSNBC is the cable news arm of NBC News (or another CNN) and that Olbermann is a traditional journalist. I assumed the decision to have Olbermann and Chris Matthews co-anchor election night returns was an admission by NBC of MSNBC’s true nature. You’d never have that pair anchor traditional coverage of a major news event. You’d only do it if you see your channel as designed to serve one segment of the audience – a segment that’s neither surprised by, nor unhappy about, contributions to Democratic candidates.