He’s ba-a-a-a-ack. Olbermann, MSNBC, Principles, Politics, Journalism, Media and the Democratic Dilemma

He’s ba-a-a-a-ack. Olbermann, MSNBC, Principles, Politics, Journalism, Media and the Democratic Dilemma


We started the weekend with the Olbermann kerfuffle, might as well end with it. For most of the weekend there was a lot of high dudgeon, pontification, indignation and snark but not much new information. One story claimed that Olbermann was suspended by management for refusing to apologize, and Olbermann broke his silence by tweeting his appreciation for the support of fans, but not offering an apology or his side of the story. Finally, on Sunday night MSNBC President Phil Griffin released this terse statement.

From Phil Griffin, President of MSNBC:
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.

So that will be the next chapter of the story. Will he or won’t he apologize? Should be good for a nice ratings boost on Tuesday.

More interesting than the specifics of the suspension and reinstatement itself (which strikes me as a pretty straightforward management action and not very newsworthy) is the reaction across the partisan spectrum, which I find fascinating.

In general, the right-o-sphere is amused. They acknowledge the right of Olbermann’s employers at MSNBC to suspend, discipline or fire Olbermann as they see fit, but in general think it was a mistake for them to do so. After all, it is not like he was hiding his bias for Democratic candidates. The surprise would have been if he was not contributing to Democratic Party causes.

A more interesting schism is on the left. The vast majority on the left can be exemplified by the Daily Kos reaction: Olbermann is right. MSNBC management is wrong. Full stop. But not everyone on the left felt that way.

Lets go back to Keith’s “good friend and colleague” Rachel Maddow (who owes her TV career on MSNBC to Keith Olbermann) when she explained exactly what happened on her Friday show:

If you look past her sympathetic demeanor and pay close attention to what she is saying, the unmistakable takeaway is that (unlike most of the left-o-sphere) Maddow is standing foursquare on the side of MSNBC management. She is saying her “good friend and colleague” Keith Olbermann was flat out wrong. Worse than that – he was “Fox News wrong.”

She spends several minutes tut-tutting over a litany of egregious examples of Fox personalities raising funds and contributing to Republican candidates and causes. Well and good, but once she starts down that path, there is no way to backtrack and justify Olbermann’s contributions to Democratic candidates as acceptable since – you know – that would make MSNBC just like Fox.

Ever since Jon Stewart put Fox and MSNBC in the same journalistic basket at the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, the MSNBC punditocracy have been a bit touchy on exactly that subject.

It is obviously important to Maddow to demonstrate that she works for a news organization that has higher standards than Fox. Important enough that, if necessary, her “good friend and colleague” Keith Olbermann had to go under the bus. She even seems to agree the punishment meted out from MSNBC management is fair (as long as the suspension does not go on to long – which it didn’t), concluding with a wish that he will be back soon (which he will be). Perhaps it was more like a plea for an MSNBC News Presidential Pardon (which he got). Perhaps she is hoping that Olbermann will show remorse. Perhaps.

Or perhaps he won’t apologize, and will emerge as a Hero of the Kos Kids by bravely standing up to the MSNBC corporate bullies for the right to – ummm – Be just like Fox!!!

Although in a minority, there are some on the left who were not riding with the herd. A good synopsis from this perspective – Nojo at Stinque (a group blog that is hard to categorize, but sits well left of Dennis Kucinich and a bit right of Bernie Sanders) describes The Cult of Keith:

“…we don’t come to this mess from the perspective of an Olbermann-basher. We like Keith. He’s fun. He’s the only reason we even turn on the tube at 5pm Pacific. San Diego has a 24-hour jazz station. We have options. That said, we agree with MSNBC management: Olbermann violated a clearly stated ethics policy, and his suspension is not unwarranted. Olbermann did the same thing with Richard Wolffe, after all. What disappointed us after the news broke Friday is that we’re in the minority. At least among progressive bloggers — the progressive bloggers we also read daily as we scrape the Internets for story tips. They’ve ignored entirely the facts of Olbermann’s suspension, and the principles behind it. And in so doing, they’ve shown themselves to be hacks.”

This is how I think it nets out:

If you stand with MSNBC management, you are standing for a principle (however weakly enforced) and claiming that MSNBC is something qualitatively different than Fox News. This possibly explains why much of the right wing is with Olbermann. It validates that they are the same, except with vastly different ratings. That is the point that Maddow tries to refute.

But – if you stand with Keith Olbermann against MSNBC management, you are acknowledging that you don’t really care about whatever principle that Maddow was flogging, and saying you prefer MSNBC to be (as Jon Stewart describes it) Fox-Lite.

The remaining question is this – Where does Keith Olbermann stand? Will he apologize, acknowledge he was wrong, and work to make MSNBC something qualitatively different than Fox? Or is it to be – Fox-lite Starring Keith Olbermann!

partially cross-posted form Divided We Stand United We Fall

  • http://www.riseofthecenter.com/ Solomon Kleinsmith

    MSNBC *IS* the liberal Fox light… I remember when it really started to go off the deep end in 2008, when even a hard core Obama supporter, like I was back then, got uncomfortable watching MSNBC because it was so plainly obvious they were all for Obama.

    MSNBC wants it both ways… they want to be nakedly partisan, but with some silly old school rules that feign journalistic integrity. You can’t have it both ways… you either actually try to be a journalistic organization that is unbiased, or you are a partisan mouthpiece. They’ve gone full bore towards partisan mouthpiece, so the rule just is silly.

    I have no love for Olbermann, his brand of liberalism… or his gigantic ego. But that doesn’t mean I don’t think he should be able to give money to whoever he wants to give money to, just like anyone else. He’s not Edward R Murrow, as much as he probably is in that inflated head of his… nobody is surprised by his support of democratic candidates… I don’t get what the big deal is about.

    Solomon Kleinsmith
    Rise of the Center

  • http://www.sportsfantreasures.com Mark

    Not to put too fine a point on it, but I’m going to take a contrarian position here. I’ll admit up front, I have no love for Olbermann, but I want to be convinced this was a firing offense. He committed no crime, and I seriously doubt he was the only MSNBC employee to pony up some loot for lefty candidates. Nobody with an IQ above 30 thinks Olbermann is either impartial or a journalist, so it’s not like his credibility was tarnished. He has none. His on-air advocacy for candidates provided far more assistance than a couple of grand quietly donated to their coffers.
    If MSNBC has a written “ethics” policy requiring approval for donations, and he violated it, and that policy is being universally enforced, then MSNBC is fine. If they want to fire him for having lousy ratings and being one of the most hated people in broadcast television, then as long as they’ll be honest about it, that’s fine too. But if MSNBC is using this as a convenient excuse to unload him, and they’re turning blind eyes to others doing the same, then I have a problem with it.
    If we are people who favor impartial justice, even for people we despise, then this is the stand we must take. It’s what distinguishes us from the people on his side, who base their judgments on a person’s ideology.

  • Tully

    We’ll probably have to wait for the inevitable memoirs to find out all the relevant background. Even then we’ll have to read between the lines.

    At this point all we really know is that the top kicks gave Keef’s leash a yank, probably to remind him who’s in charge of policy.

  • Wickedways

    I have many friends who will not watch NBC or MSNBC because of the politically hackery they partake in. GE the owner of Both has made billions coddling to the current administration and yet the current administration is anti-corporatist.

    Of course only when its convenient and that is precisely why the hard left progressives really do despise Obama. As for Olberman I heard where moveon.org sent a petition to MSNBC with 100,000 signatures that they would stop watching the network if they persisted with the firing of Olberman. Realizing that is not the way to win friends and influence people they made the wise choice in bringing him back to the show.

    Im still disappointed. I was hoping Fox would give him a better offer and Keith would jump ships and do a three stooges routine with Glenn Beck and Bill O’reilly

  • Rob

    Will he apologize, acknowledge he was wrong, and work to make MSNBC something qualitatively different than Fox?

    Did you actually watch Maddow’s segment beyond the first 30 seconds?

    MSNBC is different from FoxNews. It is emphatically not “the Left’s FoxNews”. MSNBC doesn’t employ half of the Democratic heavy hitters or donate millions to Democratic causes as a company while its few non-political-establishment hosts campaign for, fundraise for, and actively endorse Democratic candidates.

    Those things do not happen at MSNBC, they do happen at FoxNews.

    MSNBC has a bias, and I’m not a huge fan of their style personally; FoxNews is an infomercial brought to you by the people who *are* the news.

  • http://westanddivided.blogspot.com/ mw

    “Did you actually watch Maddow’s segment beyond the first 30 seconds?” – Rob

    I have to ask you the same question, as it appears you did not. She spends the first half of the the segment making your point that Fox is nasty and bad for letting anchors contribute to Republicans. Fine.

    The thing you seem to miss completely, is that Keith Olbermann did exactly the same thing, in violation of MSNBC rules. Maddow acknowledges this after the anti-Fox rant. You missed it.

    So – If he does not apologize – If he does not do an on-air Mea Culpa -then MSNBC is exactly like Fox. Olbermann ignores their rules and nobody at MSNBC cares.

    If Olbermann goes on air and says “I was wrong.” – Then MSNBC can make the case that they have standards that they enforce that Fox does not.

    In all cases – Both Olbermann and the dastardly MSNBC management should be quite happy with the big ratings boost they’ll get on Tuesday.

  • Trescml

    I don’t see how if Olbermann apologies or not to determine if MSNBC is Fox, Fox-Lite or the Edward Murrow network. MSNBC had a policy and they enforced that policy. Maybe it was a weak penalty, but it is hardly surprising for a first time offense. From a network ethics perspective it comes down to how does the network handle any further offenses and were there interviews which Olbermann did with either the candidates he donated to or their opponents which did not disclose his contributions (a much bigger issue in my book). Some semi-heartfelt apology doesn’t change how the network conducts business.

    If you want to argue that an apology determines if Olbermann is as big a hack as Hannity, you may be able to make that argument. But how the networks are run and what their policies are is different to is the tone of the network personalities the same.

  • http://westanddivided.blogspot.com/ mw

    I see what you’re saying. I still think he should do a mea culpa, because it strengthens the case that they all want to make – that they have journalistic standards and Fox does not. Whether you believe it or not is another matter.

  • Rob

    Fox is nasty and bad

    No, Fox is a Republican advocacy channel. No one is interested in their personal character here. They’re entitled to be an advocacy channel, but it’s doublespeak to call them a news organization. At a minimum, you should probably be familiar with fact-checking to qualify for that. (By the way, have you heard that Michelle Bachmann spends $50 million per day of taxpayer money on cosmetics? Shocking, I know. Tell your friends.)

    I’m not saying they’re an advocacy channel based on their expression of opinions (newspaper editorialists typically have one-sided opinions, is there generally a prohibition on their donating?), I’m saying it based on the sum of their activities which include fundraising, explicit on-air endorsements and corporate donations. And again, they offer long-format programs to active political candidates. In any other “industry” we’d call that an infomercial.

    If Keith crossed a line that MSNBC drew, fine. I wouldn’t care if he were fired. He should probably apologize to his employer if he violated their agreement. He’s an editorialist, so while I would expect disclosure when he’s interviewing someone he donated to, I wouldn’t expect him to be personally politically neutral. But whether he apologizes or not has nothing to do with differentiating Fox and MSNBC. There’s not much comparison beyond the superficial.

    MSNBC is a biased source of information, catering to a segment of the market. Fox News and its contributors go beyond that mark to play an active role in getting Republicans elected.

  • theWord

    Put your grey glasses on Rob. Seeing the differences makes you biased.

  • Rob

    @theWord, I’m not sure if you’re being facetious or not.

    Are you saying there’s not a difference between MSNBC as it is and MSNBC as it would be if had nightly programs hosted by Howard Dean and Rahm Emmanual while Rachel Maddow founded RachelPAC to help Democrats raise money?

  • http://www.riseofthecenter.com/ Solomon Kleinsmith

    “MSNBC is different from FoxNews. It is emphatically not “the Left’s FoxNews”. MSNBC doesn’t employ half of the Democratic heavy hitters or donate millions to Democratic causes as a company while its few non-political-establishment hosts campaign for, fundraise for, and actively endorse Democratic candidates.”

    Of course its different… liberals are different than conservatives. As I said above, MSNBC is Fox news LIGHT… that its not as extreme is no excuse. Its still a nakedly partisan mouthpiece… just happens to not be so in your face about it.

    Solomon Kleinsmith
    Rise of the Center

  • Rob

    Waxing philosophical for a brief moment, what’s the point of having a freedom of the press when the press predominantly consists of operatives of the political establishment and no one is interested in investigative reporting or cogent analysis?

    Seems to be the current state of most of our “news” providers- some far more than others.

  • http://westanddivided.blogspot.com/ mw

    Here we go… I don’t know how good this source is, Mediate thinks the report is credible – but if true – KO is demanding that MSNBC be just like Fox:

    “Keith is furious about the way this has all been handled and insisted that MSNBC bosses apologize to him before he would agree to return,” a network insider tells me. “Keith sees himself as the star of MSNBC, the person who put them on the map and discovered fellow network anchors Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell. To be treated like this by the network he helped shape, he considers disgusting.”

    MSNBC employees follow ethics guidelines barring them from making political contributions. After Olbermann’s “indefinite suspension without pay,” it appears those rules may see some revision.

    “In addition to an apology, Keith is demanding that the rules be changed,” an executive tells me. “Keith thinks it’s unfair that FOX News anchors can make contributions and support candidates and he can’t. It’s his money that he has earned, he should be allowed to do whatever he wants with it. What sort of country do we live in where an actor can trash a hotel room with an escort and drugs and Keith can’t donate money to people running for office he believes in? It makes no sense. If they think they can slap Keith’s wrist and have him to return a few days later like nothing happened, they are wrong. They picked the wrong guy.”

    Too funny.

  • Rob

    make contributions and support candidates

    When he comes out personally endorsing candidates on air, then yes, they will be moving closer to Fox standards. They’ll just need to hire a few recently unemployed Democrats to catch up.

    It may go that way, business is business after all and Fox has long been the pioneer for shoddy journalism. I think we all suffer from the lack of a free and independent press.

  • Trescml

    @mw I agree that he should and it would be in the best interest of MSNBC.

  • Chris

    Wicked you have no idea what you’re talking about. It’s kind of annoying.

  • Wickedways

    Really Chris. You have no idea what your talking about. Its kind of annoying.

    Sorta vague huh?


    Or perhaps its this I was referring too.



    Omitted from the news GE released Monday, that it is investing $59 million in its Decatur plant, was the fact that at least $6.5 million came from federal Recovery Act stimulus funds.

    Or perhaps you didnt like my insinuation that the progressives dont like Obama.

    … [T]here’s a growing sense among progressives that they have, as my colleague Frank Rich suggests, been punked. And that’s why the mixed signals on the public option created such an uproar.Now, politics is the art of the possible. Mr. Obama was never going to get everything his supporters wanted.

    But there’s a point at which realism shades over into weakness, and progressives increasingly feel that the administration is on the wrong side of that line. …….PAUL KRUGMAN.

    Or Perhaps this one…..

    December 8, 2008 – The fun new story this week is about liberals’ and progressives’ complaints that Obama isn’t liberal enough, with the far left saying they feel unrepresented in his cabinet picks. Apparently, they’re shocked that a democrat who ran…

    The list of complaints is endless on the internet.

    Perhaps its because Obama is a Corporatist? Just ask all those progressive blogs who are accusing him of such along with Ron Paul who calls him a corporatist and not a socialist.

    Whats annoying is people like you who say I have no idea what Im talking about. Perhaps if you were a bit more specific, rather then just impugning my integrity then we might get somewhere in discussing what I do and do not know.

  • http://theunderstandingproject.com daniel noe

    Funny, I considered FOX to be MSNBC-lite.

    I care less about where pundits spend their money than wether they give good analysis.

  • Rob

    @daniel, does “good” mean anything beyond “i agree with it”?

    If I’m trying to decide on a car, I’ll trust the analysis of someone who loves his Kia a good bit more than I trust a Honda dealer. And if I want to feel truly informed I’ll consult several sources, each with the minimum amount of bias possible.

    Fox News and contributors “sell” Republicans professionally even when they’re off the air. Sarah and Mike do it for a living and they want to be elected in 2012. Does no one really think it matters that they have not just contributed their own money, but actually make their money by encouraging others to do the same?

    Ok, I give. I really don’t want to be this this guy anymore. :)

  • Chris

    “yet the current administration is anti-corporatist.”

    That is what I was referring to. Enlighten me as to what exactly obama has done that is anti-corporate?

  • Tully

    I do not think corporatism means what some folks here think it means.

  • Wickedways


    This is a good read if you want to understand the progressive mindsets desire for corporations.

    Chris your missing some information there. He is not anti corporate. I said …………..GE the owner of Both has made billions coddling to the current administration and yet the current administration is anti-corporatist.

    Anti-corporatist….not anti corporate. There is a big difference.

    A corporatist is someone who supports the big business corporation business model. As Ron Paul proclaimed that Obama is not a socialist but rather a corporatist.

    However defenders of Barak Obama claim that he is opposed to corporatism and hence his administration is anti-corporatist and yet they continue to do business with and coddle to many large and prosperous corporations. In the context of this post I was using GE which is the owner of MSNBC as an example of Obama Coddling to a Corporation which would brings into question is he or is he not a corporatist despite the claims by the hard left that he is anti-corporatist.

    I think your misreading what I wrote there.

  • kranky kritter

    Here’s the big problem I have when talk turned to stuff like corporatism and whether anyone is anti-coorporate.

    It all feels so very “smash the system.” Which is to say, so fantastical and unrealistic. It reminds me immediately from that most trenchant episode of South Park where the college know-it-all hippies start a hippie jam fest.

    I’m sorry, but it does, Ranting about corportations feels like it’s so very, very far, from any realistic effort to move things from where we are now, to another state that is better, nearby, and possible. “The adjacent possible” in other words. As we all get farther from the adjacent possible, the ratio of complaining to problem solving approaches infinity.

    Only a tiny minority of Americans is going to sit still for any rant about smashing the corporate system, unless of course you are willing to give them a sledgehammer and pay them $25 an hour plus bennies to do it.

    And that cracks me up.

  • http://theunderstandingproject.com daniel noe

    @rob: I cannot agree with that which I have not yet heard. It is hearing analysis that dictates what I believe. So, while I agree with good analysis, it is because it is good that I agree, not because I agree that it is good.

    Analysis is considered good if it has no obvious gaps, no known lies, is internally consistent, and is coherent. If I hear good analysis, and no good counter-analysis, then I believe what I am told tentatively until told otherwise.