Monday, November 8, 2010

What was MSNBC thinking?

Neither MSNBC nor its commentator, Keith Olbermann, would be considered a bastion of good journalism.

Olbermann, a former ESPN host, is a bright, articulate and insightful guy who can be alternately funny and angry, sometimes on the same broadcast. He was suspended without pay by his network for two days recently when it was disclosed that he had contributed to the campaigns of several Democratic candidates.

We learned later that his suspension wasn’t so much for the contributions but because he hadn’t received permission from his higher-ups to do it. That’s nuts.

There’s nothing new about commentators contributing to political campaigns. Many on either side of the political spectrum have done it, and some commentators actually run for office while doing their commentating. At this point everyone pretty much knows that MSNBC, Fox News and, increasingly, CNN, are entertainment and opinion networks, not news organizations that pay a lot of attention to journalism ethics.

That’s entirely OK, but it makes Olbermann’s suspension even odder. He leans left – hard. Spend 15 minutes watching his show and it’s obvious. That he would contribute to Democrats is about as surprising as learning that potatoes come from Idaho.

Fox News still uses its “fair and balanced” slogan when it clearly has no intention of being either. Fox leans right – hard - and everybody knows it. That’s OK, too, but fair and balanced it certainly is not.

Legitimate news organizations adopt, enforce and make public their ethical standards. They are no mystery. For example, there is a clear separation between news and opinion. Reporters don’t make contributions to parties or candidates. They (I’m quoting now from the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics):
o Seek truth and report it.
o Minimize harm.
o Act independently.
o Are accountable.
It sounds pompous or quaint in today’s cynical media environment, but the objective of the journalist can be summed up with this paraphrasing from SPJ: “The duty of the journalist is to further public enlightenment by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues.”

Organizations that focus more on entertainment and opinion aren’t necessarily less honorable than those that focus on journalism, but they are decidedly different, just as they are likely to be more profitable. C-Span and the PBS News Hour don’t exactly rake in the viewers, and the evening news broadcasts of the major TV networks don’t get many more. We prefer, it seems, to listen to people who share our world view and who can both entertain and infuriate.

MSNBC managers should drop their journalistic pretensions and they should never have suspended Olbermann in the first place. It made them look bad.

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