Keith Olbermann Move Highlights MSNBC's Identity Crisis
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 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 msnbc.com, 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."
Howard Kurtz, who went against the current in supporting MSNBC's decision, argued that the core problems were transparency and hypocrisy, since Olbermann had Grijalva on his show the day of the donation without disclosing it, and had been a harsh critic of Fox News's parent company's big donations to Republican-leaning groups.
Maddow addressed the matter on her show on MSNBC show Friday night, arguing that Olbermann's suspension was not a result of brand confusion but rather embodied the essence of the MSNBC brand. After highlighting the political contributions of Fox hosts like Sean Hannity, who donated to Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann's political action committee and then interviewed her a few weeks later without disclosing the donation, Maddow said this is what made MSNBC different from Fox.
"They can do that because there's no rule against that at Fox," Maddow said. "Their network is run as a political operation. Ours isn't. Yeah, Keith's a liberal, and so am I. But we're not a political operation - Fox is. We're a news operation. The rules around here are part of how you know that."
Fox News has consistently denied being a partisan network, saying that the views of its primetime hosts are akin to the opinion pages of a newspaper and its dayside programming is unbiased straight news.
As the news of Olbermann's suspension sunk in, media critics saw a variety of motives at play - everything from corporate nervousness over the network's new liberal tilt to longstanding tension between Olbermann and Griffin, the temperamental star and the boss who had to deal with him.
Some saw in MSNBC's latest move corporate fears about appearing too liberal, which were being exacerbated by NBC Universal's pending takeover by Comcast.
Michael Wolff wrote at Adweek that the pending merger - which, if it is approved, will coincide with the stepping down of NBC Universal president and chief executive Jeff Zucker - is the true reason for the power shift behind Olbermann's suspension.
"The background to everything is that is happening at NBC is the transition to Comcast ownership," he wrote.
Others, such as Mediaite's Steve Krakauer, saw a power grab by Griffin as Olbermann became less important to the network, which has developed other stars.
"Two years ago, Keith Olbermann was MSNBC," he wrote. "In many ways, he was untouchable, and he knew it. In a New Yorker profile in June 2008, he joked that his boss, Phil Griffin, ‘thinks he's my boss.' Around the same time, a high-level MSNBC source told me, ‘He is not central to MSNBC, he is the center of the MSNBC ratings strategy. We have the entire schedule on him.' "
Since then, however, MSNBC has spread the "Olbermann strategy" around, hiring Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O'Donnell to build out an entire primetime lineup that could be competitive against CNN - though still far behind Fox News.
Yet others, such as POLITICO's Ben Smith, saw echoes of the controversy around NPR's decision to fire Juan Williams, "an excuse to go after a guy who has legendarily difficult relationships with management."
Griffin acknowledged to Gabriel Sherman in New York magazine last month that there had been issues in his relationship with Olbermann. "It's always complex because of management and Keith," he said.
Complicating the picture is the fact that Fox News' hosts have been able to make political donations without problems. Sean Hannity and Mike Huckabee, each the host of his own show on Fox, have given a combined $20,500 to GOP candidates and causes this year, according to Federal Election Commission records.
Hannity gave maximum donations to Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann's political action committee and John Gomez's unsuccessful campaign for a New York congressional seat, while Huckabee, who also maintains a political action committee that donates to candidates, wrote $10,700 in personal checks to state and federal Republican politicians.
An investigative report into journalists' political giving by msnbc.com in 2007 found that Fox News was unusual "in placing no restrictions on campaign contributions."
In response to questions about Hannity's donation to Bachmann, Bill Shine, the senior vice president of programming at Fox News, told a Minnesota newspaper that there is no company policy against talk show personalities giving to candidates, but said Hannity would disclose the donation when Bachmann appears on his show.
"It's always good to remember that he's not a journalist, he's a conservative TV host," Shine said told the paper. "If he wants to donate to a candidate, he certainly can."
Salon's Justin Elliot reported that that disclosure didn't happen, but argued that Fox's policy seems to be the right one for the cable news age today.
Olbermann's fate remains unclear. An NBC source told The New York Times' Brian Stelter that the suspension would not likely lead to Olbermann's firing. Meanwhile, fans barraged the MSNBC offices with calls to reinstate him, while the Progressive Change Campaign Committee circulated a petition calling for his return.
Olbermann's fill-in Friday night, Thomas Roberts, said:
"As we promised at the top of the show, a quick word now about Keith. Last night, MSNBC management became aware of three political contributions that Keith made to three different candidates last week. The contributions are not permitted by NBC News without prior approval. In light of those facts Keith has been suspended indefinitely. And we know all of you are looking forward to Keith's return. And so are we," he said.
"I understand this rule. I understand what it means to break this rule. I believe everybody should face the same treatment under this rule. I also personally believe that the point has been made and we should have Keith back hosting Countdown," added Maddow on her show.
Meanwhile, CNN, which bars its fulltime journalists from political giving, has been reveling in its often-maligned brand of nonpartisanship.
"It's a ridiculously false line that's being drawn in the sand," former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer said, arguing that both Olbermann and MSNBC were liberal and should embrace that identity.
His co-host, conservative columnist Kathleen Parker, countered that Olbermann broke the rules, but added: "The moral of this story is that journalism has changed. A lot."