If Olbermann's Donations Are Bad, What About GE's?

MSNBC host Keith Olbermann has been placed on indefinite suspension without pay in the wake of a Politico report (11/5/10) that revealed Olbermann had donated $7,200 to three Democratic candidates, in violation of NBC's standards barring employees from making political contributions.

A journalist donating money to a political candidate
raises obvious conflict of interest questions; at a minimum, such
contributions should be disclosed on air. But if supporting politicians
with money is a threat to journalistic independence, what are the
standards for Olbermann's bosses at NBC, and at NBC's parent company General Electric?

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, GE
made over $2 million in political contributions in the 2010 election
cycle (most coming from the company's political action committee). The
top recipient was Republican Senate candidate Rob Portman from Ohio. The
company has also spent $32 million on lobbying this year, and
contributed over $1 million to the successful "No on 24" campaign
against a California ballot initiative aimed at eliminating tax
loopholes for major corporations (New York Times, 11/1/10).

Comcast, the cable company currently looking to buy NBC, has dramatically increased its political giving, much of it to lawmakers who support the proposed merger (Bloomberg, 10/19/10). And while Fox News parent News Corp's $1 million donation to the Republican Governors Association caused a stir, GE had "given $245,000 to the Democratic governors and $205,000 to the Republican governors since last year," reported the Washington Post (8/18/10).

Olbermann's donations are in some ways comparable to fellow MSNBC host Joe Scarborough's $4,200 contribution to Republican candidate Derrick Kitts in 2006 (MSNBC.com, 7/15/07). When that was uncovered, though, NBC
dismissed this as a problem, since Scarborough "hosts an opinion
program and is not a news reporter." Olbermann, of course, is also an
opinion journalist--but MSNBC seems to hold him to a different standard.

Two years earlier, the Washington Post reported (1/18/04):

NBC chief
executive Robert Wright has contributed $8,000 since 1999, including
$3,500 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and $1,000 to
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). Andrew Lack, a former NBC News chief, gave $1,000 to Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.) while NBC
president, and Wright contributed $1,500--after the House committee
Tauzin chairs held hearings on the networks' election night failures. NBC
spokeswoman Allison Gollust said the network allows its executives to
make contributions and that Wright "does not make any decisions specific
to news coverage."

Wright, however, was reported in a recent New York magazine piece (10/3/10) to have told then-NBCNews chief Neal Shapiro to move to the right of Fox News in response to the September 11 attacks: "We have to be more conservative then they are," the magazine quoted Wright.

MSNBC's treatment of Olbermann is also in sharp contrast to Fox News' handling of Sean Hannity, who was revealed by Salon (9/23/10) to have given $5,000 to the campaign of Rep. Michele Bachmann (R.-Minn.), a Tea Party favorite--without Fox expressing any public disapproval. Hannity has allowed Republican candidates to use his Fox program for fundraising (Mediaite, 10/17/10); as Salon noted, Hannity was this year's keynote speaker at the National Republican Congressional Committee's annual fundraising dinner.

If the concern is about how giving money to
politicians threatens journalistic independence, then companies like NBC
should explain why their parent companies can lavish so much money on
political candidates or causes with no concern about conflicts of
interest or the need to disclose these donations to viewers. The lesson
here would seem to be that some of the workers shouldn't make political
donations, but the bosses are free to give as much as they'd like.
Anyone who watches Olbermann's show knows what his political views are.
So what do the far larger contributions from GE tell us?


Ask NBC and MSNBC to explain their inconsistent standards regarding political donations.


MSNBC President

Phil Griffin


NBC News President

Steve Capus


Phone: (212) 664-4444

Join Us: News for people demanding a better world

Common Dreams is powered by optimists who believe in the power of informed and engaged citizens to ignite and enact change to make the world a better place.

We're hundreds of thousands strong, but every single supporter makes the difference.

Your contribution supports this bold media model—free, independent, and dedicated to reporting the facts every day. Stand with us in the fight for economic equality, social justice, human rights, and a more sustainable future. As a people-powered nonprofit news outlet, we cover the issues the corporate media never will. Join with us today!

© 2023 Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR)