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):
Wright, however, was reported in a recent New York magazine piece (10/3/10) to have told then-NBC News 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.
NBC News President
Phone: (212) 664-4444