With news that MSNBC star Keith Olbermann has been suspended after donating money to some Democrat candidates – the lack of transparency is worrying and frankly no major media figure should want to get too close to any politician of any stripe – Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting unpacks the bigger picture:
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.