I feel sympathy pangs for MSNBC's vituperative character assassin Keith Olbermann about as often and as strongly as I feel the urge to pay the IRS more than it's demanding in taxes. But when he got into trouble for making political donations to Democrats earlier this month, I couldn't help but catch a sniff of hypocrisy in the journalistic air.
I don't mean Olbermann's, either, though he reeks of it. Two years ago, during a visit with the Chatty Cathies of ABC's The View, Olbermann loftily proclaimed himself such a rigorously objective journalist that he doesn't even go to the polls on Election Day. ``I don't vote,'' he said with his usual mix of self-righteousness and condescension. ``It's a symbolic gesture.''
Purely symbolic, now that we know he was writing checks to Democrats: $7,200 to three candidates in this year's congressional races. MSNBC suspended him for two days when it found out about the donations, which violated company rules.
Olbermann compounded his hypocrisy by attacking News Corp., the parent company of MSNBC's rival Fox News, for donating $1.25 million to the Republican Governors Association. Before his own largess to Democrats was revealed, Olbermann suggested in an interview with House majority whip Jim Clyburn the idea of political contributions by a news organization was so outrageous that it should be outlawed by Congress.
``Is there a legislative response to the idea that there is a national cable news outlet that goes beyond having a point of view and actually starts to shill for partisan causes and actually starts to donate to partisan groups of one party?'' Olbermann demanded.
What Olbermann didn't mention was that his own company was doing exactly the same thing as News Corp. General Electric, the parent company of MSNBC, gave $2.2 million to political candidates during the 2010 campaign, 61 percent of it to Democrats. (And while Olbermann talked incessantly about News Corp.'s contributions to the Republican Governors Association, he was oddly silent about the fact that of the company's $603,000 direct donations to political candidates, 62 percent went to Democrats.)
If you're imagining that political donations are only associated with shout-fest cable news organizations, think again. Time Warner, the corporate parent of CNN, gave $830,000, 83 percent to Democrats. Disney, which owns ABC, forked over $540,000, 61 percent to Democrats. CBS-Paramount paid out $105,000, 61 percent to Democrats, and a political action committee associated with corporate cousin Viacom kicked in another $354,000, 57 percent to Democrats. (Check out the numbers yourself at opensecrets.org, an excellent nonpartisan website that tracks the flow of political money.)
It's the size of those corporate donations that makes me reluctantly concede that in some ways Olbermann is getting a raw deal. If GE's $2.2 million doesn't compromise MSNBC's claims to objectivity and nonpartisanship, how can his puny $7,200 be a threat? What kind of ethical standard requires Olbermann to keep his checkbook closed but allows his bosses to leave theirs wide open?
Unlike television networks, which are all part of corporate conglomerates with multiple business irons in the regulatory fire, newspaper companies largely steer clear of the practice of donating to candidates. But they have their own broad streak of hypocrisy when it comes to objectivity: editorial pages.
In 2004, when Bruce Springsteen was touring the country doing fundraising concerts for John Kerry, one was scheduled for South Florida. There was a good bit of grumbling in the Miami Herald newsroom when we got a prim memo from management banning newsroom employees from buying tickets for the show because they counted as political contributions, which might imply favoritism toward Kerry. But Kerry's endorsement by the Herald editorial page didn't?
Newspaper editors always brush off this point, insisting that there's an iron wall between editorial pages and newsrooms. But that's a distinction almost entirely lost on the readers; in more than 40 years in the news business, I've never met a single reader who believes it, not for a minute. Surely one of the reasons 60 percent of voters thought the press favored Barack Obama in the 2008 election was that three-quarters of the daily newspapers in America endorsed him.
I'm not really arguing for the right of journalists (or blowhards masquerading as journalists, like Olbermann) to make political contributions. It makes good sense for reporters and editors to restrain their partisanship. But it would make even better sense for our bosses to restrain theirs.