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As you’ve probably heard by now, MSNBC Countdown host Keith Olbermann has been suspended by the cable news network for contributing twenty-four hundred dollars to three separate Democratic candidates running in this year's election. Response to the news has ranged from outrage to indifference to celebration with rival networks running top stories on the abrupt suspension. The whole thing is turning into a self-referential media circus. Over the next few weeks, Olbermann’s suspension will no doubt be pored through and dissected by journalists and commentators across the political spectrum, but more importantly, it will raise concerns questioning the very nature of what a twenty-first century journalist is. Should Keith Olbermann have been suspended by MSNBC? Let’s talk it out.
Seven years ago, the former ESPN anchor launched Countdown With Keith Olbermann on MSNBC. Widely regarded as one of the preeminent sources for the liberal viewpoint since its inception, the newscast has outperformed its timeslot predecessors and more recently, vaulted the commentator into more centralized and coveted roles at the network. Just three days ago, Olbermann anchored MSNBC’s election return coverage. In a sense that more than anything, may have contributed to today’s suspension.
Believe it or not, this is not MSNBC’s first foray into campaign contribution drama. Over the years Pat Buchanan and Joe Scarborough, among others, have also donated money to political candidates while they were employees of NBC News. Because of this, many experts and viewers are accusing the cable news station of having a double standard since both other men contributed to the Republican Party, but the situation is actually a lot more complicated than that. The NBC News policy Keith Olbermann violated actually only asks employees to discuss any donations prior to giving them. The Countdown host failed to do this, and while it’s unclear whether Buchanan or Scarborough did, it’s important to keep in mind they occupy very different roles within the company.
Although the line has become increasingly blurry in the last dozen years, there is still a clear difference between a political commentator and a news anchor. Like Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, Keith Olbermann is a political commentator. People watch him with an expectation to get his viewpoint. There’s no claim of unbiased neutrality. Just as everyone knows Sean Hannity is going to analyze news through a Republican lens, it’s very clear just watching one episode of Countdown that Keith Olbermann leans to the left. And that’s OK. There’s nothing wrong with personal perspectives. If you think Keith Olbermann is too liberal, don’t watch his damn show. If you have a problem with Bill O’Reilly, try Brian Williams. He’s a news anchor.
Stretching all the way back to greats like Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite and Peter Jennings, a news anchor, at least in theory, is a conduit of information. He goes on every night to let you know what’s happening in the world. There’s no doubt these men and women have viewpoints of their own, but they’re paid only to keep viewers informed. We expect honesty and integrity, much the same way we would reading a news story about a local election. Just the facts, ma’am, as Joe Friday used to say. Keith Olbermann is not a news anchor, except, on Tuesday night he was.
Every major network in the United States has a lead news anchor. This is the person anchoring the coverage on election night. They’re the ones spitting back the results and voter trends. Beyond that, each network has a few commentators who break down the results and often give biased opinions about why certain states may have leaned one way or another. When Keith Olbermann switched from one of those commentators to an actual anchor, what was expected of him fundamentally changed. Yes, I know the whole thing is very hypocritical because we all know where Keith Olbermann stands at this point, but while he’s wearing the lead anchor hat, he can’t be there. Otherwise the entire news department itself no longer maintains neutrality. This morning, Keith Olbermann’s biases were exposed, and in that moment, MSNBC had to look at him like their lead anchor, not as the commentator he has historically been. In that moment, they had to decide between Keith Olbermann and undermining any shred of credibility they may have had. What were they supposed to do?
On Tuesday, I went to the polls and voted for some Republicans, some Democrats and some Libertarians. As such, I want to turn on the television and have the option of watching Bill O’Reilly or Keith Olbermann. Some nights I watch a little of both. Cable news needs their viewpoints. I need their viewpoints, but when I’m watching the nightly news itself, I don’t want to hear anyone’s viewpoints. I want to know the facts of the case. After I get those, then I’m ready to hear Keith Olbermann tell me what he thinks. MSNBC never should have given him the election night; it’s their fault when it comes down to it. But at the end of the day, it’s still Olbermann who violated the policy. I think he should have been fired. Vote in our poll below and let us know what you think.
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