Saturday, November 06, 2010

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

FAIR courtesy of AlterNet:

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).


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 (, 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.


To some observers, this may very well appear to be somehow similar to the
NPR/FOX Juan Williams thing, but if that's what you think, then you haven't been paying much attention to how the news business functions. Actually, that phrase pretty much sums up what it's all about: the news, for the most part, is a business.

Businesses exist for the sole purpose of generating profit, and the news does so just like most television shows and periodicals do; they create shiny and amusing products so as to attract viewers' eyes to advertisements in which these products are wrapped--the profit comes from other businesses who buy advertising time, in the case of television or radio, or space, in the case of newspapers and magazines. It cannot be underestimated how this focus, getting viewers to look at ads, affects creating the news product. That which is considered to be entertaining and cool, no matter how meaningless or tangential, routinely trumps that which is considered to be dull and boring, no matter how important it may be to the nation's welfare. Furthermore, the fact that the news business absolutely depends on other businesses buying their services guarantees that news products rarely criticize other businesses, and when they do, such as with the recent BP oil spill in the Gulf, that criticism is greatly muted--the concepts of business and capitalism themselves, especially when it comes to big business, are never questioned. And that's all just scratching the surface of how real world news business practices wildly distort the consumer product we call news.

Nonetheless, in the fictional parallel universe called the university journalism department, the news business does not in any way influence the gathering and dissemination of the news product. In that fictional reality, professors wax philosophic about "objectivity" and "balance." They get misty-eyed about journalistic "ethics," one of the great oxymorons of our era. In the world of the journalism department, corporations do not exert undue bottom-line influence on news divisions. In their world, advertisers do not threaten to cancel accounts because of negative coverage. In this parallel universe, ratings and circulation numbers are irrelevant. Aspiring young journalists sit at the feet of their professor-gurus and learn that they must always do the right thing, always stay out of the conflict, always be the disinterested observer. Once these students have left the ivory tower, they continue to pay lip service to these faux values, even while they violate them on a daily basis.

Are you following me? What I'm saying is that there is no such thing as journalistic objectivity. There can be no such thing as journalistic objectivity, at least, not in the news industry as we know it. The very way that journalists do business automatically compromises any sense of objectivity to which they think they are adhering. Heavily compromises it.

Juan Williams wasn't fired from NPR for violating any such imaginary ethics: he was fired because he signed on with FOX, and FOX is so extraordinarily full of shit that no intelligent person can take him seriously while he works in this capacity. I'm not really sure why Olbermann was canned. I mean sure, the ostensible reason, as with Williams, is violating these parallel universe ethics, but Olbermann's not even really a journalist--he's an opinion guy, and aren't those types supposed to have an opinion? And why Olbermann but not Scarborough? It doesn't make any sense no matter how you look at it.

My best guess is that it's a combination of NBC brass continuing to be uncomfortable with MSNBC's liberal format, despite all the money it's made for them, along with the high probability that Olbermann likes to piss off authority figures. Just a guess. But this is indeed a bummer. I've really gotten to like the guy.