Keith Olbermann's brief suspension from MSNBC for giving $2400 to each of three Democratic congressional candidates is an interesting case study. Olbermann is back on the air, which is a good thing. And his response to the affair — reasonable, but not air tight — can be found on his Countdown show's Web site.
It may seen crazy for NBC to consider its cable division's talking heads as working journalists when they are clearly commentators whose value is intertwined with their opinions.
But it would be equally crazy to deny news organizations the prerogative to maintain professional standards for employees and contributing talents — even commentators.
No one in their right mind would accuse Olbermann of being unbiased. But his opinions are out there for the public to weigh — to embrace or discount according to each individual's ideological orientation.
What the public, or at least MSNBC's audience, has a right to expect is a degree of disinterestedness, which should not be confused with neutrality.
A disinterested commentator may favor or oppose a candidate because of the issues at stake. But by putting cash on the barrel, by giving money to candidates, Olbermann crossed the admittedly indistinct line that separates players from prognosticators. That Olbermann gave money to one of the candidates only after he interviewed him is a mark in his favor. He was not in the tank pre-interview, only post- — the next day, Olbermann cited his candidate's opponent in Countdown's "Worst Person in the World" feature.
Fox News has been rightly criticized for erasing that distinction — skipping the middle ground and putting players directly on its payroll. It has two possible Republican White House wannabes drawing paychecks: former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and onetime would-be vice-president Sarah Palin. And, as if for good measure, it also has GOP strategist and fundraiser Karl Rove on the books.
MSNBC's corporate overlords were not only well within their tight-assed rights to put Olbermann on ice for a couple of days, they may even have been wise to do so. Consider it a modest investment against Foxification. (Although we suspect the suits were more afraid of being whacked by their competitors than concerned with maintaining standards.)
As for the argument that all the soulless media monopolies contribute to candidates, well, it is a silly comparison. Just because the US Supreme Court was asinine enough to grant an accountant's wet dream the same rights as living, breathing human beings, it does not follow that journalists should turn around and act like corporations.
Olbermann's $7200 in campaign contributions pales, of course, in comparison to the tidal wave of special-interest cash that pollutes politics. In his explanation, Olbermann made a valuable and incontrovertible point: his personal political giving was instantly visible. The billions funneled through corporate fronts such as the US Chamber of Commerce and American Crossroads (a "super PAC" with ties to Rove — there's that name again) remain a secret. That's an unforgettable takeaway.
This year's electoral excitement is not yet over for residents of Boston's politically muscular District 6, which encompasses West Roxbury and parts of Roslindale, Jamaica Plain, and Mission Hill.
On Tuesday, November 16, there will be a special election to fill the City Council seat vacated when John Tobin resigned to take a government-relations job at Northeastern University.