About ten days ago, NBC suspended Keith Olbermann indefinitely without pay for making private campaign donations to three Democrats. Olbermann’s suspension has sparked resounding criticism from both the left and right—from conservative columnist Bill Kristol to liberal Senator Bernie Sanders. Keith Olbermann, host of the popular MSNBC talk show “Countdown with Keith Olbermann,” is the closest thing liberals have to a Bill O’Reilly character. He’s blunt, aggressive, and as fiercely partisan as his Fox News counterparts.
You would think that Olbermann’s bosses at MSNBC and NBC would realize that the public is well aware of the TV host’s political leanings and opinions, and wouldn’t feel misled by his personal donations. Why then would they care if he privately contributed money to the campaigns of three candidates who he had already featured and promoted on his left-wing talk show?
Olbermann’s suspension was technically in line with company procedure, as NBC does have a rule against “participation in or contributions to political campaigns.” However, NBC has not been consistent with the application of this rule. Joe Scarborough, co-host of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” contributed $4,200 in March 2006 to the Republican congressional candidate from Oregon, Derrick Kitts. Scarborough received no reprisal from NBC. The news station claimed that Scarborough’s donations were fine since he is the host of an “opinion program.” The executives who decided to suspend Olbermann must never have seen his show, which is clearly a left-leaning “opinion program.”
Lying at the root of Olbermann’s suspension, however, is a flawed and unrealistic assumption about journalism: that it must always be unbiased. Journalism has and always will be colored by biases both overt (like Olbermann’s leftist leanings) and subtle. Many journalists claim to be completely unbiased, but that is simply impossible. Taking a moderate position, for instance, is still taking a position—just one that is more subtle and is appealing to a wider range of people.
Choices about which stories to report on are also a form of bias. For example, when you watch the news while running on the treadmill at Freeman Athletic Center, you are far more likely to catch a story about the Rangers going to the World Series or CNN pundits discussing Obama’s latest policy meeting than a story about the ongoing conflict in the Congo (the deadliest armed conflict since WWII). News outlets also depend on ratings and customer approval, so it is unsurprising that they report on what we, as Americans, want to hear.
People often bemoan the current partisanship or clear ideological leanings of many news outlets, but these leanings in the news are nothing new. During the election of 1800, for example, newspapers were labeled as either pro-Thomas Jefferson or pro-John Adams. Anyone who has taken an American history class probably remembers reading about William Randolph Hearst’s brand of “yellow journalism,” characterized by sensationalist and highly opinionated stories meant to grab peoples’ attention. I find Olbermann’s show to be equally sensationalist at times and little more than a collection of liberal talking heads with bouts of partisan grenade throwing.
However, Olbermann, and other fiercely liberal talk show hosts, do serve a purpose in steering the national political discourse. Without MSNBC hosts like Olbermann, there is no counterweight to balance conservative media figures. Although Limbaugh and Hannity are not popular with the majority of Americans, their diatribes move the center of political discourse to the right. It is up to bombastic counterparts like Olbermann to pull discourse back towards liberal issues.
Although NBC ended Olbermann’s suspension on Nov. 9, the fact that they suspended him at all indicates that NBC should change their rule regarding campaign donations. Journalists are not immune from cultivating political opinions, and it is silly to think that a liberal icon would ever be unbiased and want to abstain from donating to candidates he publicly supports.
Steves is a member of the class of 2013.