MSNBC Host Keith Olbermann was suspended on Friday after it was reported that he made donations to Democratic political campaigns. Olbermann’s employer, MSNBC, cites a policy that requires individuals to ask for permission before making donations to partisan political campaigns. Though Olbermann has since been reinstated and will return to air on Tuesday, the suspension raises questions about MSNBC’s position in the cable news battle and the role of cable news hosts in general.
In contrast to MSNBC’s policy of discouraging donations by its employees (they are not forbidden as evidenced by Joe Scarborough’s donations to Republican candidates), Fox News has no such policy and its anchors and hosts frequently donate to candidates. MSNBC’s sister company, NBC News, follows the same policy as MSNBC, requiring permission from the company president for such donations.
There is no doubt that the success of Fox News is closely tied to its role as the home for anchors and viewers in opposition to the traditionally maligned “liberal media.” In the battle to compete for ratings with Fox News (a losing battle for the other networks), MSNBC has had some small victories by positioning itself as the home for anchors and viewers who are glad to participate in an avowedly “liberal media.” Even while agreeing with the company’s policy and trying to distance MSNBC from Fox News and its political leanings, Rachel Maddow declared, “Yes, Keith’s a liberal, and so am I, and there are other people on this network whose political views are shared openly with you, our beloved viewers.”
Is it right then for the company to turn around and suspend the host that they hired for exactly the same reason they suspended him? MSNBC wanted a strong liberal voice in primetime to attract liberal viewers. Olbermann’s “Countdown” is MSNBC’s highest rated hour. They chose Olbermann to anchor their election night coverage. Only when Olbermann exercised that liberal voice off the air, that was a threat to the company’s expectation of unbiased journalism. Some would argue that the same expectation that applies to NBC News should not apply to MSNBC, a network with a different audience, a different purpose, and a different way of presenting the news.
Is politicized journalism something to be feared or embraced? Should Fox and MSNBC just stop pretending to be unbiased news outlets and declare their role as news entertainment for a particular segment of the political spectrum, or would they then no longer be news at all? In an era when Jon Stewart is a preeminent news anchor and political figure, should Olbermann be considered any differently? Finally, when are news anchors allowed to stop being news anchors and allowed to start exercising their rights as individuals?