I’m on record as saying that journalists should never give money to political candidates, period. And I personally still believe that.
However, this is an issue on which the ground is shifting beneath the feet of all the players — journalists, the corporations that employ them, the pseudo-journalists who pretend to be journalists and the poor voters who, to the extent they even have time to care, are trying desperately to make sense of the issues of the day while some people try to inform them and others, with infinitely deeper pockets, try to mislead them. And when the ground stops moving, I predict, we will have arrived at a new consensus, one different from the position I currently hold. To the extent that that fact even matters, I’m OK with it.
I believe journalists shouldn’t give money to or otherwise actively support one political candidate over another. But why? Not because I believe in journalistic objectivity; “objectivity” is a myth, so journalists don’t owe those they cover, and write/broadcast for, objectivity. Rather, they owe them fairness and accuracy, both factual and contextual.
And they owe those folks one other thing: to the greatest degree possible, they must be, and appear, independent of those they cover. That means, to the greatest extent possible, not relying on them for income or support — nor giving the same to them except as an unintended consequence of an honest effort by an honest broker of information intended for the good of the general public.
This is an ideal, of course, not a practical standard. No matter who you are, you bring certain opinions and preconceptions to the way in which you interact with the world. Yet for a long time, people in the journalism bidness have adhered to the polite fiction that objectivity was, in fact, possible. NYU journalism prof Jay Rosen (full disclosure: a real-life acquaintance) coined the phrase “the view from nowhere” to describe that position.
What’s happening in journalism now, among other things, is that both the feasibility and the desirability of the view from nowhere are coming under increasing question, albeit for different reasons from different people.
So what’s more feasible? A disclosure from journalists and journalism organizations of what their interests are. The problem is that no matter how broadly one might define those interests — pro-Mom, pro-apple pie — someone’s always going to disagree, and at some point, journos are going to have to decide, well, OK, if you don’t like that, tough, but it’s where I’m coming from so deal with it.
What might such a set of defined interests look like? I wouldn’t attempt to speak for the field of journalism even if I were still in it, so I’ll just throw out my own in the hope that at least some other people will find them useful.
- “My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.” (OK, technically, that’s not mine.)
- The rule of law, though imperfect, is a lot better than the alternative.
- The Constitution, though imperfect, is a lot better than most of what preceded it. Accordingly, we need to follow it, and we need to think about changing it only when 1) we must do so to solve a serious public problem, and 2) that problem is so intractable that no lesser measure or combination of lesser measures will solve it.
- Public business ought to be be done in public.
- Public policy ought to be that which, in the long term, will benefit the greatest number.
I could probably come up with others, but you get the drift.
And with respect to journalism, if you’re claiming to be doing what you do for the benefit of the general public, then you need to do it. And if you’re doing what you do for someone else’s benefit, that’s OK. Just admit that.
Which is where we get into the difference between MSNBC and Fox, a difference that Olbermann and his bosses at MSNBC have trumpeted.
Fox, which markets itself as “fair and balanced” news, is in fact a highly sophisticated propaganda operation whose goal is to bring about government action resulting in public policy that will benefit a very few, mostly very wealthy people, often at the direct expense of the general public. Toward that end, it has allowed some of its on-air personalities to contribute to political candidates and allowed them to support campaigns. The network’s parent company itself has donated $1 million this year to the Republican Governors Association. And the network has retained as regular contributors several of the people most likely to compete successfully for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination, which offers them the benefit of income and also contractually shields them from giving interviews to any other news outlets.
Sure, executives of MSNBC’s corporate parent, GE, have contributed to political candidates. But GE itself hasn’t injected itself into partisan politics in that way, nor have the other major networks’ corporate parents or the parent corporations of the largest newspaper chains.
And you know what? I don’t have a problem with what Fox is doing. What I have a problem with is their being dishonest about it.
Fellow MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow pointed out the difference here:
I know everyone likes to say, “Oh, cable news, it’s all the same. Fox and MSNBC — mirror images of each other.” But if you look at the long history of Fox hosts not just giving money to candidates, but actively endorsing campaigns and raising millions of dollars for politicians and political parties — whether it’s Sean Hannity or Glenn Beck or Mike Huckabee — and you’ll see that we can lay that old false equivalency to rest forever. There are multiple people being paid by Fox News to essentially run for office as Republican candidates. If you count not just their hosts but their contributors, you’re looking at a significant portion of the entire Republican lineup of potential [presidential] contenders for 2012.
They can do that because there’s no rule against that at Fox. Their network is run as a political operation. Ours isn’t. Yeah, Keith’s a liberal, and so am I. But we’re not a political operation — Fox is. We’re a news operation. The rules around here are part of how you know that.
Back before it was politically safe to do it, Keith Olbermann attracted the ire of the right-wing and a lot of others besides when he brought to light and raged against what he saw as the errors and sins of the previous presidential administration. Keith was also the one who brought to light Fox News’s water-carrying for the Bush Administration; he was the one whose point-of-view journalism exposed and put exclamation points on the problems of disguising a political operation as a news one, the model embraced by the guys across Sixth Avenue, at Fox.
Now, weirdly, it is Keith who is once again illustrating the difference between what he does at MSNBC — what we do here — and what goes on across the street.
If, in fact, MSNBC had a policy requiring its employees to clear political contributions with senior management, Olbermann should have followed it, and MSNBC was within its rights to discipline him for not doing so, just as NPR was within its rights to discipline Juan Williams for something he said in another forum. (I think it had unrelated and better reasons for firing him and didn’t think that what Williams said, in and of itself, merited firing).
But is anyone honestly surprised that Olbermann supported at least some particular Democratic candidates? Of course not. That’s because, unlike his competitors across Sixth Avenue, Olbermann has been relatively up-front about his principles. And so, albeit to a lesser degree, has his employer.
But here’s the bigger picture: To paraphrase Bogie, the political contributions of one anchor more or less don’t amount to a hill of beans in the crazy post-Citizens United v. FEC world. Keith Olbermann’s contributions aren’t going to win or lose anyone’s race.
So what should happen?
My ideal obviously isn’t happening. So let me suggest this: MSNBC, having made its legitimate point, should return Olbermann to the air if he wishes. And it should adopt a policy somewhat along these lines: All employees are free to donate to whomever they wish, within legal limits. And all employees must immediately report to the company information on those donations, and the company must post that information online and update it regularly (every business day, at a minimum, I would think). And this would be an excellent idea for any company of any size, whether it engages in journalism or not: As long as we’re still allowing private money to fund the public’s elections, the public needs to be able to know where that money is coming from and the interests of those providing it. Call it the Williams/Olbermann rule. (Actually, don’t; that sounds stupid.)
And in an exponentially growing news/information market, members of the public need all available means to figure out who is trying to use the First Amendment to hold government accountable and who’s doing something besides that, to determine which brokers of information are most disinterested — or, if those members of the public wish, which brokers of information have interests most closely aligned with their own.
UPDATE: MSNBC says Olbermann will be back on the air Tuesday night.