Keith Olbermann Suspended for Donating to Democrats, but Why?

Keith Olbermann, the liberal host of "Countdown" on MSNBC, has been suspended indefinitely and without pay for making political donations to three Democrats.

The network policy appears to ban such contributions. From a 2007 MSNBC.com story:

"Anyone working for NBC News who takes part in civic or other outside activities may find that these activities jeopardize his or her standing as an impartial journalist because they may create the appearance of a conflict of interest. Such activities may include participation in or contributions to political campaigns or groups that espouse controversial positions. You should report any such potential conflicts in advance to, and obtain prior approval of, the president of NBC News or his designee."

MSNBC is a left-of-center news network. Keith Olbermann is a left-of-center anchor. News of this left-of-center donation does not appear jeopardize his standing as an liberal journalist. It reaffirms the biases we all knew he had. But does it jeopardize his standing as impartial? Phil Griffin, president of MSNBC, appears to think so.

This seems like a case of an organization's rules failing to keep up with network's strategy (Update: Or are the rules being used as cover to fire Olbermann? Who knows). MSNBC's strategy is to provide a left-of-center destination for news and analysis. The network rules, however, require the "appearance" of impartiality, vis a vis donations. One can debate the distinction between being honest about your biases and being impartial. I'm open to being convinced that there is a difference. But it's unclear how Olbermann's donation changes his audiences' views of his partiality.

Something to consider: Sean Hannity donated $5,000 to Rep. Michelle Bachmann's campaign, and he has not been suspended.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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