Why MSNBC May Have Just Lost Keith Olbermann

With an ego like Olbermann's, a suspension could be the kiss of death

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MSNBC host Keith Olbermann has been suspended indefinitely for making three campaign contributions to Democratic candidates. NBC prohibits its anchors from putting money towards candidates without explicit consent from the company. In a statement issued today, MSNBC president Phil Griffin said:

I became aware of Keith's political contributions late last night. Mindful of NBC News policy and standards, I have suspended him indefinitely without pay.

The move has ignited suspicions that Keith Olberman, given his significant ego, may quit, or that the network could fire him for good. A number of bloggers are now comparing MSNBC's practices with those of Fox News (a perennial debate). Should this be the end of Olbermann's career on MSNBC?

  • Keith Will Be Back, predicts Hamilton Nolan at Gawker: "Olbermann will be back after a suitable period, with an apology, and everyone will carry on normally."
Even in the hyperinflated realm of television egos, Olbermann is known as uniquely temperamental and sensitive to slights. He has a history of leaving jobs in a huff, and an insider I spoke to predicts this time will be no different: “I think he’ll resign.”

MSNBC is apparently not looking to fire Olbermann, which makes sense: Not just the network’s biggest star by far, he’s practically its organizing principle. The advent of “Countdown” is what reversed the network’s previously pathetic ratings trajectory and gave it a template to replicate throughout prime time...

Another question in all this is whether the looming acquisition of NBC Universal by Comcast played any role in Griffin’s response. ... [W]ith the merger now facing a potentially difficult approval process in a Washington suddenly swarming with Republican lawmakers, NBC can hardly afford to be giving ammunition to its conservative critics.

Giving money to political candidates, especially without disclosing it to the public or your bosses, is about as dumb as you can get and expect to keep your job as a journalist. Still, Keith has a heart, even if perhaps he wore it on his sleeve too often. And for that, I think of him fondly and hope to see him on air someday soon in a proper venue for his passionate points of view.

  • This Is Olbermann's Waterloo, writes Colby Hall at Mediaite:
His admission to giving private money to campaign efforts of Democratic candidates completely blurs the line between journalism and advocacy, which is ironically the very issue he consistently takes umbrage with regarding Fox News opinion media. This event now offers the ammunition his enemies have long sought, at a time when MSNBC management no longer has the will, nor power, to protect Olbermann in the way they once did.
  • Rules Are Rules, writes Dan Amira at New York Magazine:
While we argued earlier that nobody should really care whether Olbermann donates money to Democrats since he clearly favors Democrats on his show all the time anyway, NBC has rules, and being the network's biggest draw isn't an excuse for not following them. Olbermann has been known to have an outsize ego at the network, and maybe Griffin felt it was time to get him back in line.
  • What's the Big Deal? asks conservative Ed Morrissey at Hot Air: "Let's not pretend that this somehow proves Olbermann's bias. Despite NBC's insistence on calling Olbermann a news anchor, he's one of the most obvious opinionaters in the cable news industry."
  • Fox Isn't on Solid Ground Either, writes liberal blogger Justin Elliott at Salon:

It seems like there are two issues here: one is whether an opinionated host like Olbermann should be allowed by his employer to give to political candidates. And the other is whether, if he does contribute, he should disclose that fact when he interviews said candidates. The first question is debatable; the second seems like an issue of basic ethics.

It's also worth noting that Fox's Sean Hannity, who is a rough analogue of Olbermann on the right (except more powerful and popular), gave $5,000 to Michele Bachmann's political action committee in August, as Salon reported at the time. We asked a Fox spokeswoman about this at the time, but she declined to give a statement.

That Hannity contribution came on Aug. 31. Two weeks later, on Sept. 17, he interviewed Bachmann on his Fox show and did not disclose the donation.

  • These Donation Policies Are Inane, writes conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg at National Review:
The larger problem with these kinds of rules is that they do little to prevent media bias and a great deal to hide an important form of evidence of it. Banning liberal journalists from giving money doesn’t prevent them from being liberal, it just gives them a bit more plausibility when they deny it. Now, I can see the argument that someone who makes a donation would be more interested in protecting their investment, as it were. So I don’t think the policy is completely misguided. But at a certain level banning donations is like NPR barring staff from attending the Jon Stewart rally. It doesn’t fool anyone, but gives the accused a lawyerly rebuttal to accurate accusations.
  • Is There a Double Standard? wonders Greg Sargent at The Washington Post:
Olbermann is hardly the first MSNBC personality to make political contributions. ... Joe Scarborough, too, gave at least $4,200 in 2006, to House GOP candidate Derrick Kitts of Oregon, according to the FEC.

To be fair, Scarborough may have notified MSNBC's president and gotten prior approval. Or maybe this policy didn't exist in 2006. I've asked an MSNBC spokesman for comment and will update if I hear back.

At the same time, even if there's a legit explanation, it doesn't seem like that meaningful a distinction. We know where both these personalities' sympathies lie in any case. If the decision to translate their political leanings into donations is problematic, it's not clear why it would be any less problematic if the boss were notified first.

  • He Should Keep His Job, writes conservative columnist William Kristol at The Weekly Standard:
First, he donated money to candidates he liked. He didn’t take money, or favors, in a way that influenced his reporting.

Second, he’s not a reporter. It’s an opinion show. If Olbermann wants to put his money where his mouth is, more power to him.

Third, GE, the corporate parent of MSNBC, gives money to political organizations. GE executives and, I’m sure, NBC executives give money. Why can’t Olbermann?

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.