Keith Olbermann's Suspension Points to Contribution Double Standard
The liberal firebrand's troubles expose the tension between MSNBC’s opinionated stars and NBC News policy.
Industry insiders expressed incredulity that MSNBC would enforce what appears to be an anachronistic standard in “indefinitely” suspending top-rated personality Keith Olbermann without pay.
“It’s one thing to have a set of standards for non-partisan newscasters, but Keith’s opinions are well known and this seems like an archaic double-standard,” said a former news executive. “If you embrace partisan hosts, then why act shocked when they support partisan causes?”
In his own statement on Friday, Phil Griffin, president of MSNBC, said that he only learned about Olbermann’s political contributions on Thursday night.
But multiple network staffers assessed the incident as another example of Olbermann’s bombastic behavior and history of clashing with management and wondered if he would ever return to the air. “He’s had these meltdowns before,” said one staffer. [UPDATE: Griffin announced Sunday afternoon that Olbermann will to return to air Tuesday.]
Indeed, in 1997 Olbermann left ESPN, where he was a host of SportsCenter, amid disagreements with management that included an appearance on Comedy Central’s Daily Show during which he referred to ESPN’s Bristol, Connecticut locale as a “godforsaken place.”
He then went to MSNBC where he hosted The Big Show, but he left after less than a year citing the network’s overblown coverage of the Monica Lewinksy scandal. In 1998, he went to Fox Sports, where he hosted a weekly Sports Center-esque show. But he was fired in 2001 after reporting that Fox Sports parent News Corp. was looking to sell the Los Angeles Dodgers. (The company did sell the team, but not until 2004.) When News Corp. chief Rupert Murdoch was later asked about Olbermann, he quipped: “I fired him. He’s crazy.”
Olbermann had a short stint as a contributor at CNN and went back to MSNBC in 2003 during the run-up to the Iraq War. He began hosting Countdown in March 2003 and his show climbed in popularity as he railed against the war and president George W. Bush.
Olbermann signed a $30 million contract extension in 2008 that keeps him at the network through the 2012 election. And his show is still MSNBC’s top-rated program, attracting more than 1 million viewers a night. However, for the just ended third quarter ratings period, Countdown experienced year-to-year erosion; 6% among total viewers and 19% in news’ target demographic of 25-54-year-olds.
And MSNBC has managed to launch relatively successful shows around Countdown, including The Rachel Maddow Show and The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell. While the network’s lineup is not a threat to cable news leader Fox News, MSNBC now regularly beats CNN in the demo in primetime and that success has essentially furthered MSNBC’s identity beyond Olbermann.
However, the network’s Election Night coverage this week was widely panned for its overtly partisan and disrespectful tone, further underscoring the divide between news and opinion during news events. And viewers largely tuned out: MSNBC managed only 1.9 million viewers on Election Night, behind CNN’s 2.4 million and well behind Fox News, which averaged 7 million viewers.
“It almost seems like he wants to get fired,” says independent news analyst Andrew Tyndall, echoing speculation inside MSNBC.
“If he’s fired rather than suspended, is this a major blow for MSNBC and their primetime lineup? And I’m not sure it is,” adds Tyndall. “O’Donnell has proved that the entire MSNBC line up is less Olbermann dependent than is used to be.”
Ultimately, Olbermann’s suspension for donating a total of $7,200 to the political campaigns of three Democratic candidates again exposes the tension between MSNBC’s opinionated stars and NBC News, the news organization MSNBC exists under. While Olbermann is an established liberal firebrand, he is also apparently beholden to the same standards and practices as Andrea Mitchell and Chuck Todd, NBC News’ chief foreign affairs correspondent and chief White House correspondent, both of whom appear regularly on MSNBC.
According to NBC News standards: “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.”
In fact, Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman and host of Morning Joe, donated $4,200 in 2006 to failed Republican congressional candidate Derrick Kitts, according to OpenSecrets.org. Morning Joe premiered in 2007. But before that, Scarborough hosted Scarborough Country, also on MSNBC.
Between 2005-08, MSNBC contributor Pat Buchanan donated over $2250 to several Republican candidates. And MSNBC was forced to back-track on its plan to have frequent Countdown contributor Chris Hayes, Washington editor of The Nation, fill in for Olbermann on Friday after The Upshot revealed that Hayes donated $250 to Alabama Democrat Josh Segall this year.
An MSNBC spokesperson said the same rules to not apply to contributors like Hayes and Buchanan. And Scarborough sought prior permission for his donations.
“Since 2007 we have recommitted ourselves to following these important standards,” MSNBC spokesperson Jeremy Gaines said in a statement on Friday. Thomas Roberts, an MSNBC dayside anchor who apparently does not have any political donation skeletons in his closet, hosted Countdown on Friday. During the show, Roberts told viewers, “we all know you’re looking forward to Keith’s return and so are we.”
On her own show on Friday, Maddow added that she understood MSNBC management’s decision to “temporarily” suspend Olbermann.
“I believe everybody should face the same treatment under this rule,” she said. “I personally believe that the point has been made and we should have Keith back hosting Countdown.”
Olbermann himself – an avid Tweeter – broke his silence Sunday afternoon: “Greetings from Exile! A quick, overwhelmed, stunned THANK YOU for support that feels like a global hug & obviously left me tweetless XO.”
Olbermann’s tweet pointedly referenced the criticism aimed at MSNBC management, which included an online petition that had been joined by more than 250,000 users. And it was a veiled broadside at his bosses who, according to Politico, wanted an on-air apology for the donations. A mea culpa Olbermann rejected.
There are numerous examples of political donations across the media landscape. Fox News host Sean Hannity this year donated $2,400 to New York Republican John Gomez’s congressional campaign and $5,000 to Michele Bachmann's Minnesota-based PAC, according to FEC records.
Last month on his radio show, Glenn Beck initiated a fund-raising drive for the pro-business but officially non-partisan U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He said he would donate $10,000 of his own money to the Chamber and his fundraising drive netted the organization over $300,000, according to a Chamber spokesperson.
And Fox News parent News Corp. recently came under fire for a $1.25 million donation to the Republican Governor’s Association, something Olbermann made much hay over on his MSNBC program.
This apparently was one of the sticking points in Olbermann's suspension, said insiders. "It's the hypocrisy," said one. "He beats up on Fox News for the same thing."