Olbermann, ethics, and the media gap between right and wrong

Keith Olbermann was suspended indefinitely and without pay from MSNBC on Friday for contributions he made to three Democrats last month.  In defending the suspension, MSNBC president Phil Griffin cited NBC policy, which prohibits employees from making political donations without prior approval.

The uproar following the suspension has been immense, from both pundits, politicians, journalists, and even the public.  BoldProgressives.org has started an online petition to get Olbermann reinstated and currently has over 200,000 electronic signatures.

According to Politico.com, NBC has a rule against journalists donating to political campaigns.  Many news organizations, and many journalists, adopt a similar stance as a matter of professional ethics.  However, the News Corporation, parent company to Fox, does not.  Their employees, like Sean Hannity, are allowed to freely contribute, and have even come under fire by Olbermann for it according to a recent New York Times article.

While many of his fans and Countdown viewers are questioning NBC's decisions, they must understand that there is a journalistic standard of ethics at play here, ethics that he forgot or overlooked.  The ethics code developed by the Society of Professional Journalists states that:

Journalists should:

—Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived. — Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility. — Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity.

They should also, "Abide by the same high standards to which they hold others."

The ethics developed by SPJ are widely recognized by news organizations, and were even cited recently by NPR in its firing of Juan Williams over recent comments he made about Muslims while appearing on the Fox News Channel in October.

By donating to Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva, who was a guest on Olbermann's Countdown on Oct. 28, the same day the donation was made, it could be easy to argue there is an appearance of compromised integrity.  If he did not already clearly lean towards a liberal viewpoint, one could even argue that he had lost his objectivity as a news reporter.

While Olbermann defended his actions to Politico, saying he did not use his influence to solicit donations from others and denied having donated to any political campaign previously, it seems clear from a journalistic standard that he is guilty not only of violating NBC policy, but furthering it with a dash of hypocrisy.

In lashing out against the conservative-leaning competition at Fox, he forgot the ancient rule of putting your money where your mouth is.  You cannot criticize an opponent for doing the same things you are guilty of.  And if your employer has a policy that prohibits you from performing certain actions, especially rules that are based in the ethical standards of journalism, then you do not do it.  As a journalist, Olbermann should be keenly aware of how information travels and how important is it to maintain integrity and credibility, particularly when you have such a wide audience that trusts and relies on you to be an impeachable source of information.

Journalists report news.  They should never become news.  It is the reason there are ethical standards in place, and as the recent firings of Williams and Rick Sanchez indicate, they are standards that should never be crossed.

Michael Hicks

Michael Patrick Hicks is the author of the science fiction novels Convergence, an Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award 2013 Quarter-Finalist, and Emergence. His work has appeared in several anthologies, and he has written for the websites Graphic Novel Reporter and Audiobook Reviewer. In between compulsively buying books and adding titles that he does not have time for to his Netflix queue, he is hard at work on his next story.


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