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Olbermann Apologizes—to Viewers Only | The Nation

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Greg Mitchell

Greg Mitchell

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Olbermann Apologizes—to Viewers Only

UPDATE   Keith Olbermann finally responded to MSNBC's Sunday announcement that he would be allowed to return to his Countdown show tomorrow night after serving a two-day suspension. He apologized—but only to viewers, in his open letter to them.

Olbermann asserted he had made a "mistake" and did not know NBC's political donation rule existed—and claimed it is “inconsistently applied.” He wrote that perhaps his donations should have earned him a "warning" but no more, adding that one of his representatives had been told he would not be suspended—but then he learned about  it from the media and "without a hearing."

As Olbermann had done in his only previous comment—in one tweet on Sunday—he hailed viewer support and petitions which “should remind us of the power of individuals spontaneously acting together to correct injustices great or small.” He added: “I also wish to apologize to you viewers for having precipitated such anxiety and unnecessary drama."

He also pointed out, in a thinly-veiled swipe at fellow MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, and perhaps others, that he did not make his donations "through a relative, friend, corporation, PAC, or any other intermediary, and I did not blame them on some kind of convenient ‘mistake’ by their recipients."

EARLIER:

Just hours after Politico dug up the fact that MSNBC host Keith Olbermann, a few days ago, had donated to three Democrats running for office, the cable news network suspended the newsman/commentator without pay indefinitely.

After much media commentary and protests, MSNBC announced late Sunday that Olbermann would be allowed to return Tuesday. He has not yet said that he will, in fact, come back then.

"After several days of deliberation and discussion, I have determined that suspending Keith through and including Monday night's program is an appropriate punishment for his violation of our policy," said MSNBC President Phil Griffin in a statement released Sunday. "We look forward to having him back on the air Tuesday night."

Olbermann has been quiet since Friday, but Sunday afternoon he broke his Twitter silence with this: "Greetings From Exile! A quick, overwhelmed, stunned THANK YOU for support that feels like a global hug."

Friday night the airwaves were filled with reactions.

On CNN's Parker Spitzer—one of Countdown's rival shows—Eliot Spitzer blasted the MSNBC move and pointed to Rupert Murdoch's political gifts this year.  Guest Steve Smith agreed.  Kathleen Parker defended MSNBC.

A little later, Rachel Maddow tackled the episode, saying that she understands the NBC rules about asking permission before making a donation—as MSNBC's Joe Scarborough apparently did at least once. But she insisted that the "point" had been made and "we need Keith back." She then profiled the multitude of Fox hosts donating to, fundraising for and outright endorsing Republicans. "We are not a political operation," she said. "Fox is. We are a news operation. And the rules around here are part of how you know that." Here's a transcript.

Liberal bloggers were quick to point out that Scarborough, once and current MSNBC host, donated $4,200 to a House candidate in 2006. Records also show that Scarborough made a $5000 contribution to a candidate earlier this year. He claims the records are wrong—the donation was from his wife.

It recently came to light that Fox's Sean Hannity and his wife each gave $5000 to Michele Bachmann. Neil Cavuto has also donated to candidates.

Greg Sargent at the Washington Post raises the question: Did Olbermann even violate the network's policy? Activists are already circulating petitions—more than 100,000 signed by the end of the evening—and jamming NBC phone lines.

Olbermann has acknowledged the donations, saying they were his first, and hinting that this was not so bad compared to Fox practically fundraising for candidates on its nightime programs. Some of his fans worried that since he has sometimes clashed with top NBC execs they will use this episode as an excuse to fire himà la the Juan Williams/NPR episode.

Howard Kurtz of CNN in an interview this afternoon said GOP fundraising by Fox hosts was "worse" than what Olbermann did. But he later wrote that he still thinks Olbermann's suspension is warranted. The Olbermann case has an added twist that he interviewed one of the candidates on air just before sending his campaign a donation.

MSNBC contributor Dave Weigel defended Olbermann at Slate. He charged that policies on contributions are outdated. "Free Keith Olbermann," declared the headline.

MSNBC's policy, drafted in 2007, states that “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.”

The New York Times notes that CNN has a policy against donations—but for full-time staffers only. 

Chris Hayes of The Nation was asked to host Friday's  show, but the Times subsequently reported that the invitation has been rescinded. Conservative bloggers had pointed out that Hayes had made small donations to two friends' campaigns awhile back—but this was before Hayes had a contract with NBC as a part-time contributor. 

Hayes tweeted late this afternoon: "I didn't feel comfortable doing it given the circumstances. My not hosting tonight has nothing to do with several donations I made to two friends before I ever signed an MSNBC contract."

Interesting take by Jeff Bercovici at Forbes:  "Another question in all this is whether the looming acquisition of NBC Universal by Comcast played any role in [MSNBC President Phil] Griffin’s response. Whether he was disparaging his colleagues in public or blurring the roles of anchor and commentator, Olbermann has always required a great deal of special care and handling, and Griffin has always been careful to give it to him. But with 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."

Andy Borowitz tweets: "MSNBC's new motto: 'Lean Forward, so we can kick your ass out of the building.' "

Greg Mitchell's award-winning book The Campaign of the Century and the birth of media politics has just been published in a  new editon.

 
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